Mt. Septimus in Strathcona Park, Duane Bressler’s destination before he disappeared / stock photo
A case shrouded in mystery: Strathcona Park hiker lost in 1977 was never found
Update: Former Comox Valley Search and Rescue leader Mike Fournier has informed Decafnation that a tip from hikers led to the discovery of Duane Bressler’s body more than a year after he disappeared.
Hiking the trails of Strathcona Park can be one of the summer’s greatest pleasures. But it can also turn into a tragic nightmare. All it takes is a few steps in the wrong direction.
Last month, a Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue team spent several days looking for Murray Naswell of Cumberland who got lost in Strathcona Park. In June, a Parksville area farmer died in the area of Mt. Donner. This week another hiker was rescued in the park.
But back in 1977, a hiker by the name of Duane Bressler, a 20-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, wasn’t so lucky — or was he? He was reported lost in the Flower Ridge area and, despite an all-out, two-month effort by the Comox Valley Search and Rescue team, he was never found, dead or alive.
Some think it was a case shrouded in mystery.
Here’s what I wrote about it in 1977.
The gentle slopes of the Forbidden Plateau are no threat even to the most inexperienced hikers if you stay on the trail. But elsewhere in Strathcona Park, Flower Ridge, for example, even well-marked trails can become treacherous let alone the dense brush that cowers in from all sides.
No one knows the perils of the forest better than the 30 members of the Comox Valley Search and Rescue team. A dedicated group of volunteers versed in survival, rope climbing and first aid, they are currently working on their 18th major search in two years.
Right now, the team is embroiled in a mystery case, they think might be resolved tomorrow.
A hiker from Wichita, Kansas, Duane Bressler, 20, was ambling along Flower Ridge with a group of companions. They began at the usual starting place at the south end of Buttle Lake and were apparently not rushing down the trail that leads to Mt. Septimus.
The ridge trail starts off easily enough but later becomes a dangerous edge falling off several hundred feet on either side. At one point. Hikes must shuffle along a rock ledge to traverse corners, holding on by crevices in the sheer walls. That’s no place for the foolhardy, even without a 50-pound backpack.
The group reached the 5,000 foot level of the ridge when they saw what they thought was Green Lake, their primary destination at the foot of Mt. Septimus. By trails, weaving around a few of these tricky rock ledges and circling around steep drops, the lake is about a half day’s hike.
Bressler, however, determined that by cutting across country, through the thick underbrush and down the steep side of the ridge, it would only take an hour and a half. He left the group on July 26 to save a few hours time.
He hasn’t been seen since.
His party waited two days for him at Green Lake before hurrying out to report his absence. That’s when the Valley search team was called in to find Bressler, who was last seen carrying a 100-pound pack with a fishing rod, canteens and other items tied on the outside.
Headed by Mike Fournier, the team airlifted into the area by a CFB Comox helicopter, and for the first week Sgt. C. H. ‘Chuck” Clements — the rescue hero injured in a 75-foot plunge last week — directed ground search operations.
It is now five weeks later, and the searchers have spent over five full 10-hour days scrambling over snags and checking under every bush.
Bressler’s fishing rod was found broken near the Green Lake area, so it is believed he made it there. Not knowing how long it might take his companions to comer around the other way, Bressler could have waited at Green Lake for five to six hours. He might have thought they turned around and went back via the ridge trail.
He might have followed Price Creek, which runs from Green Lake to Buttle Lake, hoping to reach the starting point without climbing back up the ridge’s steep walls.
What puzzles the Valley searchers, though, is that besides Bressler’s cap turning up in a net stretched across the creek at Buttle Lake, there has been no other sign of the hiker.
They have searched extensively the whole area. Campbel River RCMP have used dogs up and down the creek. Parks branch personnel have searched. An infrared camera on a helicopter has scanned the area and no sign or smell has been detected.
Searchers discount the possibility of Bressler having been dragged off and devoured by an animal because his metal and plastic gear would have been strewn around everywhere.
Team member Wayne Jardine has even donned a wet suit and swam the creek’s deep holes behind log jams. Members Brian Evans and David Cronmiller have plodded through difficult terrains and scratchy salmon berry bushes. Cronmiller’s hands were reported severely injured from fighting through Devil’s Club — a bush sprouting millions of spines that embed themselves in your flesh. They are the plague of the woods in Strathcona Park.
Tomorrow, the team returns to search the final miles and a half of Prince Creek. They believe they’ll find something.
This last section was not searched before because vertical walls loom high on either side and it’s impossible to reach without ropes. At the bottom, several log jams have created pools that are perhaps 10 feet deep.
It is now suspected that Bressler might have followed the creek out of the woods, reached this section and was forced to inch his way along the walls at some height. He might have fallen. With a 100-pound pack — he was carrying, among other things, an inflatable rubber boat — he would have sunk right to the bottom of a deep pool.
Even if he hadn’t been knocked out, he might have been unable to release himself from his gear in time. His cap would naturally come off easily and float downstream.
The rescue team isn’t looking forward to a pleasant time tomorrow. Although they welcome a challenge to their abilities and skills, they would rather rescue live hikers than decomposed bodies.
It is an opportunity to remind would-be masters of the wilderness that over-confidence can be a killer.
And then, several days later, I wrote this:
Members of that dedicated group (the search and rescue team) were lowered by ropes into the rugged, final 1.5 miles of Price Creek Saturday to attempt locating the body of an American hiker last seen on July 26.
After an all-day effort of diving the deep pools and scanning the near-vertical walls enclosing that section of the creek, the team left without a single clue and even more baffled than before as to his whereabouts.
Officially, the search for 20-year-old Duane Bressler has been cancelled. Chances are his body will never be recovered and no one will ever know what happened to him. He might be found later this fall by an unsuspecting hiker, or perhaps next year. But for now, he’s just been swallowed up by the dark of the forest.
STRATHCONA PARK FACTS AND HISTORY
Strathcona Provincial Park, designated in 1911, is the oldest provincial park in British Columbia. Located almost in the centre of Vancouver Island, Strathcona park is a rugged mountain wilderness comprising more than 250,000 hectares. Two areas – Buttle Lake and vicinity, and Forbidden Plateau – offer a variety of visitor-oriented developments. The rest of the park is largely undeveloped and appeals primarily to people seeking wilderness surroundings. To see and enjoy much of the scenic splendor requires hiking or backpacking into the alpine regions.
Strathcona Park, designated in 1911, is the oldest provincial park in British Columbia. In the valleys and lower regions of Strathcona are forest stands that were already old when Captain James Cook of Britain’s Royal Navy landed at Nootka Sound in 1778, on the west coast of Vancouver Island a few kilometres from what is now the western boundary of the park.
Strathcona Park was named for Donald Alexander Smith, First Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, a Canadian pioneer and one of the principals in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On November 7, 1885 Lord Strathcona drove the last iron spike into the twin ribbons of steel that united Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific at Craigellachie in BC’s Selkirk Mountains.
— BC Parks
STRATHCONA WILDERNESS INSTITUTE
The Strathcona Park Wilderness Centre at Paradise Meadows will be open 7 days a week from June 28th onwards for the summer season, with normal operating hours of 9.30-3.30. The Centre will be staffed by students hired under the Canada Summer Jobs program and by our cohort of energetic volunteers.
Summer programs include Nature Walks, Talks and Hikes with expert naturalists and guides on weekends through August and September.
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