River of Mists: People of the Upper Skeena 1821-1930
Review By Rod Link
February 8, 2024
I wouldn’t be surprised if Geoff Mynett had this verse from Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee, 1907, very close to his keyboard:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
Hazelton is not the Yukon of Service’s literary inspiration, but Mynett’s River of Mists: People of the Upper Skeena, 1821 – 1930 has more than its fair share of stories of those who first came for the furs and then for the gold, their numbers supplemented by a supporting cast making the tiny community the key northwestern outpost of a young British Columbia for a brief period.
For those unfamiliar with Mynett, this is his fourth book on Hazelton and area. Just as the title indicates, Mynett moves through the years setting the stage for the founding of Hazelton and then of the stories of the individuals who used canoes, steam-powered riverboats, horses, the railway, roads and just plain boot leather to establish themselves and the village. Journals, letters, government and company reports, newspaper articles and other sources provide the heft to Mynett’s work.
Mynett is clearly enthralled with Hazelton and comes by it honestly. His wife is the granddaughter of Dr. Horace Wrinch, who opened the first full-service hospital in the northern interior there in 1904.
Wrinch himself is admirably covered by Mynett’s first book, the deeply researched Service on the Skeena, 2019, a winner of two awards. And it is here where River of Mists gives a reader pause. It is almost as if Mynett’s research skills produced such a surplus of material for Service on the Skeena and his other Hazelton volumes that he decided he had to do something with that material and converted it into the briskly paced chapters of this his latest volume.
In doing so, Mynett acknowledges that the history of Hazelton and area deserves the exposure. Had the Hudson Bay Company and then the Crown not gained a foothold in the Northwest, might the Americans have instead? Perhaps even the Russians. But it also leaves the reader wishing the publishing sequence was reversed, that this book predated Mynett’s other volumes so that it could provide the base for the characters and events he later builds upon.
For all that River of Mists represents there’s a missing element. While Mynett does an excellent job in explaining who the Indigenous people are in the region, he does not tell their stories. As Mynett explains in his introduction, he could not do them justice. This results in detailed descriptions of Mynett’s subjects, with Indigenous people on the verges as supporting actors. For every step on a trail and every journey of many miles through harsh winter conditions, you know that an Indigenous person has done that many times before.
This is not a criticism. Mynett does his job well, squarely sticking to his theme of Hazelton and its residents over the decades. It is merely an observation that the task of writing about B.C.’s multi-layered and nuanced history is a complex one. Readers of River of Mists would do well, as Mynett himself suggests, to consider Mapping My Way Home, a Gitxsan History, 2016, by Neil Sterritt as a companion volume. Sterritt was president of the Gitxsan – Carrier Tribal Council when it took its land claims case to court, emerging with the precedent setting Delgamuukw decision. And for those who wish to learn even more about the Northwest, add Shared Histories: Wit’suwit’en-Settler Relationships in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973, 2018, by Tyler McCreary to your reading list.
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia. 1997. 3 S.C.R. 1010.
McCreary, Tyler. 2018. Shared Histories: Witsuwit’en-Settler Relations in Smithers, British Columbia, 1913-1973. Creekstone Press.
Mynett, Geoff. 2019. Service on the Skeena: Horace Wrinch, Frontier Physician. Ronsdale Press.
Sterritt, Neil. 2016. Mapping My Way Home, a Gitxsan History. Creekstone Press.
Mynett, Geoff. River of Mists: People of the Upper Skeena 1821-1930. Qualicum Beach, BC: Caitlin Press, 2022. 272 pp. $26.00 paper.