Musket balls and axe heads; metal detecting pays off in Slave Lake

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

There’s hunting for meat and there’s hunting for history. One Slave Lake resident does both, but the one involving a metal detector is the one that has him pretty excited lately. And no wonder, considering what he’s come across.

If you visit the Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library archives room, you’ll see some rusted artifacts from earlier times in Slave Lake. Behind glass in a cabinet are old nails, a trap, bits of barely-recognizable barbed wire and other stuff. It was donated by local self-described “history nerd” Harley Mutch.

“He’s got musket balls and other stuff” says library archivist Lindsay Carmichael. “He’s always bringing things in here and showing me.”

If that wasn’t an invitation to do a story, we don’t know what would be, so we got hold of Mr. Mutch.

It turns out he’s been using a metal detector at a lakeshore spot he’s determined is the location of a very early fur trading fort, near the end of the Slave Lake airport.

“That’s where all the good stuff has come from,” he says.

The ‘good stuff’ includes an old (and very blunt) axe head, the aforementioned musket balls, a gold engagement ring and more.

“I found a pocketknife – an obscure German brand,” he says. “I wish I could open it, but it’s rusted shut.”

Mutch says the detecting is something fairly new for him. He bought the device “because it was on sale,” and started experimenting. He says he identified the spot near the airport after finding in explorer David Thompson’s journals a reference to a fur trade fort “three quarters of a mile from the mouth of the river.”

That gave him a starting point, though the really interesting stuff didn’t show up at first, and things didn’t start getting really good until he got down the bank and onto the lake shore.

“A trail of old nails led me there,” he says.

Mutch has learned of three other long-ago fur-trade-era forts around the lake, and plans on visiting them too, with his metal detector.

Besides the items on display at the library, Mutch says he’s donated the rest to the local Metis office. There’s a plan to develop a display there.

Mutch had plans on a recent weekend to visit other historic fort sites around Lesser Slave Lake to see what his detector can turn up.

“I’m nowhere near done finding this stuff,” he predicts.

Metal detectorists are notorious for wanting to keep their productive sites secret. Mutch was a bit hesitant as well, but he also wants to share his story.

“History is for everyone,” he says.

Local history buff Harley Mutch on the site of a 19th C fur trading post, with metal detector and shovel, ready for more discoveries.

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