This blog is brought to you by guest writer Paula McCulloch.
In August 1946 three snarers got snowed in at their camp somewhere near Lake Ina in the Western Lakes on the Central Plateau. A party searching for them battled five-feet-deep snow before escorting them out to Derwent Bridge. The snarers had survived fairly well on reduced rations, but had to leave most of their skins at the camp for a return trip.1The site of their adventure was forgotten until a happy coincidence occurred with two sources of information.
On Friday 12 January 2018, Ken Felton, Richard Chuter and I went in search of a hut marked on a map acquired several years ago. It was a very well drawn map of the lakes, main rivers and creeks north of Lake Ina. We assumed that the map maker had traced his mud map off a 1950s local map, then added in routes and points of interest. What had caught our eye was that at a point just north of Lake Catherine and south of an unnamed lake he had noted ‘Log hut & skin shed’. Simon Cubit had written a three-part Mountain Stories blog about a 1946 Lake Ina snaring adventure, which a gentleman named Norman Harris had related to him in an interview. The story gave a very precise description of the hut, where it was and what it looked like. Like Simon, we thought that the snaring hut marked on the map and the one mentioned in the Harris interview were one and the same.
We walked in and set up camp at Lake Ina, but then the weather closed in and it rained and blew for the rest of the day. The next morning it was still blowing, but the rain had stopped, so we set off in the direction of Lake Catherine, about an hour’s walk away. On an earlier trip into this area with a different party, I had come upon stumps, but not investigated them properly, as we had other pursuits at the time.
On the 2018 trip, Ken asked me to show him where we had seen these stumps, so that we could search the area. We arrived at the area and found two eucalypt stumps that had been cut by axe quite a long time ago. The strange thing was that the trees were not used and were lying next to the stumps where they fell. Ken and Richard both said they had been dropped by someone who knew how to use an axe well. We searched the surrounding area thoroughly, but found no sign of a hut site anywhere near these stumps. The only thing that we found was a rock cairn route that fishermen had put in to guide them from Lake Ina to Lake Catherine.
We continued on past Lake Catherine to where the hut was marked on the mud map. This took us to the middle of a swampy clearing that would not have been suitable for a hut. I thought it could be in the higher ground among the trees, but Ken thought that since the hut was made of pencil pine it was more likely nearer to the unnamed lake. I had a quick look, but I would have liked to have been thorough. We headed to the unnamed lake and I spotted another stump to the east in the trees. We investigated and found it to be the same as the other two stumps: cut with an axe a long time ago and the tree left where it fell. We searched the area again but found nothing else.
Ken, Richard and I continued to the lake and found that it was wooded or boggy all the way around. There were no significant pencil pines around it, except on the opposite shore on a steep hillside. We decided to head east and then south to a likely spot on the map that had pencil pines. After walking through the bush over a hill we came upon another tree stump and the tree lying where it fell just like the others. Searching the surrounding area showed up nothing, so we continued on. Then Ken said he saw a cut tree. We all saw that this was the head of the tree and the trunk had been removed. Finally we had found something that was used. On closer inspection we saw that the trunk had been split into slabs. There was some split timber leaning against the stump.
After getting quite excited (well, I did), we decided that this was the material used to build the hut—and it was not pencil pine as we expected. We conducted a thorough search of the immediate area, but found nothing except a longneck beer bottle. We were getting tired after five hours of searching, so we decided to call it a day. It was a good thing we did as we got sleeted on when we stopped for lunch and then the weather came in for the afternoon.
When we returned to camp I looked at my maps and discovered that we were only about 200 meters from the place that was marked on the mud map. My heart told me that I should have looked thoroughly in the bush south-west of where we found the palings, which would have brought us to the western hillside above the swampy area we searched between the two lakes. I decided to return on another trip and search that area. Hopefully that would reveal a site or—even better—a fallen hut and skin shed.
Returning a year later
After a cancelled trip due to bad weather, on 18 November 2019 I finally made it back to Lake Catherine in search of the elusive hut. A friend accompanied me. We had both had done some homework and, after consulting Google Earth and the written evidence, we were ready and determined to find this hut.
