WATCH AND LEARN! by Birgit Martens
With the thermos full of coffee, we started up the
Alaska Highway and I said, "Let's drive a little into the
It was a strange night. The sun was coming in from the
front for a long time and I asked for the time. It was 10:30
PM and I could hardly believe it! Around 1:30 AM we looked
for a good place by the road where we could set up our tent.
A moose crossed the road. Now the sun was gone but it still
was quite bright. The evening would not end. We found a
place, built the tent and crawled in. Doug told me that it
probably wasn't getting any darker. I asked if we were
already in bear country. His answer: "Yes". And that made
falling asleep somewhat difficult but once I slept, I slept
like a stone.
At about eight we were wakened by a bunch of motorhomes
who probably had stopped for a breakfast break and to let the
dog out. We packed up the tent and we could not count the
mosquitoes that were plaguing us. Each of us had a big
swarm. We didn't think of breakfast. We just wanted to
leave. We drove and drove but the road stayed the same. The
windshield was full of little wings on little bugs that made
little round circles in the dust. Pine trees and narrow
ditches, a black bear.
Doug took lots and lots of pictures but the bear was not
interested so he trotted back into the bush. Finally we came
to a hillier country. There was more to see but it was more
difficult to drive. Difficult especially because of all the
But we made Trutch Mountain. The service station was a
big log house with many moose horns on the outside and many
dead animals inside hanging on the walls. We tanked up and
had breakfast and dinner there and drove off.
The road became more narrow and had more holes. We
started worrying about the canoe. Shortly before we got to
Fort Nelson one of the cushions for the canoe broke on the
rack. We stopped and taped all four with lots of tape. It
was hot and the air was moist. The horseflies were
everywhere. Help! Two months in a tent and everywhere these
Later we came to an area where Doug used to guide. He
often talked about it and now he was trying to find the trail
that would lead into that place. At first I didn't really
want to. I worried that there was a rowdy gang there or
But instead we found Dave, Elley, Andrew and Becky, a
very normal family with a ranch backed by a huge mountain.
They had 75 horses and during the hunting season usually
around ten hunters here who came for sheep, bear, moose or
caribou. It is absolutely beautiful here!
We drove on to the Liard hotsprings. Here again the
mosquitoes were bad. I found the hotsprings too hot. Doug
really enjoyed them and tried to get me to join him but I got
involved talking to a couple who had just returned from
After the swim, we took the road back aways to camp
under a bridge. The mosquitoes were awful and now it was two
Next morning steady mosquitoes on the tent door and
three really big ones inside. These ones had had a feast
during the night. I itched all over! We packed quickly and
drove on behind lots of snakes of motorhomes. Sometimes the
highway was So dusty and there were some pretty dangerous
situations. Lots of road workers and waiting time but
finally we came to the sign "Welcome to the Yukon". Doug was
very happy. Finally home.
At Watson we saw all those signs on the road from all
over the world. There were a whole bunch of German ones.
There must have been a lot of Germans here!
Beyond the little town of Teslin we drove along a lake,
farther and farther, farther along this beautiful lake until
we got to a place called Johnson's Crossing. Again we tanked
up, shopped groceries and called Mom. We have quite a few
groceries but there's always something missing and as I was
trying to figure out what we would need I fell apart.
A whole week in the bush. Don't forget anything! How
is it going to be with bears? Is the canoe going to hold?
Yep, I was quite scared and didn't know what to do. And Doug
was in his element. I decided to let him shop and went back
and sat in the truck. There, I asked myself why I was trying
to play the brave one. If it would have been my decision we
would have just stayed home. Doug noticed I was edgey and
And biting at him and helped me overcome my fear.
So, we started driving along a little highway north to
a beautiful lake called Quiet Lake.
Even though it was late we decided to unload, dust it
all off and sort what we would need for the week-long canoe
trip and put the rest back into the truck. Then we ate rice,
set up the tent and again, slept like stones.
We woke at 8:30, started to pack the canoe, fought the
mosquitoes again, like yesterday, made a fire, put more
mosquito repellant on, added many layers of clothes on top
of each other and at about 11:30 we were ready and pushed the
canoe into the water... It really swam- Wow!
We made our way through Quiet Lake into a very little
river. The water was crystal clear and you could actually
see the fish swim by- incredible! Then we paddled to a dark
little lake which was called Sandy Lake. There was a tent
and two men were talking at the shore. A big black dog was
sniffing around along the shore. When he saw us he started
to bark. His barking sounded kind of eery because it echoed
back from the mountains, back and back again. We did find
black sand. Doug took a little of it into his gold pan but
no gold. We're going to try it on the way back again.
The next bend around the river and a little motorboat
came behind us. The guy from that camp came to find out what
we were doing here. He looked like a strange man. He had a
hat with a wide rim and a raven feather on the side. He
invited us for coffee but we said, "On the way back maybe."
He told us that last year there was a canoe just like ours
with three men from Edmonton. The canoe capsized and all
three men died of hypothermia, but their dog survived. He
kept repeating that the canoe had been just like ours. Then
We used our motor and went through the Big Salmon Lake.
At the very end of this lake we found a little log house
which Doug knew about and had stayed in already two times. I
was really moved. It was a really special little place!
There was a new guestbook on the table. Franz Sichs and
Gabriela Fuchs stayed here for a whole year and only left at
the fifteenth of June. It just worked out great that the hut
was free. Our house. They had changed the house quite a bit
since Doug was here last and the old diary I could see that
Doug had been here August 2 in 1981 and Sept 22 in 1980. I
could see that a woman had put in her part.
The owners seemed to be Louise and Lilly and in the
beginning maybe Willy and Sheila. We're thinking a lot about
the two that stayed a whole year here. Somehow, it reminded
me very much of the book I'm just reading and I kept looking
for signs that these were Germans, their name sounded so
German! Finally I found it. There were two magazines, a
"Spiegel" and a "Stern", very typical German magazines.
Are those two back in Germany, or did they already live in
Canada? How was this winter? I had a thousand questions.
