Thirty years ago today, on 19 May 1983, I embarked on an extraordinarily ill-fated collecting trip with Jim O’Hara, fellow graduate student at the U of Alberta in Edmonton. It is perhaps most memorable for the discovery of a body. In the space of less than two days the expedition packed in a lot of misery.
It started out promisingly enough, as we drove in Jim’s van east to the North Saskatchewan River near Maidstone, Saskatchewan, in particular to the Paynton Ferry crossing. The primary goal was to acquire adult females of the rare beetle species Bembidion balli, so that I could raise larvae from them. I had collected Bembidion balli from that site the fall before, so I was very hopeful.
We arrive at the river shore, and gorgeous, broad sand banks awaited. Jim went off looking for flies, while I trekked downstream along the shore. The weather had turned cloudy, and it was teetering on the brink of rain – not a good sign for beetles that love the sun. After an hour or so of finding nothing but barren sand banks, I decided to head about a kilometer downstream, just beyond a patch of willows. The weather was getting a tad better, and so things were looking up.
As I cleared the willows, a huge sand bar came into view, and a flock of birds erupted in flight from its center. They left behind a large, ovoid, multicolored object, now alone on the wide, flat sand bar, well away from the water. I was mystified as to what it was, but the wind direction changed, and I quickly realized that it was a large, dead mammal. Curious, and unclear as to the species, I approached it. I was about 10 meters away when my brain slowly realized that the unusual colors were clothes, which covered the bloated remains, contrasting sharply with the white skull, hands, and feet that had been picked clean by the birds.
“Well, I guess that’s it for beetles today”, I thought, as I headed back to the ferry. I found Jim, and the ferry operator, who phoned the RCMP. Some long time later they showed up, interviewed me (“what were you doing…?” “where were you earlier this morning…?), and I led them to the scene. They quickly ascertained that I didn’t do it, and discovered the man’s identity, as his wallet was still in his pocket. As it turns out, he had been swept under the ice in Edmonton, Alberta, in the midst of the previous winter, and floated downstream 500 km, to Paynton Ferry.
The day didn’t get any better for us. It started to rain harder. And harder. No beetles. Jim and I drove to the other locality I knew, which happened to be near a campground. Bad news: Jim’s van ran out of gas. Good news: it happened in a town, and even better near a gas station. Bad news: the gas station was closed. Good news: we found the gas station owner in a local pub (it was a very small Saskatchewan town). Bad news: when we got to the campground, it was pouring rain, so no beetles there either. More bad news: Jim’s camp stove was broken. Even more bad news: all of the firewood at the campground was drenched, and unlightable. So, we had cold food straight out of the cans, and slept, cramped, in the back of the van. I was very, very pleased to reach Edmonton the next morning.
I also learned the truth behind the statement “everything you read in the newspaper is absolutely true, except for that rare story about which you happen to have first-hand knowledge” (Knoll’s Law). The finding of the body was reported in the Edmonton papers, and in one of them I was identified as “two men in a canoe”.
Of course, I recognized that my trip was also a very good one, for I was alive, and was lucky enough to have spent it looking for beetles.