Norman Harris, in his interview with Simon Cubit, had described how in 1946 he, his brother Lyell Harris and friend Jack Quarrel had found the existing old hut, and while Jack and Norman packed in supplies, Lyell had started to restore the hut. Norman went on to describe the hut as being 3 x 2.5 metres long, with a rather large stone fireplace, a door at one end and no windows. It was actually a log cabin that they repacked with moss and fixed the roof with a sapling framework and sheets of bark. It took them two days to repair the hut and build a large skin shed. Norman also described Lyell falling a large tree and cutting and splitting it into planks and palings to complete the hut repairs and build the drying shed.
My friend and I walked to Lake Catherine and then found a camping spot out of the 50-kph wind. Leaving our packs behind, we headed off towards the felled, split tree that Ken and Richard and I had found in 2018. On the way we searched the patches of bush thoroughly in case the hut was hiding in them. We found no sign of it. My friend was very interested in the split timber and also pointed out that since the hut was described as a log cabin, there should be more old stumps around the site. So that is what we began to look for.
Separating to cover more ground, we spent several hours searching in the vicinity. Then around 3pm my friend called me over to him. I rushed over and found him surrounded by stumps, not 100 metres north of the split timber tree. He was kind enough to wait for me before exploring the area, so that we could do it together. There were at least 10 stumps in the vicinity and more a little way away. Then we found a chimney base and investigated that. The hut had been burnt down some time ago and hakea bushes were growing though the site. Little more than the chimney base and the bearer log on the eastern side of the hut were left after the fire. There was some burnt timber and part of the western side bearer around the site, so we could get an idea of the size of the hut. It matched Norman Harris’s description. The stone chimney had collapsed, and some timber framing still leaned against its 40–50-cm-high stone base. Pieces of glass jar, metal, a few old rusted tins, two metal drums with wire handles (one square and older, one round and less rusted) were scattered near the hut. In the fireplace I found out quite a few pieces of wire shaped like hooks. You could imagine them hanging above the fireplace for utensils etc to hang on.
In Norman’s last instalment of the story he said that they left a camp oven, cans, pot, wedges and firewood at the hut for the use of other travellers.
There was no sign of the camp oven or wedges, even in the surrounding bush. Since someone had marked the hut on a mud map, surely there would have been visitors to the hut after the three men in 1946, and maybe they took the oven or wedges to use elsewhere. Also if the hut was in disrepair someone stumbling onto it would have taken anything useful.
Our next point of interest was to see if we could find the large drying shed that the three men built in 1946 to dry their wallaby skins. It didn’t take long. About 14 metres south of the hut we found the remains of three bearers set squarely on the ground, measuring 5 x 4.5 metres. This was indeed a large drying shed. We also found two rabbit traps, one lying on the ground and the other under a bit of burnt timber, and a round drum with a wire handle next to the timber remains.
However, one thing mystified us. Where were the burnt split timber and the nails that should be embedded in the bearers? The lack of burnt off ends and nails made us both think that someone had pulled off the boards before the fire came through and maybe used them elsewhere. It is not uncommon for materials to be reused on other huts in the area to save work in splitting timber. It’s easier to use pre-cut ones lying around from a decrepit old hut.
We measured and drew up a sketch of both the hut and skin shed and also took compass bearings. It was 6pm by now and the drizzle began to come down, so we thought it was time to call it a day.
After a good night’s sleep in our tents we got up to a beautiful sunny day with not a breath of wind. With the possibility of the drying shed materials being used for another hut in the same area, we decided to make a thorough search of the unnamed nearby lakes. We thought that a fisherman may have used the materials to build his hut closer to his favourite lake. We first searched the lake slightly south and west of Lake Catherine. There was an old cairned route to it, and an old fireplace near what we referred to as the ‘Crossing’ on the southern outlet of Lake Catherine, but no other signs of a hut or camp. We then visited the lake north of Lake Catherine, but we found only a taped route between the lakes and only one area that may have been a tent camping spot. We followed the outlet creek to a third lake but found nothing. Here we gave up, as it was like searching for needle in a hay stack. Without further information there is little hope of finding it.
During that day we went back to the trees that had been felled but not used that were found in 2018. The best explanation is that they were navigational aids for snare lines. This was a known practice when several snarers were working a general area together. They marked each snarer’s line.
There is a lot more to this story. Maybe someone knows of a hut or the history of the missing camp oven, and could let us know. All I can say is that I wish that rocks could talk.
Story and Photographs by Paula McCulloch
Copyright Paula McCulloch 2019
 ‘Three trappers found’, Mercury, 20 August 1946, p.4.