Will I ever meet these people? We unpacked our stuff. Doug
went fishing and caught a grayling so we had fish, potatoes
and corn. It was a feast. We went to bed early and we slept
It was now July 1st and our holidays were starting. A
whole day full of doing nothing. It rained. I wrote diary
and tried some fishing without any success. I decided to
stay inside. This is probably the first mosquito-repellant-
free day. It is really not easy to keep the days apart
because now it's 8:00 and it's bright as dinnertime! It's
At 10:30 pm we took the canoe to the lake to try some
fishing there. This is where I caught my first grayling.
Didn't know what to do when the fish bit the hook. I started
running away from the creek. When I turned around, there he
was, wiggling on the shore and got himself off the hook, but
he didn't make it back into the water. Too bad for him, but
I was pretty excited. Doug caught another three fish. We
went home and played cards til 2:30 in the morning.
We got up at 9:30, ate fish and rationed bread for
breakfast. We packed our bags for a hike and we went into
the canoe so we could find a nice spot so we could go up to
a mountain. Six hours we stumbled through the underbrush,
always hotly pursued by clouds of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.
I'm not doing this ever again! I am still totally finished.
I have to say it was an incredible feeling to find the canoe
again, be able to cook hot soup and coffee. My lungs burned
until I finally fell asleep.
This hike was a great tragedy also from my point of view. I
wanted so badly for her first hike in the Yukon to be a
joyful one but I hadn't realized we'd be going through a bog
full of knee-deep moss containing the most fantastic
collection of mosquitoes I had ever seen in all my Yukon
experience! The picture of this hike that best capsilizes
the tale is the image I still carry in my memory of a poor,
drowned mosquito, which died inside one of my wife's many
tears which was caught on the inside of her glasses lens. A
disaster? Yes, and more than a disaster, as I fully realized
the importance of an enjoyable first experience in the bush
for anyone just starting out.
As is true of so many things, it would have been funny
if it were not so sad. Doug.
Eleven o'clock, fish for breakfast. Listened for voices and
noises, bears and murderers and things like that but until
now nothing has shown up. We were just finished with eating
when we really heard something. People talking? Doug looked
out the window and sure enough. First we thought it might be
the owners of the cabin but instead they were an Austrian
couple, on a canoe trip. Her name was Sonja, his name is
forgotten. We invited them for coffee. It was very
During the afternoon Doug started to stack wood. I
helped a little, then I washed some clothes. I swept the
cabin. Then I made my own fire for the first time, put tin-
foil-wrapped potatoes into the oven and cooked some soup. We
talked quite a bit. It feels really good finally to have
time for ourselves, to empty out and just relax. Now if I
could just get rid of the fear.
Tonight we both didn't sleep too well. There were too
many mosquitoes in the cabin and from cooking an evening meal
it was very warm. Finally we decided to burn one of those
mosquito coils and then it did get a lot better but I was so
itchy anyway from before that I turned around a lot in bed.
Then I heard a big, hard bang behind the cabin. Some metal
bending or something like that. I feared I was hallucinating
but in the morning it did turn out that we had company, a
bear with cubs. Doug figured this because of the tooth marks
on his plastic gas can. I mentioned the noise that I'd
thought I heard at night. It turned out that it was behind
the outhouse where Doug found footprints from the little
bear. He must have gotten too close to the metal. Doug was
really excited but I felt a bit smaller.
In the afternoon we took the canoe along Big Salmon Lake
to find the cabin of the Crow Feather but it got pretty
windy and we decided to go home. We didn't meet the man that
we had met between Sandy and Big Salmon Lakes. We wanted
to hear more stories. I did find a recipe of rubarb wine
here. We had macaroni and cheese for our supper and I tried
some carrot bread which was good and then we started to play
cards. Just when Doug decided to show the whole world that
he never wins he started winning.
By next morning I was starting to feel more relaxed.
In the afternoon we started along a little trail that began
behind the cabin. We found many bear droppings and a few
moose tracks and I kept waving my scarf around my face. I
sometimes felt like a horse with his tail just to keep the
mosquitoes away. It didn't matter how it looked, it really
helped. We got back to the cabin, we both were hungry, yet
our stomachs were full! That had to do with those strange
pancakes we had in the morning that weren't quite done, so
they kind of worked like a glue in your stomach. I think we
eat lots of starchy foods. Lots of oatmeal, flour, rice,
So for supper we had pickles and boiled eggs and drank
our last beer. I found wild rhubarb which we ate raw and we
did feel better after that. Doug fished for half an hour for
our morning breakfast and brought three very nice graylings
home. In the meantime I'd stuffed a few of those holes in
the cabin with moss to stop the mosquitoes from getting in.
Now it did get quite a bit brighter in the room. We cuddled
in bed and we read a few pages.
We got up late again, Doug made a fire and he finally
changed his watch to Yukon time, ten o'clock, only. We felt
better, because now it wasn't that late that we got up. And
for breakfast, fish, onions and fried potatoes. Also, I had
made jello in the creek which was quite exciting to have it
set in this cold water. I wrote two letters while Doug was
moving lots of firewood.
I hope he'll get really tired so he doesn't have ideas
of big hikes over big mountains. In the cabin is a big tree
mushroom or some kind of a growth that has something
engraved. It says "I am monarch of all I survey. My right
there is none to dispute." A quote that Doug had often
On the door I see: "because I'd like some time it won't
take long, wide open sky with lot's of room, and in the .....
of the night stand alone. I want to walk fiercely through
the trees and catch the edges of a dream, see the shadows
rising from stone, and then I want to be like the owl and
wrap my wings around the moon and I will know all her names
and I will chant the ones that bind me to you.
I hear a song, the wind is full. Her voice is strong
and rising still and lingers on in the winters sharp night.
I try to see things through your eyes but I just get lost in
the wisdom of a perfect dark sky and I will be like the owl
and wrap my wings around the moon and I will learn all her
names and I will chant, I will chant the ones that bind me to
I'm not wise, nor am I blind. I stay because each time
I climb above the river and stand very still the owl sings to
leave me whole."
