Raymond Murray Patterson was no easy study. His life took as many twists and turns, and crashed headlong into as many boulders as there were in the many rivers he loved. He was born in 1898 in Northern England. His parents were financially comfortable, but their relationship was not, being described as fire and fire. R. M.’s relationship with his father was short, before his Dad took off for Africa, but they were close until then and Raymond acquired from his father a love of travel and distant mountains. Raymond had the best education, first at Rossall, a private school, and then Oxford. His sense of adventure and love of nature meanwhile were fueled by the books of Joseph Conrad and Jack London.
His education took a break after Rossall as England entered the First World War. Patterson was an artilleryman until taken prisoner by the Germans in the Spring Offensive of 1918. He was released in November, and 1919 saw him at St. John’s College, at Oxford. After learning that his father had died penniless in Johannesburg, he decided it was time to make some life decisions.
He took a holiday from his job at the Bank of England to spend time in Northern England, and while there read “Hunters of the Great North,” which introduced him to the Mackenzie and Athabasca Rivers. He decided a full life was not measured by years, but by adventures. To start collecting his adventures, within months he quit his job, moved to Alberta, got jobs as a farmhand and working in a lumber camp. He soon discovered that the tales of Conrad and London seemed to skip over some of the details of living the adventurous life, like draining land, felling trees, dealing with unruly livestock and milking cows by hand. He persevered, however, and by 1924, he and a friend were homesteading.
His transformation into this new life on the Alberta frontier was neither immediate nor smooth. If an Oxford-schooled banker wasn’t odd enough in the wilderness to make him stand out, seeing him wearing a Tom Mix ten-gallon hat with a suit tie wasn’t helping. His upper crust upbringing also made him slow to accept those around him. He initially described the Native Americans as “A degenerate, low, Mongol type, these Indians of the north…I am glad they are dying out---they make way for the white man.” He would find himself later looking to these low-life degenerates for help and salvation. As he walked many miles in their shoes, you can see his opinions evolve through his life. For example, years later he said, “for without a doubt, when deciding on the future of this country, some provision should be made for the poor uncivilized beings to whom by rights the soil belongs.” By 1958, the reversal is complete when he describes whites as the alien race, and laments the degeneration of the Native American canoe to a toy “for the entertainment of the alien race that has taken away their lands, their fish and game, and their way of life.”
A person who seeks adventure will always be restless, or have itchy feet, as some call it. When Patterson married and a family started, he would forever after have to wrestle with the conflict between staying home to support the family, run the farm, and care for the cattle versus being called to the rivers and mountains that were always in sight and always beckoning. Instead of months and thousands of miles, his trips now came in small doses of a week and one or two-hundred miles. He would guide fishing and hunting parties, guide mining and railroad survey teams, and when they transformed the farm into a dude ranch, there were always a few dudes ready to give him an excuse to lead them into the wilderness and mountains. His adventures now came piecemeal, but he still accumulated detailed information he recorded in his journals, drew detailed maps that gave the Canadian government its first reliable knowledge of the country, and discovered mountain passes that had not seen a human foot since generations before when used only by Native Americans.
All things change, however, and he would find himself being invaded by “roads, oil wells, logging camps, coal mines,” and government officials nosing around to see what they could tax. His land became overrun by camping parties that just squatted on his property, until he fenced an area specifically for their use in the hope that doing so would give him some control over his own land. Then he found he was having to patrol the area to clean up trash and prevent unsafe burning. On one occasion he got frustrated enough that he cleaned up the entire area, picking up every piece of trash, and then stuffed it all in the camper’s car. Another camping party shot the family dog when they mistakenly assumed it was a wild coyote or wolf. The life he loved was disappearing, and he sold out.
Moving to a house in Vancouver, Patterson transformed from a cattle rancher, explorer, wild river runner, and scout, to a ………GARDENER. The extra time, however, gave him a chance to write, and his journals brought back vivid memories that were transformed into endless magazine adventure stories and books. Thousands and thousands of readers now satisfied their need for a sense of adventure in their humdrum lives through his words, and he became to others what Joseph Conrad and Jack London had been to him. Besides his prolific adventure stories, his books included The Dangerous River, Far Pastures, The Buffalo Head, Trail to the Interior, and Finley’s River. His final book, Napoleon’s Horsemen, was not published before Patterson’s death, but was the subject that fascinated him, and on which he had done research his entire life. It is available through David Finch, this book’s author. The Nahanni Journals: R. M. Patterson’s 1927-1929 Journals were also reprinted by Richard C. Davis, University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, Alberta, 2008. To this day, his first book, The Dangerous River, remains the most cherished of his works.