Northern Stories
Ralph Bice - Wilderness Legend (1990-1997) by Bill Steer

A man's reputation is the opinion people have of him; his character is what he really is.

There are many people in wilderness areas that have both reputation and character, and it is a combination of these that create lasting legacies for others to honour and follow. These are people of substance, who have survived, carved out their own existence, overcome hardships and carried on a tradition.

Ralph Bice is an old timer, like a Jack Rabbit Johannsen, he has spent his 88 years close to nature epitomizing that vanishing breed of outdoorsman. He is a trapper, a true conservationist who uses and respects nature for what it is, who understands how man can change the delicate state of our natural resources. He has authored five books related to wilderness themes, and is the only trapper to receive the prestigious Order of Canada-the highest honour any citizen can attain. Ralph has received many international and national awards for his dedication to conservation, educating the public on the ways of trapping, wildlife and nature appreciation.

Ralph's Setting

He lives where he has always lived, in Kearney (south of Burk's Falls, Ontario) on the edge of his beloved Algonquin Park, a place he has spent 80 years trapping and guiding, and as Ralph explains with a smile, "doing what I always wanted to do-being close to nature." He knows history, and has made it, and the stories he tells with humor and vitality give you a better understanding of life many of us will only try to understand.

The name, Ralph Bice, is synonymous with Algonquin Park. People in the know, recreationalists, tourist operators and politicians have come to know and respect the long-term efforts of Ralph Bice, not as a government employee, but as a contributing citizen. His help has made the park a model for the preservation and development of many national and provincial parks.

"It seems as if I have known about Algonquin Park as long as I can remember. The park was established in 1893 and my memories go back to very early in the century," recalled Ralph, sitting in his home nestled on a point of land on the Magnetewan River. "It took some time for a young man to understand that this (then) far away place would some day be part of my life forever."

His grandfather, father and uncles had been connected with the area as trappers and lumbermen as early as the 1870's, and it was in 1912 that Ralph took his first trip with his father-a park ranger- into the area that had excited his thoughts through many years of boyhood stories as told by his relations.

"I caught my first trout during that trip. The tackle was what nearly all the Indians used at the time, a hand line, heavy enough to be a chalk line, explained Ralph, as though it was only yesterday. They stayed in a log cabin that belonged to his grandfather and the same place his father had stayed in 1888 to shoot deer to supply meat for a nearby lumber operation. "Pay was four cents per pound."

As a young boy he trapped his first beaver and it was the start of a livelihood and a career helping other trappers of wild fur learn and appreciate their craft. "Trappers never have to apologize for their occupation. It is through their efforts that we have an abundance of animals and suitable habitats."

It is more than 70 years since Ralph Bice took his first trip as a guide, and the start of a lifetime that would see him take hunters, anglers and vacationers into the woods, it was an initial experience that he has never forgotten.

"I was asked to be a replacement and to meet a party already in the bush. Since I had never been on any of the lakes and streams I was a little skeptical about making it to may destination before dark. I was using my own board canoe (easier to paddle than the wider canvas covered canoes of the day, but heavier to carry) and as I paddled, up came a strong wind and heavy swells reducing my time to reach the unmarked portage."

As the sun sank on the horizon Ralph decided to stop for the night on the sides of a marshy creek with an absence of high ground. "I just rolled into my blankets and fell asleep, tired and hungry. Several times during the night I heard the wolves howl right at the edge of the timber, and to a 17 year-old boy it seemed like the whole pack was headed my way." As he says, it was a time when the exuberance of youth made way for the initiation of developing a lifetime of knowledge, skills and attitudes, of what Ralph calls "bush sense."

It was also during this trip that Ralph saw what was to be some of the last great stands of white pine, later logged by operations of the lumber baron, J.R. Booth. "The trees were enormous, I doubt if there was a finer stand in Ontario. Most of the trees were three feet in diameter and there didn't seem to be any small ones. I was fortunate to see such a stand as there are no such forests of pine to see now." It is these memories that allow him to formulate opinions about the present Temagami wilderness controversy.

Realizing the resources

In most states and provinces the natural resources belong to the people, including local and traditional users. Recently in Ontario hunting and trapping restrictions have been imposed in area parks. In Temagami it is a confrontation between loggers, who need the stands to timber for local sawmills and environmentalists and tourist operators that see the ruination of a wilderness area if logging access roads are extended into the remote areas.

He says the Temagami area-like Algonquin-is unique and special for its history and geographical makeup, and that all contesting groups (lumber, mining, native, tourist, recreation and trapping) must realize the legitimate claims of each other.