Doug was tired. He'd also built a bridge. We made
supper and went to bed early. He told many stories of bush
fever, men and bears.
So we tried the last possible trail which led us to a
hunting camp. One with a cooktent, but it had burned down
and we looked around in the remaining stuff. We found glass
beads, somebody must have had moccasins, many nails, glass
and plastic, We cleaned up a bit, followed an old riverbed
and then went back. A bear had come across the bridge Doug
had just built- Wow! Doug made himself a canoe seat and we
packed because tomorrow we will go back. For me it is
getting time because I'm starting to hear the churchbells
from Staufen and the mosquitoes are starting to sound like
We played cards and Doug kept winning the whole time and
is just about catching up to me now, 590 to 600.
Four ravens sat on the woodpile that Doug had put up and
made a big noise. We got up early. The canoe was loaded, it
was raining and we left. My fingers were cold but I was
pretty relaxed though the wind made the boat rock on the
water quite badly. I do like to swim but if you'd hear that
the water can kill you within two minutes, hmm. In an hour
and a half we made it to Big Salmon Lake and the little river
that connected it to Sandy Lake. Doug looked at the motor,
it seemed fine. We ate something and drove through Sandy
Lake with a really big question mark with us wondering how we
can get from this place to Quiet Lake. 'Cause already we
knew that the current was pretty strong and the water very
shallow. In the beginning it worked out quite well but the
currents got worse. I paddled as hard as I could. Doug had
the little three horsepower motor open wide and tried to
paddle with the other hand. We could just barely stand with
the current. It didn't seem to work that we could go ahead,
but all of a sudden, like a miracle we did get around the
next bend and it got better again. Then it got really
shallow and we stopped at the shore to take a breath and look
Doug took up the motor to save the propeller and to
check something and then we went on. All of a sudden there
was a big branch along the shore. "Doug, a tree!", I called,
but it was too late. Doug opened the motor and the little
pin was broken that is supposed to break in this case. He
quickly replaced it with one of his twelve spares.
Then I was supposed to untie the boat and lead it into the
current and Doug tried to go to the other shore. I tried but
the current was so strong that the canoe didn't go to
the other shore but turned around completely and took us
back. But all of a sudden we stopped! Why? What happened?
The current is still just as bad. I turned around and there
I saw what happened. Doug had jumped out of the canoe and
stood on the creekbottom. I sat in the canoe like a piece of
baggage. But we made it. Doug pulled us, the baggage, the
canoe and me 'til we got to the next curve. Then we stopped,
looked the creek over some, to find out where it was deeper
and Doug was looking for a deeper part in the creek and we
tried the whole trick again. I did push into the middle and
this time, it worked. I was supposed to look for big stones
on the creek bottom and I didn't see any. Then Doug all of a
sudden called, "It's okay now,". I looked up and there
was Quiet Lake right in front of us. We'd made it!
July 13th was Sylvia's birthday. We got up early, had a
German breakfast. We went to Whitehorse, after we had packed
everything in, we are really packed! We needed a hose for
the cool water that had broken. This is how the whole dilema
started. We picked up a few more groceries, went to Andy's
to add and unload some stuff. He did want to give us better
directions for our fishing tour as well and at four o'clock,
we finally left.
We were all pushed together like the sardines until we
got to the campground at Asiak Lake. The road was quite nice
but then the nightmare started: Four hours of very rough
dirt road with big rainholes, awful bridges ready to collapse
and many big puddles, and other places, very dusty stretches
and we never really knew where we were. Once in awhile a
sign that we just about made it, but no it wasn't quite yet.
Syl sat across from me in the other bucket seat of the
Landcruiser, her nose and mouth covered with a cloth of some
kind to keep the choking white dust out of her lungs. She
had a bit of a dark expression about her even though her face
was covered. I grinned across and wished her "Happy
Birthday!". Syl didn't seem to see much humour in the remark
and returned what I almost took to be a glare. Doug.
We found abandoned Asiak. It was a terrible mess, and
we just went on. Another really big hole and a strange
noise. Doug stops. The canoe rack has broken. At the
bottom of this hill a new place, many abandoned cabins, an
eagle lifts up on the lake wind. 11:30: smoke rising from
one chimney. Doug walks by says "hi". "Hi" comes back, but
no more. Not very friendly, otherwise nobody was there.
We're cold, tired and hungry, took off the canoe and look
for a camping spot.
We drove the truck up the hill again and the rack with
the motor and the spare tire breaks off completely. I'm at
my end. Doug ties the rack up with some wire and all four of
us put up the tent together. Looked for a snack, find
firewood, put the stove together, blow up the airmattresses
and find room for the sleeping bags. That all worked out
quite well. We eat some more and then fall down like four
Next day both men went fishing and Syl and I talked a
lot, ate chocolate, fed the gophers, and watched the eagle.
It was somewhat uncomfortable in this ghost-town. The two
came back with a very nice laketrout. After that we went for
a walk through the town. It looked very, very sad how
everything had become such a trash-place. Back in camp we
wrapped the fish in tin-foil and had a very nice evening meal
together. In the evening the two went back for another
fishing excursion and that is when Herbie got his 6 pound
laketrout. Just right for one meal. Syl and I had made a
fire already and had crawled into our sleeping bags to keep
We did have trout for breakfast. I enjoyed our lazy
afternoon. Doug slept. We tried to make chocolate pudding
and played some cards. It rained. Both men repaired the
canoe-rack, it wasn't as bad as I thought of course.
It was very good and I really enjoy having those two
here. Sometimes I just about feel that I'm the guest.
In the evening we did go for a canoe-ride, the four of
us. Doug caught an eleven pound pike on his fishing rod. We
took a picture and let him go. Then we explored the little
creek that led to the Sickelman? Lake. We saw beaver and
muskrat, mirror-clear water and dead branches, but that was
natural decay. Syl started getting cold and Doug was sorry
he hadn't tried this little connecting river sooner in the
We had a German breakfast, packed up and at around 10:45
we went on this crazy road back but this time it wasn't quite
as bad. We did take a picture of the worst of the bridges.
