Debby Skramstad Nickell hiked a steep, remote slope Saturday, driven to visit the site where her son, Rodney MacKinnon, 35, was found dead Thursday evening.
"He probably climbed up there to sit and think and look at the sunset and for some reason, he never got up again," she said.
Although Lake Cowichan RCMP had, more than two weeks earlier, called off the official search for the man who had gone missing in the Fairservice logging area south and west of Lake Cowichan May 2, the family had never given up hope that either he would come home or his body would be discovered.
Their determination was rewarded May 22 when MacKinnon’s cousins Destiny and Ryan Skramstad, and friend Doug Harris and were able to report that he had been found.
It was obvious that MacKinnon had been dead for quite some time because the body was badly decomposed and there was evidence that animals had found it, according to Harris, who made the discovery, up above a logging road and a clearcut area the Skramstads knew well because it offers both a great view and a chance to get firewood.
Once MacKinnon was located, they called Destiny’s mom, Patty Skramstad so she could notify the RCMP. Then they called Debby to tell her the news about her missing son and to take her out there. "Waiting at the end of the driveway for them to come seemed to take forever," Debby said.
Search and Rescue was called out to the bush to help bring MacKinnon down the hill in a body bag on a rescue stretcher.
"They used ropes and they lowered him very, very gently down the hill in a clamshell [stretcher]," Destiny said, as she looked up towards the site from the logging road below on Saturday, after returning to the spot again.
Debby had wanted to go up the hill again to see the spot, which is not in dense bush, but just inside the edge of a thinned-out band of trees.
She’d been exhausted after the initial discovery and wanted to spend a little more time up there.
"You can well imagine, I spent [Thursday] night on the mountain, and went 48 hours with no sleep. I was just so angry when I first heard about it. I know this will not be pleasant, but he’s my child," she said.
The steep side hill below the site was logged over some time ago, which might have made MacKinnon harder find, according to both Destiny and Harris.
"Just cutting through all the clear cut and slash," Harris said. "I hadn’t been up there before myself."
Destiny agreed. "There had been family up there but it was weird. It’s a small patch of bush. It’s an oddball area and the way the terrain is, there are a lot of dips. You could have been walking five feet away from him and you wouldn’t see him. It’s not that it’s covered. It’s just the way the ground is," she said.
It was impossible to tell if he had fallen. The family will await reports on exactly how Rodney died.
"Animals had been dragging him. We saw a bear up there. There had been decomposition, too," Destiny said, "but he was in a fetal position."
Harris discovered the body when he and Destiny went to the area to try out her new truck Thursday evening.
"Ryan had showed up at the house and said, ‘Do you want to go for a drive?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do, I’m a Skramstad.’ We were getting ready to go and he said, ‘I want to make sure I walk down the mountain.’ When we got there, we saw five turkey vultures sitting at
the end of the road and my heart sank. Of course we wanted to find him but that wasn’t the way we wanted to find him," she said.
"You kind of hope it was something else – a dead animal that got trapped maybe," she said.
Harris went up first, saying that was exactly what he had hoped.
"If it was just a deer, I wanted to be able tell them. I just wanted to check it out," he said.
The two others had made their way up the hill, working slowly towards where Harris had gone.
"I was standing right underneath the area where he found him and Ryan circled up to us."
MacKinnon plainly had been there for a long time.
"I believe he’s been there since the day I found the truck," Destiny said.
MacKinnon’s being there at all was a bit of a mystery to the police but not to his family.
"The RCMP kept asking, ‘Why would anybody be out here?’ They didn’t realize that this is our backyard, our playground. I have been up here with my cousins, with my dad, since I was able to walk," Destiny said.
She showed that, too, as she drove easily along the maze of logging roads to the isolated spot where Rodney was found, which was not far across country from where his truck was located.
Destiny said she felt a strong urge to go to that area Thursday.
"That morning when I woke up I was feeling very, very sick. But, the minute we saw those buzzards and my foot touched the ground that feeling left. It was almost relief. Even when I got in the truck with Ryan, I knew. It was like the day we found his truck. I knew then, too, that we were going to find something. I hadn’t had that feeling the entire time until Thursday again," she said.
MacKinnon was upset when he left home May 1, Debby said.
"From what we are understanding, he was up all night, fighting with [his girlfriend]; they had an on-again off-again relationship. He left a note saying, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He was going to go just to clear his head. That’s why we thought he’d be home on Friday."
Debby said she was frustrated that the search was called off less than a week after Rodney had gone missing, meaning that his body has lain in the bush all this time.
"We were told they’d already looked for a needle in a haystack and they’d already done 800 metres and hadn’t found anything," she said.
The family also had to endure hearing that Rodney had been seen elsewhere, only to find those reports were false.
"We were told he was seen on Hudgrove and that he was seen in the info centre and it was a positive ID, but it wasn’t," Debby said.
But, all uncertainty came to an end May 22, when search and rescue brought him down.
"I got to stroke his head and talk to him," Debby said. "I’m glad we’ve had this closure."
A celebration of life will be held Saturday, May 31 at Lake Cowichan’s Centennial Hall starting at 2:30 p.m.