The first sign of trouble was when a neighbour noticed no smoke had come from the chimney at Bill Zimmer’s cabin for more than a week.
There are still places in Canada where neighbours notice that sort of thing, and Black Creek Road, which winds through the wild, forested country around Horsefly, British Columbia, is one of them.
The neighbour called Gavin Nicol, a hunting guide whose family has long known Mr. Zimmer, an 80-year-old trapper, gold prospector and “mountain man” who lived alone in the bush, in a 20-by-20 cabin, with his two dogs.
“He was still active, hunting, trapping and prospecting, so he would go off at times,” said Mr. Nicol. But a cold chimney for 10 days seemed a bit much, so Gavin and his brother Mike drove over to see what was up.
What they found might best be described as CSI Canada, the backwoods edition. It involves a death, scattered remains and a mystery that has landed on the desk of Richard Lazenby, a professor at the University of B.C. and top forensic anthropologist who worked for the RCMP on the Pickton case.
When the Nicol brothers got to Mr. Zimmer’s “humble” place in the woods, they found his truck in the driveway. And one of his dogs tied nearby, tangled in its leash and without water.
“I thought, ‘Bill would never leave his dog like that,’ ” said Mr. Nicol.
The Nicol brothers called out and knocked, but there was no answer. They could hear a radio playing inside and the back door stood open.
Mr. Nicol said there was a pot of boiled apples on the stove, next to quart canning jars.
“There aren’t a lot of orchards around here, but Bill had a small one,” said Mr. Nicol. “And he had a good garden, which he put a lot of work into.”
Since retiring more than a decade ago, Mr. Zimmer has largely sustained himself on a small pension and by living off the land.
“He was in really good shape. Always active,” said Mr. Nicol.
And his mind was active, too. He was concerned about the impact of logging in the Cariboo, and wasn’t shy about offering his opinion. Regularly, he’d drive in to Williams Lake, where he stopped at Staples to photocopy the numerous letters he was firing off on the subject.
Jeana Schuurman, of the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., said Mr. Zimmer began guiding and trapping in 1954, in the Rockies, and through the ’80s and ’90s, ran a company in the Cariboo called Mountain Wilderness Adventures.
In one letter to the Guide Outfitters, he wrote of his early days in the bush saying: “Rockies! Real true wilderness adventure was what I came for. Snowshoe travel and heavy backpacks just about as heavy and hard endurance as it ever was. No space age plastiks (sic) and clothing.”
After checking the house, the brothers searched the potato patch (10 varieties of potatoes) and then headed up to the orchard, where they found a bag on the ground. Inside was a revolver.
Mr. Nicol said that last year the RCMP had taken in Mr. Zimmer’s guns because they weren’t registered. But it appeared that he held back a .44-calibre revolver.
“But if you had a bear problem, that is not the gun you’d take. You’d want a long gun,” said Mr. Nicol.
Near the gun they found three pails of apples, spilled on the ground.
“We had a very eerie feeling at that point, and my brother said, ‘This doesn’t look good,’ ” Mr. Nicol said in an account he gave last week to the web site, welcometowilliamslake.ca.
“Mike looked to his left and saw a human skull and we were sure it was Bill. We were also fairly certain that he had been killed by a bear: that was the most likely scenario,” he said.
They found Bill’s distinctive belt, a custom-altered tool belt, and some clothing.
“We noticed that the soil around the trees between where the skull and the belt were lying had been dug up – that was another indication to us of a bear attack. When a bear has prey, they bury it and then return to feed,” he said.
They retreated and called police.
Shane DeMeyer, of the BC Coroner’s Service, said the remains found near Horsefly have not been identified yet. So the death of Mr. Zimmer is not being confirmed. Nor is the cause of death.
It is possible the man whose remains were recovered died in the orchard and then was taken apart by foraging animals, he said. The forensic anthropologist is trying to unravel that mystery.
But around Horsefly they are pretty sure Mr. Zimmer went into the orchard, and met a bear that had laid claim to his apples. Before he could get out his handgun, he was attacked.
For Mr. Zimmer’s friends and family, this is a sad story. But whatever the scenario, the mystery remains of what happened to the mountain man.