There, the truck wouldn't start. With a wire brush Herbie
cleaned the battery connection and the motor started again
and the trip went on. At Haines Junction, we gassed up, had
some apple pie and icecream, picked up a few groceries,
picked up the licenses to fish in the Park, and went on
through a beautiful landscape, snow-covered mountains and
green pine until we got to Dalton Post. We watched the many,
many salmon that made their way up the fast current.
We ate porridge and tried a little fishing, but nothing,
the heavy run of the night before was over. So we took it
easy in our new camp.
At six next morning, there were many, many fishermen all
over the shores trying to catch salmon. We didn't see many
salmon being pulled out and for us there was none all day. I
made pancakes and coffee for the two cold men. And at around
one o'clock we had mashed potatoes and onion sauce without
salmon. So we went for a little drive to Blanchard Creek
because the salmon fishing was also open there that day. The
current was very fast and we saw a few salmon at least and
Doug did touch a few salmon with his hook. While Herby had
my fishing rod I found some garbage to pick up and I also
found about twenty meters of little orange dots along in the
grass. I wondered if they were salmon eggs. I took one in
my hand and I squished it. It really did look like
flourescent-coloured plastic but it did smell like fish. I
went to Doug to tell him about my discovery. His eyes
widened and he interrupted his casting. He said it did sound
very much like bear but when he saw it he was happy that
there were no bear tracks and no sign of fish remains, only
sign of people. We did fish til about eleven at night. Syl
and Herbie had already gone to bed. Doug was very
disappointed that he wasn't able to serve a salmon breakfast
for his German guests.
We got up after Herbie and Doug made pancakes and again
we had to load up the truck and this time it just didn't pack
down well. I had hardly room enough to move back there!
When we got back to Andy's we decided not to put up the tent
but to sleep under the moose head. Then we drove to the
hotsprings close to Whitehorse for a shower and a bath.
Fresh clothes would have been great but that was not to be.
We have to do laundry tomorrow for sure.
We went to Whitehorse to a Greek restaurant, where we
were able to sit on chairs and have a plate on the table,
instead of the knees. Syl had salmon steak. I want to wait
to eat a very-own caught salmon. We had a very nice last
evening together, walked through the city, looked at the SS
Klondike, which was a ferry that went from Whitehorse to
Dawson around 1900 for the goldrush people. When we got back
we talked to Andy for awhile. He is very happy now. Doug
told me later that he had found a girlfriend.
We got up at seven next morning and had breakfast with
Andy and then left for the airport. It was very hard to let
those two go. For me there is just too much attached: German
language, home, friends who are with you and don't just kind
of vegetate their lives away. But Doug hugged me tight and I
knew where I belonged.
Doug & Birgit Martens
HOW A SQUARE GETS AROUND
Of all the means of wilderness transportation possible the
canoe comes closest to shining.
The backpacker swats bugs and scrapes through the brambles
bruising his shins, while the packer swats bugs and scrapes
through the brambles swearing at his horses. ATVers and
snowmobilers snarl through the woodlands like a geneticist's
bumblebee project gone terribly awry and wonder where the
animals are. The jetboater worries about the depletion of
the world's stock of buried vegetation while his wallet gets
sucked into the tank. Then he wipes the spray of oil off his
face with his shirtsleeve and clanks his wrench aimlessly
against the engine block, muttering to himself about drifting
to shore and the long, hungry, unhappy walk back to what
passes these days for civilization.
The bush pilot floats over the scene with some of the
borrowed grace of the eagle, making fantastic time but
an awful racket and failing to fully appreciate the scents
and sounds and wonder of the three-dimensional carpet
sweeping by beneath him.
The dog-musher offers some respite from the din of all
these in the winter. But after the thaw, the canoe tops the
list for its ability to get in and out of remote country,
with a minimum of effort and a maximum of grace.
This truth struck me after a thousand miles of hiking
through country much of which this pimpled youngster was
often warned against crossing alone. Coming from
Saskatchewan, where I'd roamed the coulees and hills of the
South Saskatchewan River valley, the mountains impressed
me all the more! With a headfull of overwritten
bear stories and a heart-full of anticipation for all
the wilderness held in store for me, I began backpacking
through the mountains of the southern Yukon, rifle always
ready for the drooling, "stop 'em or feed 'em" charge I was
sure to have to deal with.
But that charge never came and I soon quit clinging so
tenaciously to my rifle, often preferring the heart-pounding
excitement of using my trigger-finger for releasing the
shutter of my nikon on a nearby sheep or moose or wolf or
The most satisfying thing about backpacking the mountains
was the joy of realizing I had successfully forced my way
through some insuperable tangle of willow or alder and
managed to gain for myself a commanding view of the country
I'd battled and conquered. But I still have trouble
forgetting a one-day hike made back a ways from a little
river I'd been traveling by more sensible means. Taking a
short-cut home in the afternoon, I began negotiating with
several square miles of charred pick-up sticks, which someone
had dumped all over the mountainside for my personal
entertainment. The charcoal on the toast was the lack of
animals seen that particular sunny day. Presumably no living
things were dim-witted enough to make their home here or even
to pass through such a country on their way to someplace
else. So much for hiking.
Of course, this world is full of its admirers of
horseflesh. And I cannot say my own soul is unmoved by the
creature who "with frenzied excitement ... eats up the
ground." My experience with horseflesh goes back to the time
of my earliest temptations, when my mortal father, eager to
impart his considerable knowledge of the beast, taught me to
"let 'em know who's boss!" This presented no difficulty as I
soon realized they all knew good and well just exactly who
the boss was.
The real trouble was, and still is to this day, I've
always had a problem staying atop the graceful things. Of
all the ones who've tried to throw me, only one has been
consistently unsuccessful, and that one always succeeded too
by rearing over backwards in the hope of crushing my thorax
with his saddlehorn. At least one other animal has reached
for this solution in dealing with me as her tormentor, re-
arranging my left knee and adversely affecting my hiking, but
thankfully leaving my paddling unscathed.
