Birch Lake -The Fire Tower: Chapter 4 of 4

Written by Harold McNeill on April 16th, 2010. Posted in Family 1940 1965

The Fire Tower

Photo (Web) Fire towers in the early years were flimsy wooden affairs.  Over the summer of 1944, dad took a job with the Saskatchewan Forest Service as an observer at one of the hundreds of fire towers that had been erected throughout Northern Saskatchewan, this one above is similar to the one dad worked near Meadow Lake.   After that one summer, we often returned to Meadow Lake for the yearly Stampede.

Link to Next Post: Martineau River Logging Camp (Beginning of Part II)
Link to Last Post: A Place in the Sun
Link to Family Stories Index

Spring, 1944

Mom repeatedly called: “Hoo hoo, Harold, where are you?  Hoo hoo, Haarooold.” There was no answer and she was more than worried. At three and a half, I was always running around outside playing, but when mom hadn’t heard me for a while she went out to see what I was doing. She knew that dad was in the bush cutting wood and sometimes he would take me along, but would always tell mom first. She probably thought I was into some kind of mischief that would not be far off the mark for a three-year-old.

Birch Lake Fire TowerMothers! So trusting of their little boys!

Photo: This photocopied from a Cater and District “Least we Forget” series of stories found in my mother’s files.  The tower at Meadow Lake was very similar to the Birch Lake Tower (L). The ladder to the top can just be discerned on the right side. It is hard to believe this structure was capable of holding the small lookout shelter built on the top, to say nothing of when a line squall with gale force winds passed through the area.

In one of our conversations, Mom recalled that summer day in the wilderness north of Meadow Lake:

“Louise was sleeping and when I couldn’t find you after a few minutes, I became worried. I called and called but you didn’t answer. Finally, I could hear this faint little voice: “… mom..!” It was so faint I could not figure out where on earth you were. I walked further back along the path that led to the fire tower and continued to call. Your answers came back a little louder, but still distant …. ‘up here mom….’.

When I neared the clearing by the fire tower I looked up and there you were about 50 or 60 feet off the ground on the open ladder. I was petrified.  In the few months, we had been at the Ranger Station, I had never climbed that open ladder to the top. I tried a couple of times with Dave, but only got up about 15 feet before I had to come back down.

Over my objections, your Dad had taken you to the top several times. You would climb the ladder ahead of him and between his arms. I could never watch as I was petrified. I told him to even tell me when he was taking you up otherwise I would be worried sick. Even at the top, there was no railing that would stop a three-year-old from falling over the edge.

Now, when by yourself and watching you hang on to the open rungs, I stood there frozen. I had no idea what to do and was just starting to climb the ladder when by chance your father came walking down the trail. He had heard me calling and came to see what was happening. He looked up, saw you and began to calmly climb. He never said a word and I was beside myself thinking you might slip and fall before he could reach you. Dave just kept climbing until he reached your perch; then, not stopping, he told you to just keep climbing until you reached the top. There were never any half measures with your dad.

After the two of you spent a few minutes looking around, he calmly stepped over the edge onto the first rung and began to climb back down with you following between his arms. Once on the ground he never got mad, never scolded you, he just said very firmly ‘don’t ever climb the tower by yourself until I say you can’. His voice left no room for debate. Your dad never failed to take opportunities to teach you these things, things that boys much older probably never had a chance to try until they were teenagers, if ever.”

If my dad never missed an opportunity to teach me a life skill, Mom did the same thing.  Even when I was young she would always ask my help in preparing meals, working in the kitchen, helping with her garden and flowers or when picking wild berries. She was a berry picking fool just like her mom and sisters. She always did everything in a loving and caring way that made a child feel eager to help. I suppose her nurturing manner of teaching as lead to my lifelong love of cooking and gardening.  That she was an excellent cook and gardener made it just that much better to have her for a teacher. The same experience awaited my baby sister when she became old enough to help.

Late that fall when the fire season was past, we all returned to our homestead at Birch Lake and Dad was hatching some new plans. Shortly after our return, he told mom we were leaving for Cold Lake where he was going to work in a logging camp. He said a neighbour, Fred Fraser, had asked him to bring his team of horses and work the winter at a camp on the Martineau River twenty or thirty miles north of Cold Lake. A deal was struck and in late October, just before Louise had her first birthday, we were on our way to Alberta.

From what I learned in later years, one reason Dad was probably in such demand for these jobs was not only was he a very hard worker, he was also an expert horseman and woodsman. During those early years, horses were still kings of the forest part of logging and dad was the king of kings.

Mom’s younger brother, my Uncle Tonnie (Wheeler), who was just 16 at the time, decided to travel with us on his first big adventure away from home. Uncle Toni was to become my favourite Uncle as I grew through my early years.

Mom recounts:

“Tonnie was just as adventurous as your dad. He was fun to be around and everyone loved him for his good humour and friendliness. Even though you might not remember, you used to follow him like a little puppy.

One day, we all piled into our old car which was packed with as many belongings as possible. You can’t imagine how hard it was to decide what to pack and what to leave behind. It was good your Aunt Irene and Cousin Joyce moved back in to look after things while we were away.

