(By Ozzie Hutchings)
(The Islander Victoria BC Sunday March 16, 1975)
It was during the 1920's while at Stewart, B.C., I heard some strange stories from those prospectors and trappers, who only made town about once in one or two years, from their long treks into the Unuk River country, which is divided by the British Columbia, Alaska boundary.
These men like trapper Scott, prospector Charles Knipple, Bill Hoble and others, spoke of the so-called Phantom Growler back there. They also mentioned that back in 1923, trapper Jess Sethington of Stewart, B.C. had disappeared mysteriously in that Unuk country.
He had gone in there trapping alone, against the advice of others who knew the rough, tough, mountainous wilderness. Jess hadn't returned on the prearranged date, so when he did not show up, a search party was sent out, but they only found his old camp sites along the river, then all traces were lost, and Jess Sethington was never seen again.
In that wilderness section of the country there was a lot of game, big and small, but I guess it was mostly noted for minerals, large bears, black, brown, and grizzlies.
Some of the stories we about the unexplainable sounds, by some animal in that section, and it seemed this growling and moaning, came during the hours of darkness, making even the hardest of trappers or prospectors, sit up and take notice.
One such person recalled after many years on the trap line, he was taken back one night, while eating some mulligan before his campfire; hearing this unusual sound, he kept still and quiet, held his breath and strained his ears, trying to pierce the darkness of the night, to figure out what it could be.
It had been way off and indistinct. Any hardened trapper would know it was not a usual sound of the wilderness. Later he heard it again, so that was the night he slept with one eye and ear open, but the next day he was back on the trap line as usual. He had several of those nights during that long lesson. He had seen grizzlies on several occasions, but gave them a wide berth when possible.
This sound had been heard by others over the years, only at much closer range. It was a long agonized deep grown, from something in excruciating pain, starting loud as if in agony, then easing off with a long moaning of a dying creature.
It was years later, I heard from my friend trapper Scott about two Johnston brothers, who went to the headwaters of the Unuk River, on their first prospecting trip into the district during 1933. They had to battle their way through the treacherous torrents and rapids and the swirling waters in the canyons of this glacier fed river, to get into this little known wilderness country, and reach the old placer diggings of the 1890's around Sulphiorets Creek, about 20 miles from Tom MacKay Lake.
It seems that after a long strenuous all day fight, they reached a good place to camp, between those 6,000 and 7,000 foot peaks, on the bank of Cripple Creek. After that hard day they soon got the fire going, and water on for a good mug of coffee, to brighten the spirits, when they were startled by a deep groan behind the bushes in the thick over brush, then another louder and more distinct noise. Finally it was gone.
These brothers prospected this district for two or three years, and each year they were plagued by this mysterious growling, but they never saw the animal who was causing these blood curdling groans.
A few nights later they were awakened again, by these moans and groans, when it seemed to be in the creek, not far from them and coming up the bank towards their camp. Again the moaning stopped, and the creature went up the creek and away.
That was to close to be nice, so the next morning they decided to built a small cabin, which would be safer than in bed rolls under a tent. By that time this Phantom of the Unuk had become known as Old Growler, to the few men that wandered through this old rich territory of minerals and furs.
Later, after the Johnston brothers had located some good mineral showings, their dog was aroused by something in the underbrush, close to the trail, and by the racket they knew it must be a bear, only a few feet from them. Then came those same grunts and groans of the Old Growler that they had heard many times before, but again it took off and the dog came back all heckled up.
It seemed their next surprise was in 1935 when, the two brothers, Jack and Bruce, with a friend George, were in around Sulphiortes and Cripple Creek, doing some prospecting on gold showings. Jack and George with the dog went up one side of the creek, and Bruce took off on the other side, not intending to go a great distance. He left the rifle at the camp, and took only a small pistol.
He had not gone far when heard this long growling in the bush, ahead of him. He froze knowing he only had a small bore hand gun, for bird hunting, and a single shot at that.
The loud growl from the animal meant trouble ahead. Bruce saw the bushes shake and the bear coming towards him, then he could see Old Growler for the first time.
The underbrush was so thick, that the only way he could see to travel, was down the bear trail. Bruce hired every chance he had. Not hitting the animal with those small slugs, he would reload, fire again hoping to slow him down. But the old bear kept coming and Bruce kept shooting. The growling and snorting came closer, until Bruce came to the edge of the woods.
He turned around, raced across to where his rifle was, turned again for the last stand fight, but Old Growler was not in site. He had followed Bruce to the edge of the timber, and stayed there out of site for some time, then was gone.
They were sure now that Old Growler was a grizzly, and a big one at that. Also he was not harmless as some had thought. They wondered why he did his growling and wanderings mostly during the dark hours, and kept out of site.
By now the fall was was closing in on them, after a short summer, so they headed for the Unuk River, with it's cold blasts coming down from the ice fields. They still had some work to finish at Cripple Creek, so they stopped at their old site, but noticed the creek full of salmon, unusual this late in the year. They also noticed a large number of bears, filling themselves for the long winter of hibernation.
To get any sleep there, they would have to built a small shelter, so the three men got busy, and by nightfall had made a good start on the cabin.
Later that night, who should show up, but Old Growler, with some of his friends, and during the darkness started his nerve wracking moans and groans.
They had made ready for an occasion like this, by gathering a good supply of dry wood handy for the fire. Old Growler and his friends kept their distance, but the men and their dog had a very hectic night, watching and waiting for the Old One, to show his eyes through the darkness in the background, but he kept out of site and finally returned into the forest.
The next morning they got back to work on the cabin. By night they had finished. It was small, but large enough for them and the dog to stretch out in, with some safety.
They finished their work on the claims, and were about to start down river, Bruce and his dog went back to the claim, to make a last check, and all of a sudden they were confronted with this giant of a bear, with it's frightful appearance, one eye closed and jaw out of shape, making those weird groans and snarling.
At the edge of the underbrush, about 20 feet away, the dog tried to do his job, but the bear lashed out with his mighty paw, and knocked the dog into the bush.
Bruce grabbed his gun and at close range fired, then jumped aside as the great animal came towards him. Again Bruce fired and the mighty animal fell in a heap, but raised again prepared to charge. Bruce fired another heavy shot into the neck, and Old Growler hit the ground, got up again to make another charge, then Bruce with his last cartridge, took aim and put the last shot behind the ear, and Old Growler hit the ground for the last time, with the dog at his back putting in his last lick.
Bruce looked over this gruesome carcass, and could hardly believe what he saw. It was a huge hunk of leather, very little hair, deformed head, and only one eye, as the other was closed and grown over with scar.
The jaw was badly smashed with teeth missing. In fact the hole thing looked as if it was to old, to have gone this far among the denizens of this forest.
Later, Bruce returned with his brother and partner. Upon seeing the enormous animal they decided to take the head and a huge paw back to civilization, to prove that this Phantom of the Unuk was a large grizzly.
After a thorough examination back in Ketchikan, it was found the skull was 17 inches long, and 11 inches broad. One eye was closed and the jaw hinge was separated. It was noted there were five old bullets lodged in the skull, which could have been in there for years. Two bullets were .33 caliber and three bullets were .38 caliber.
Back in 1923 when Jess Sethington of Stewart B.C. disappeared, he was carrying a .33 caliber rifle also a .38 revolver; this could be the answer too, why Jess Sethington was never seen again, and why Old Growler the Phantom of the Unuk had been acting up all those years.
PO Box 665
Canada V0T 1W0