Now please don't get me wrong, the horse may well be one
of man's greatest inventions and where, after all, is the
canoe who will float you safely and lovingly home through
darkness so dark that the treetops are discernable only from
the less-blackened sky itself?
Even so, while working for a northern B.C. horseback
outfitter in 1982 and a Yukon one in "83 I worked my way
inevitably and fitfully to the firm resolve that horses are a
wonderful way of going places where there is no water. Where
the sunlight bounces off the little waves of a reach of
backwater and the undercut pines sweep the swirls and eddies
of the river, "hond me me poddal, mon, and rrride proudlee
off on yorr wee 'orse!"
Nothing quite matches the feel of being swept along
effortlessly through great sweeps of aged spruce and pine,
dipping the paddle in a slow jay, perhaps, just to align the
craft for the next bend, drinking in the beauty and the peace
and always on the watch for a glimpse of moose, or wolf or
lynx or bear.
And the camps I've enjoyed while canoeing wild rivers far
surpass the ones I've endured while back and horse-packing,
though, to be fair, it is possible to bring a great wash of
personal comforts to the camp with an obliging string of
animals. Yet the time spent finding and saddling and packing
those same animals would often be better spent
roasting a salmon or a trout on the coals of an open fire in
front of a large canvas tent, your personal highway ever so
near and bubbling its music joyfully into the air, while the
wolf tells you of his lonesomeness and the tea water bubbles
over the dancing flames.
From my earliest days the sight of speeding antelope or
an eagle riding the thermal currents of an azure sky gave
this farmboy an inexplicable thrill. Hikes in the riverhills
and around the farm never failed to produce enjoyment for me.
There was always something new to study out there, whether
furred or feathered or multi-legged or shelled.
When not studying wildlife, and in my recesses at school
where that was impossible, I often entertained myself by re-
drawing the sketches of animal anatomy I found in the
encyclopedia. A hawk with a broken wing once attracted my
deepest sympathy and I tried my best to help it recover.
Taming farm kittens was always fun, and Dad did his best to
turn his son into a cowboy, even going so far as to provide a
pony for his sixth? birthday. This proved to be a bit of a
portent of things to come as I was thrown by it many times,
Something changed forever though, when I was handed a
.177 caliber pellet gun for another birthday. Wanting to see
an English sparrow up close I hunted many hours in the well-
treed garden behind the house. In the dusk of the day I
found I was able to stalk very closely beneath the perched
birds, their form easily recognizable in the branches against
the darkening sky. Close enough in fact, finally to hit one
and the bird tumbled lifelessly to the ground. Dead bird,
Proudly, I took the bird into the family room to show
off. No one there was anywhere near as excited as I was.
Later, a bounty per gopher tail sealed my fate as a
hunter, though the first gopher I killed with that pellet
rifle took way too long to die, distressing me greatly at the
time, but not so greatly as to halt me from my headlong
pursuit of wealth.
And that is how I came to see wildlife as a source of
economic gain and then, when I learned from my hillbilly
hero, Terry Hiebert, that furs had great value, there was no
stopping me and the transition was complete. Wildlife still
thrilled me and I was always glad to see animals in the wild,
but now I saw them more as an opportunity to improve my
riflery skills. And then I fell in love with guns.
Guns I gave me a feeling of power I had never before
experienced and there was a sort of romance in being able to
kill an animal on the run or make a very long shot. And the
wood and steel felt so wonderful in the hand.
Often my pursuits were frustrated and I searched for
more successful methods. But many of the most successful
ones were illegal, and I grew to resent the game laws and
those who enforced them and justified my infractions with
"what gives them the right to interfere with my hunting?"
I saw myself as an integral part of nature, a kinsmen of
other predators like the coyote and the wolf, who knew
nothing of posted land or game laws and killed simply because
they were supposed to kill.
My great love of nature, coupled with my enjoyment of
literature, inevitably brought me into contact with books by
Charles Sheldon and Andy Russell, who began to gently turn me
back to an interest in wildlife in its living form and
awakened me to the possibilities of earning my living through
the study and photography of wildlife and with that a new
awareness of the grand purpose behind game laws and closed
seasons. Today conservation officers have my deep respect.
And so, shortly after entering the Yukon in 1979 and
obtaining steady work, I found favour with the manager of
Hougen's and walked out with a brand new, black-bodied Nikon
FM. I was thrilled with my new acquisition and anxious to
try it out.
At that time, Donny Jacobs mentioned a mountain in the
Kluane Park which supported a good population of Dall's
sheep. Needing no further coaxing, I arrived and began
glassing from the highway. Immediately, I noticed white
spots up there against the rock, and excitedly commenced
climbing towards them, slowing my climbing as I neared the
area and finally crawling into view of...a white-painted
boulder! Typical Yukon humour that, though today I was less
than amused by it!
Hiking diagonally westward from there, I soon was
rewarded for my persistence with a view of the real thing.
A band of pure-white mountain ewes and lambs scampered for
higher ground and I followed, using my cowboy boots in ways
for which they were never designed. The cliffs I clambered
around on that sunny day would have given my poor, distant,
worry-warted mother yet more warts, had she known of it. But
in the end, I got what I was after, a portrait of a ewe and
lamb just beneath me and looking up as if in a contrived
pose, nearly filling the frame of my 50 mm lens!
I was absolutely elated as I worked my way back down the
mountainside to the waiting truck! This wildlife photography
was definitely for me. I felt no less excitement than I'd
gotten killing big game animals, perhaps much more! The only
trade-offs were the lack of meat and the long wait to see the
"trophy", now carefully housed within the body of my brand-
As soon as time and money permitted, I was back at the
base of Sheep Mountain for another go and a couple hours of
hard climbing brought me again into contact with the
beautiful white sheep of the northern mountains.
This time it was a bachelor club of full curl rams that
I came upon. The backdrop across and up the valley was
fantastic and I enjoyed some of the best sheep photography
I've ever come across.