"Multiple use within the area will become a reality when all the concerned groups will appreciate planning ahead for the continued use of our wilderness. Trappers have to get involved in these issues, not only to protect their own vested interests, but those of the animals and their habitats."

Knowing History

One of the joys of interviewing a man of Ralph Bice's stature is that he has lived and touched history. Some of Northern Ontario's most colourful figures have been part of his life. It is part of the trapping heritage he would like to see preserved.

Ralph tells the story of the powerful Canadian Pacific Railway telegraphing Mr. Booth with an offer to buy his tiny Canada-Atlantic Railway which ran from Arnprior through Algonquin Park to Georgian Bay. "J.R. was never a man to be outdone, he sent a wire back to the C.P.R. stating he would like to buy them out!"

The famous Canadian Group of Seven artist, Tom Thomson, was a frequent visitor to the park in the early 1900's and Ralph confirms that Thomson did have a "drinking problem." It is well known he didn't have many close friends in the park area, and although he liked the outdoors, "didn't have many skills as a woodsman." Although it is thought the artist might have been a victim of foul play, Ralph will tell you that the undertakers from nearby Kearney informed the public there were no marks on the body. As for the fishing line wrapped around Thomson's leg, "it was thought he sprained his ankle and wrapped a compress around it for protection." Mr. Bice says that many guides and tourist operators from the Algonquin area believe Tom Thomson was simply drunk, fell out of his canoe and drowned.

The famous English renegade, Archie Belaney-later to become known as Grey Owl when his writings became popular-was a close friend of Mr. Bice's brother Arthur. They fought together in the First World War and accredit each other for saving one another's life.

Ralph says Archie Belaney also had a problem with alcohol. Because of his moodiness he often didn't get along with people and he recalls the time when Grey Owl became in the disfavor of the local minister.

"Archie climbed up the nearby hill in Bisco and during the Sunday service proceeded to ring the church bell with his expert marksmanship which he was known for. We knew he was only having his own sort of fun, but it was enough for the local residents to send for the police and force Archie to take a self-imposed exile into the woods until everything cooled off!"

Ralph was one of the guides chosen to take the Governor General, the Duke of Devonshire, into Algonquin Park in 1918.

Ontario Trappers Association

As a founding member of the Ontario Trappers Association (OTA) Ralph realizes the importance of belonging to an organization that will help market wild furs and help fur harvesters enjoy the reputation as being "the true caretakers of nature."

He recalls the 41-year heritage the OTA has enjoyed. "In 1947 a small group of Northern trappers, with similar concerns, banded together to form a trapper's association. The two principal areas if concern for all of us were the price the trapper received for his fur and the conservation and continued abundance of furbearers.

One of Ralph's concerns, and that of all trappers, is acid rain.

We know what acid rain is and the long term effects it has on our environment, and Ralph can remember the initial clues when in the 1950's the superstack (smelting of nickel) was erected in Sudbury Ontario.

Trappers are always in the bush and many of us began to notice some signs in nature that were not the normal. "We saw the tops of maple trees with no foliage and the deer began to look sickly. Animals that would usually browse on saplings tended to stay away from their favorite source of food. It was as if they knew it didn't taste right because of the pollution that was affecting the vegetation."

Ralph believes acid rain is an issue all trappers should be aware of for it's impact on nature. "It if found throughout North America and affects all the habitats that our members manage through their traplines."

As a trapper he would like the public to realize that wild fur harvesters are "the true caretakers of nature." One of his books is entitled "Fur-The Trade that put Upper Canada on the Map" and outlines the conservation role played by wild fur producers. "We harvest only a small percentage of the available wild furbearers and help species control their numbers while saving their aquatic and upland habitats."

"If you want to know what can be done about effectively managing our natural resources ask a trapper. We're the ones who are in the outdoors and have a real understanding of the balance of nature."

His Own Legacy

Apart from his "ability to make the best pancakes and fish dishes over an open campfire" and as "Algonquin Park's greatest cribbage player" Ralph Bice wants to be remembered as an outdoorsman who used and respected nature throughout his career as a trapper and guide.

"Nature has given me the greatest joys of my life and I hope I have done the same for its continued existence."

As he paddles in the sunset of his life, Ralph has won his serenity, like the peace and beauty of the outdoors he has always known.

He likes to quote a verse from the Bible, "God looked out upon the world and all that he had made, and saw that is was very good." I am sure Ralph Bice is referring to the wilderness he has always known and loved.

- by Bill Steer for the Friends of Fur web site