Once loaded with two children and our own personal belongings, there was not much room for extras. Dad promised to get more things when he came back to get the horses and sleigh later that fall. I had everything packed that I wanted him to bring as heaven knows what he would have picked on his own.

For the trip, your Uncle Tonnie had put all his life belongings in an old suitcase and tied it to the back of the car. I guess he did not tie it very well for when we made a stop along the way his suitcase was gone. I felt so sorry for my little brother as he had nothing left, not one single thing other than the clothes on his back. Dad said he would check along the road when he came back but nothing ever showed up.”

Tears welled in mom’s eyes as she thought about her baby brother and another family, of her first home, her babies and husband. It must have been very hard leaving her little log home on Dad on Fire DutyBirch Lake, an area where her life had been anchored in family and friends for nearly 25 years. Also left behind were her gardens and plants which she had nurtured with such tender, loving care. Leaving behind such things was to become an oft-repeated event in mom’s life over the next fifteen years. Although I have no direct memory of that trip to Cold Lake, my mother’s memories of those times well over half-century later, were nothing short of spectacular.

Photo: 1943 – This is a winter picture of dad on his horse at our Birch Lake farm. We left for Meadow Lake in the spring of 1944.

Mom never knew what finally became of our little log house and the farm. She knew that Aunt Liz and her three younger children had moved in for a period around 1944 after her son had passed away and while her husband was in the hospital. Also, Aunt Irene and her daughter Joyce periodically lived in the house when not away from cooking at various jobs around Alberta.

I also learned that our family had traveled back sometime January or February of 1945 to bring Aunt Liz and her children to Cold Lake. Aunt Liz got a job working in the restaurant at the Bellview Hotel with her sister, my Aunt Irene, so she was able to begin a new life away from the heartaches that followed the deaths of her beloved husband and son.

We traveled back to the old home place a few times but, after a couple of years memories of our first family home faded into history. Mom believed the property was likely sold off for back taxes as had happened to the original McNeill homestead and so many other homesteads during those difficult years.

One day I hope to trace the property titles back in the 1930s and 40s to see what transpired.

For the McNeill family – Dave, Laura, Harold, and Louise – the Martineau River Logging Camp would be the third of many moves over the next ten years as dad continued his search for a place in the sun.

Harold McNeill
Parksville 2010

Link to Next Post: Martineau River Logging Camp (Beginning of Part II)
Link to Last Post: A Place in the Sun
Link to Family Stories Index

This is the concluding chapter of the Birch Lake and Glaslyn series from the early 1940s. The arrival of the McNeills, Wheelers, Dewans, Roskes, Davids, and others in the late 19th and early 20th Century will be explored in a future series.

Next up, our family arrives at the Martineau River Logging Camp on the north side of Cold Lake.




(Visited 432 times, 1 visits today)

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

Comments (2)

  • Maxine
    February 10, 2015 at 5:59 am |

    What great stories! So many names you mention ,I remember my dad talking about. He was very good friends with Marge and Albert. He used to talk about Irene lots. When we moved back from Powell River in 1956 we lived in Tart Dewan’s old log house for 2 years until dad got lumber from logging on the island to build new. I remember dad taking me to what he called the Dave McNeill place to see where he and mom lived when they were first married. It was a very beautiful yard site. You speak of your dad looking for his place in the sun. Well my dad must have gone to BC looking for that too however he hated the rain so came back to Sask. to eek out a meagre living on the rocks of Birch Lake. However I have good memories there. I used to ride my horse like the wind and spent many days riding checking cows and sheep on the island. Don’t know if I would have wanted it and different.

Leave a comment



  • Mike Fedorowich

    September 1, 2023 |

    I have gone through the above noted text and have found it quite informative.
    I am a former member with several law enforcement agencies from across Canada.
    I worked in the First Nations service under the authority of the RCMP with the over sight of the OPP. My law enforcement service was conducted under the authority of the Nishnawbe – Aski Police Service in North West Ontario the Louis Bull Police Sevice in Hobbema AB, the Kitasoo Xaixais Police Service in Northern in side passage on Swindle Island, the Lac Suel Police Service North West Ontario and the Vancouver Transit Authority Sky Train Police Service. I’m presently dealing with an RCMP member for falsifying a report against me for a road rage event. Court case is finished and the charge was dropped but I have an on going complaint with the member and have forwarded to the WATCH DOGS IN OTTAWA FOR the RCMP review and consideration. I believe the said officer is in violation of his oath of office and should be held accountable for falsifying his RTCC all the while dragging me through the court system here in Nanaimo. RCMP continue to stonewall the appeal but Ottawa and the crowns office are still looking into the matter. if your able and find the time or the interest in this very brief introduction, I would very much like to speak with you and would be grateful to hear any wisdom that may come across from your end. I served with First Nations Police Services for ten years in isolation and six years with Transit Police out of New West Minster. I do value and appreciate any time you could spare to chat for a bit on this particular subject matter. Respectfully with out anger but an open mind, Mike Fedorowich Nanaimo BC 250 667 0060

  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email:

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.