At one point a ram scratched himself on the cliff
beneath me and so close I could see broken white hairs flying
off his rump! Another pair of rams presented a striking pose
as they looked back at me like a pair of surprised identical
twins. One ram, apparently frightened, bolted across the
scree on a sheep trail above my position, but by and large,
these rams were amazingly tame. Obviously I was not the
first visitor nor the first to burn film up here and it felt
a bit like cheating, this taking of "wildlife" pictures
within a national park like this, but the sheer enjoyment of
the occasion was a great salve for the false guilt of it all.
Finally, as I started back down the mountain, my ears
picked up the unmistakable "crack" of two rams butting horn
and I groaned to think of the lost opportunity. I was quite
aways down, now, and felt sure the clash was just a playful
one, and in fact, that one impact seems to have been the last
of it and I would have wasted my time hiking back. Besides,
there was the problem with my left knee.
The knee had been injured in the spring of that year
when the hackamore of the Morgan mare I was riding had
apparently bound up, causing the animal to think I was still
yanking back on the reins. In desperation to escape the pain
she had reared over backwards, falling somewhat sideways and
pinning my left leg to the snow-covered ground with her
saddle. I had immediately stood up at the time but there was
obviously some damage and now, as I worked my way down the
huge mountain, the chickens really came to roost inside that
left knee of mine.
All my fellow weak-kneed souls understand that
descending a mountain or a flight of steps is the hard part.
The ascent for me had given no grief but now it was a
terrible exercise of the will to get back down. Eventually
the knee became impossible to bend without great pain and I
actually had to back my way down the mountain, practically
crawling, just to keep that wretched leg straight.
I began to wonder if I would make it on my own at all
but perserverance and anger did the trick and eventually I
swung open the left door of the four-wheel drive, and glad
this once at least for this benefit of man's ingenuity, drove
The mountains of my life, whether physical or symbolic,
have always proved to be a test of my endurance and desire.
The physical ones of the Yukon usually present a vast tangle
of scrub birch and willow, or the like, at the base which
extends up the first thousand or two thousand feet with the
unspoken question forever there, "Just how badly do you want
what's up there, sir?". The eventual reward only goes to the
most persistent who have earned the right to it.
As to the symbolism of my still more difficult decent,
are we to understand that the fine things of life come at a
price, with severe payment sometimes demanded both before and
after enjoyment of the desired object?
HUNTING THE YUKON'S BIG SALMON RIVER
Saturday Sept 20, 1980
Paul Paquet, the late welder from Whitehorse, first told me
of the river in 1979. He said it was a very mountainous,
very beautiful country with lots of animals. "You're sure to
get a moose there."
A year later, an old fifteen foot fiberglass canoe rode
atop the four wheel drive up the South Canol Road and arrived
at Quiet Lake, where it was loaded and boarded by a rather
inexperienced and under-confident young man. Good-byes were
said to good friend Danny DeForrest and also a parting
thought, "I'll survive if it kills me!"
Today "Quiet Lake" appeared to be a misnomer, for the
strong headwind and driving rain resulted in covering only
three or four miles that evening. The nylon tent was
established a ways back from the shore and the wind and, glad
for the shelter, he went to sleep, first wondering awhile if
he'd really be able to handle this trip, all alone, with no
real priors and the Yukon winter soon on its way.
Some snow fell during the night, which did nothing for
my confidence in my timing for this trip. The mountaintops
were covered in white but the lower altitudes soon melted
off. The truck was gone and the only way back was on through
this lake and down the river. The lake travel this morning
was much easier on the constitution as the wind was down.
Soon I reached the end of Quiet Lake and studied the sandy
shore and the few log cabins there. Also had a look at the
beginnings of the river that was to be my highway for the
next two weeks. It was flowing all right, if a bit shallow,
and with bated breath, I pointed the canoe into it and so
began my first real lesson in river-running, on a remote
river with no help available, no partner, and maybe no sense
in my head at all! Nevertheless these potential problems
only added to the excitement as I tried to discover how best
to run a canoe down a river. I soon learned that the canoe
has to travel at a different speed than the rivers current or
steering is out of the question and so I took to paddling
along a little faster than the river ran. In Bill Mason's
book, "Song of the Paddle", he suggests a different
approach, but my little system seemed to work quite well at
the time and I survived the first little run into Sandy Lake
problem-free and full of the excitement of discovering a new
skill and means of bush transportation. Sandy Lake was a
little jewel in the mountains though someone seemed to have
stolen the sand! A short paddle across and I found myself
involved in my second river lesson as the current swept me on
through to Big Salmon Lake. Disdaining following the
shoreline of this large body of water I made more or less of
a beeline down its length, completely unmindful of the quick-
cold-cruel death by exposure that even a life-jacketed
paddler would experience in these waters, should he dump.
At the northwest end of this lake the river begins its
meandering course through the bush along the valley long ago
built for it. To my great delight I suddenly noticed a
trappers cabin and stopped to check it out. No one was there
but the door was open and a guestbook lay on the table. At
this time, not many paddlers had been by or the guestbook was
a new one. I read the entries with interest, hoping to find
more information on the river and its wildlife. One entry in
particular jumped out at me and after I quit laughing I
jotted it down in my diary. "The war canoes are pulling up
on the beach. I guess this is it. Before throwing our
bloated corpses into the river, please remove our left
testicles for RCMP indentification."
A really nice setup this was, everything neat and in its
place. The cabin was very solid, woodfloored and a well
built cache stood guard over the place. A nice place in
every respect and snug from the rain, with a large meal
behind my belt and the stove going all was well at the head
of the river. I was truly thankful that night for the
unexpected comforts this cabin offered though I was
considerably less eloquent and courageous in my grateful
entry to the guestbook than the earlier passers-by had been!
