When Hugh McKervill was in training to become a minister in the United Church of Canada, he was sent in the summer of 1955 as a student minister to the people of the Smoky Burn-Battle Heights-Papikwan area (at the edge of the farming land, north of Carrot River) in northern Saskatchewan.
When he arrived, he learned that his flock had scrounged together enough money to buy their student minister a sturdy old Model A. This car served him well that summer, chugging over roads that were almost impassible after heavy rains. However, there were times when even the Model A surrendered to the clog-up of its innards.
Min. McKervill writes about one evening in particular when he was endeavoring to get from Point B, where he’d been visiting, to Point A where he boarded. This was after a heavy rain and the road to Point B – which dipped down into the Carrot River Valley and then up the other side – had been passable during the day. However, sometime later a tractor had lumbered down this road after him, slithered down the one hill and then up the other, throwing up huge clumps of mud and carving deep grooves as it fought for traction in the gumbo clay.
Returning home, the student minister started down the slope into the river valley and found he couldn’t keep the wheels of his Model A from sliding into those ruts. To make matters worse, the car wheels churned up more mud so the engine compartment filled with the goo. Then its wheels slid into the deep tractor ruts and he was not only clogged up, but hung up as well.
This area was sparsely settled and it was later in the evening; the chances of another vehicle coming along were slim. He saw no choice but get out and walk home. He wore rubber boots in those days and they clump, clumped down the hillside, across the narrow bridge, and up the other side. With dismay he realized that daylight was almost gone. He reassured himself constantly that there was absolutely nothing to fear in this wilderness.
Granted, he could meet a charging moose…or an angry mother bear…or maybe some timber wolves. There was even the odd chance of a prowling cougar, strayed from its usual range in the wooded hills to the southeast. But other than that, he comforted himself, there was nothing in the descending darkness that would harm him.
As young McKervill trudged on, he entered a forested area where trees crept right up to the road. With every step he reassured himself that there was nothing to fear. At one point he decided that it would be prudent to hurry so as not to be too late arriving home. He dashed off like a gazelle chased by a leopard, though not nearly as graceful with his rubber boots going “Splat! Splat! Splat!” and sliding on the wet road.
At last he reached an area where the trees didn’t close in so menacingly. When he could run no more, he slowed down, stopping to catch his breath now and then. During one of these times he heard a twig snap not far from him. Heart pounding, he listened for telltale sounds. The silence shrieked. So he hurried on.
A few minutes later he heard another sound, then a footstep. He stopped and the noise stopped. He started walking and he heard a rustling sound in the brush beside the road. This time he had to admit it: some creature was following him!
He envisioned the newspaper headlines reporting his demise. Something like :“Minister Mauled to Death in Northern Woods” or “Cougar Crushes Cleric.” He stopped again – and the creature stopped. “Getting ready to pounce,” his mind announced.
In a little more open space he froze when he caught a glimpse of a huge black form. He dug out his pocket knife, realizing how useless the tiny blade would be against such a massive enemy. He walked on a little farther and the creature followed. His heart pounded in his chest.
When a gleam of moonlight outlined the beast’s huge head, its eyes glinting in the light, his heart almost stopped. Suddenly from this black shadow came a bone-chilling wail.
His heart rate settled down to something near normal again and he plodded on. The cow or steer walked along beside him most of the way to his lodging, then turned aside to join other animals in a pasture. Half a mile further down the road the northern sky burst into a glory of dancing northern lights. He writes that at that moment he felt like dancing, too.
His heart must have been very strong, for he lived to tell write his book almost forty years later. I’ve retold his story in my own words, so you may wish to read the original:
THE SINBUSTER OF SMOKY BURN
The Memories of a Student Minister on the Prairies
© 1993 by Hugh W. McKervill
Published by Whitecap Books Vancouver/Toronto
and simultaneously by Wood Lake Books, Inc. of Winfield, BC