Day one of river travel went well but could have been
better. At the start the river was the most vigorous I had
seen it so far and I gave it all the concentration I had,
learning as I went. Rocks were few and far between but one
logjam was ticklish. Thankfully there was a good landing
above it and I strongly considered a portage, but the bush
grew so close and thick around the edge of the river here
that the temptation was resisted. An S-shaped channel had
been hacked through it and the current was quite swift. Not
knowing what I was doing I let the canoe bounce its way
through the thing, adding to the color on a log someone else
had left behind.
Mid afternoon I noticed two otters playing near the shore
at a beaver bank den. This was a beautiful and rare treat
for me. Then, as the light drizzle of rain that had begun
around noon pattered onto my slicker and the surface of the
winding river, an eery, nearby moan brought my thoughts up
short. I leaned forward and closed my eyes and just let the
lonesome beauty of the wolf's song sink deep into my
wilderness-thirsty soul and rejoiced in the knowledge that I
was finally "out there". Another mile or two and a light
coloured wolf trotted along the shore through the brush. The
canoe closed the gap and I raised the rifle. The constant
dripping had covered the eyepiece of the scope and I could
see nothing but a blurred-out blob. Finally the blob
disappeared. I stopped here and listened to a wolf pack
howl, then pitched camp. And all evening and through the
night they carried on their conversation in the darkness,
as though just for me, their thoughts echoing back and forth
through the mist-veiled valley. The thought impressed me
deeply that night that they were more at home here than I was
and that my temporary stay was a true invasion of this pack's
highly valued privacy.
During the night it snowed again in the mountains and
all over my camp. After cooking a breakfast on the sizzling,
spitting firewood I had cut I pulled camp and as I paddled
the snow became rain and this carried on most of the day. I
encountered some fast water but nothing my newly acquired,
limited skills couldn't cope with.
Around noon I rounded a bend and saw a cow moose standing
with her back towards me. I photographed her as she watched
me go by and then downed her with my Remington. After
dressing the moose in the shallow water I quartered it and
loaded it into the canoe. It took some doing to get the
craft into the water with that load of meat and all my gear
but finally, there it was, looking very like some water-
soaked log about to go to its final resting place in the
bottom of the sea. Three inches of freeboard was just not
enough and I was sure I'd run into big trouble somewhere in
the two hundred plus miles of unknown river yet to come. I
should have foreseen this problem and let the poor thing live
but now I had done it, and so, feeling like an awful wicked
fool I unloaded a good portion of the precious meat for the
wolves and carried on, finally making camp in a nice spot
with river on three sides and surrounded by mountains and I
ate very well on the fresh moose meat. Indeed, I ate all I
could for the thought of the waste really sickened me.
Next morning I pulled camp and paddled downriver.
Before long I thought I saw another moose. And that's just
what it was! A very large bull at that. Then a cow
materialized in the bush nearby. I photographed them as I
drifted by, the bull snorting and blowing before finally
crashing off into the bush, followed by the cow. The antlers
had been huge, probably 60 inches or so but my tag was filled
and that was that!
As the river turned south it passed through some very
mountainous beautiful country but it was too early to camp
and I paddled on. Finally I pulled ashore at the mouth of
some nameless creek near a tree which was apparently the
recipient of a grizzly attack. A big chunk of wood had been
ripped out about six feet up and bear tracks were abundant
on the beach below. Of course, these evidences were only
noticed after the tent was up and the fire lit...
Since this was the last possible mountainous country on
this river, at least if I was reading my topo right, I
decided to spend a couple days hunting here. In the morning
the weather was so poor I spent it in camp. After dinner the
sun poked through and I crossed the river and climbed a
mountain. From this perch I had an excellent view of the
valley but as evening started to fall I began heading down.
Below me in the bush a huge set of antlers swayed slowly to
the strut of the old bull who wore them. I thought I saw
another ahead of him as well. Scrambling down the
mountainside and making for the marsh I at first saw only the
cow. Another step and there was the bull. But he noticed me
too and began grunting. I waited awhile for him to settle
and stalked closer with my camera (and rifle) ready. The rut
was in full swing and I knew the tendency of moose to go a
little crazy this time of year. Finally at about 30 yards
the cow decided she'd seen enough and splashed off across the
tip of the marsh with the bull following.
I splashed across too in hot pursuit but by the time I
reached the river they were across and all I saw was the
south end of the bull being gulped by the trees.
Disappointed about the lack of film exposed but happy for the
experience, I crawled back into the canoe and ferried home
for the night.
These river camps really did become home for me. All I
really needed to turn a cool dark, wet night in the
wilderness into a comfortable and enjoyable home was a match
and the time it took to light a fire. Fire, kept of course
in manageable portions, is a wonderful thing, without which
life in the bush would be difficult, if not impossible. I
soon became aware that fire was the most important element in
a comfortable camp, warming and lighting the immediate area
and warming the food and the tea pail as well.
This appreciation of fire soon led to the understanding
of the importance of protecting my supply of matches. I
always tried to carry twenty-five or so in a waterproof
container in my pocket. Nothing could have been much more
uncomfortable than swamping the canoe and losing everything
in the icy water, only to swim to shore and be unable to
light a warming fire.
Enjoying the crackling of the campfire later that night,
I happened to look to my left through the trees surrounding
camp. What I saw really puzzled me. A pale yellow glow
seemingly coming from a point 50 yards or so back in the
trees! Other hunters? Impossible. They'd have stopped to
talk or at least I'd have heard their voices from that short
range. A fire? If it was it was small and there must be
someone tending it. As I watched and shifted position I
noticed a bright yellow dome of light with mist drifting
My youthful imagination kicked into road gear there in the
lonely darkness by the fire and I actually helped myself to
my rifle! Had my campfire attracted some sample-hunters from
another galaxy? I walked away from the fire onto the beach
and looked through the scope of the gun, not to shoot but to
get a better look.
Craters? ! Try to imagine my keen disappointment to
discover it was only the moon! Still, what was it doing in
the bottom of My river valley beneath a huge mountain whose
outline I could still clearly see??
The mountain was an unusual cloud with exactly the right
shape to be a mountain! The moon rose exactly in the bottom
of the V of the river valley with this great mountain-shaped
cloud just above it giving it the appearance of being inside
the valley with me. Of course I had no way of estimating the
range to this ball of light back there in the trees behind my
So after a good laugh at myself I turned in for the
night, content that all was well, but rather amazed at how
easily I'd been spooked. I'd been ready to drift away
Next day broke with sunny skies and a smattering of
cloud. Glad to be rid of the rain I strolled up the creek
which joins the river above camp, following it some distance,
then turned right and up a joining creek towards the huge
mountain backing the camp. Finally the magnitude of the
problem of shoving through the tangle of all that sub-alpine
scrub crashed through the tangle of my thoughts and I chose
to let myself be defeated this time. Going a little ways
farther up the valley, I found a lot of bear diggings and
kept my eyes well open for a glimpse of one of the shaggy
beasts, only to be disappointed. Returned to camp tired but
During this hunt it also struck me that the better way
would be to travel only during the late afternoon and early
evening, when animals are likely to be on the river.
My diary for the next day records: "Plan works!
Pulling camp at 2:30 PM I travelled downriver. Some more
rapids and sweepers were met and dealt with. The wind picked
up, then settled near dusk and I slid on downstream knowing
game would start to move. Saw four beavers and a little
later, the object of my pursuit, a grizzly. She was on the
near bank and I got the rifle up quickly. But she didn't
care for the sight of that strange red log so close to her
and so, grunting her disapproval, lit for the bush. I was
about to shoot but then, noticed for the first time, a small
silvertip cub close at her heels." Bears with cubs are
wisely protected in the Yukon.
Went on another half mile or so and pitched camp on the
sandy beach at the confluence of the South and main Big
Salmon Rivers. Another nice spot! A large sucking whirlpool
happens where the two rivers meet. One would have to
remember that one on the next trip.
Next day I took a walk up the South Big Salmon. After
blowing a tune on my Faulk's predator call I waited 45
minutes but all the animals ignored it or didn't hear it due
to the wind. Or maybe they had heard so many dying rabbits
they just aren't interested in another one. It was a boom
year for rabbits in the Yukon. I have called in two wolves
with this call but that's another story...
Arrived back in camp just in time to see a canoe coming
downriver. The lone occupant stopped to say hi. He was the
first person I had seen in the last eight days.
He mentioned that he and his partner in another canoe
had seen wolves and one lynx on the river. He also mentioned
that there are some pretty bad rapids up ahead just past
where the North Big Salmon River joins the main one...
I, Doug Martens, do hereby bequeath and bequest...
Another fifteen miles were covered this evening but saw
just one beaver and no game at all. Camp was made on a mossy
bank overlooking the river.
"The moon?? is just above the horizon as I write these
lines and it is starting to sprinkle on the tent...Yawn...
Travelling down to the North Big Salmon junction I saw
no game at all, the country being flat and recently burned
over. At camp that night, though, it was more hilly and the
North Big Salmon looks like a nice small river with a sandy
Next morning I got up early and crossed the North River
and climbed the hill to get a look at the country. It was a
nice valley, I decided, but also rather boggy and it would be
tough to walk through. In the distance I could see what must
be Caribou Mountain, according to the map.
Deciding to try the fast water in the morning instead of
before nightfall I broke camp after breakfast and carried on.
The waves were big and some water climbed in but other
than that there was no problem. Carried on until 1:30 when I
stopped to make tea and eat dinner. A little later I again
climbed a nearby hill to look over the country. Caribou
Mountain could still be seen farther south now and dimly, I
could just make out Last Peak which is where the river leaves
the mountains and enters the Semenoff Hills through which I
had been travelling the last few days.
Back at the tea fire I had an afternoon nap before
hitting the river. I thought I could make the Yukon this
evening if I went late so I passed up one camping spot after
another. Once I saw some seagulls and knew I must be close.
I went entirely too late this evening and hit some good
rocks in the shallows once. Finally I called a halt and
beached the canoe on what was apparently a gravelly shore.
To the left I could dimly see the outlines of a little grove
of spruce and headed for them. Climbing a bank I found a
very nice little sheltered clearing. An old spruce had
fallen there and it was loaded with tinder and firewood.
Sometimes it almost felt like I was being looked after.
The bright orange ball hanging from the cable over the
river, and my arrival in the abandoned town of Big Salmon
produced an unexpected wave of sadness for me. This was a
goal I had worked hard to achieve and I had been successful
in my first solo run of a long wild river. I had survived
the dangers and overcome the fears, but now I was about to
say good-bye to an old friend, a country which had been
unexpectedly good to me, and a way of life I had quickly
grown accustomed to. I longed more for the wild country I
was leaving than for the human fellowship and heartache ahead
of me and I felt very much like turning around and going
back. Maybe I should have...
Promising myself I would return to this beautiful place I
climbed into the packed canoe and pushed off into the muddy
waters of the swollen Yukon River.
With a strong wind at my back I made good time down the
big Yukon and camped just a bit past the abandoned settlement
of Little Salmon which is where the Little Salmon River joins
the Yukon. During the day an enormous roar suddenly filled
the valley and a huge flash of fast-moving orange broke my
my bush serenity. Shocked, I wondered what it could be and
soon discovered the highway on which the semi-driver had
applied his jake-brake. Ever since this incident I have less
trouble understanding how people who are lost in the woods
can become, "bushed", and start thinking more like an animal
than a man. What crude interruptions we inflict on the lives
of the wild animals!
Carried on down the river alll the next day without
seeing animals all day. I did make a thoroughly fascinating
stalk on a cave, though, even to the point of imagining I
could see bear-hair through the five power scope...
Sadly though, I'd not purchased this tag and so was
forced to pass up this shot.
Went late again and made my camp just upriver from a
long cutbank. There on a sort of terrace, I decided I didn't
feel like pitching the tent again and so, simply strung out a
line between two trees and hung my five by seven tarp on that
in such a fashion that viewed from the end it looked like a
tent- a simple leanto.
I rolled out my bed with tarp over and under me and a
good stock of wood near the fire. It didn't look like it
would rain and there was no wind to bring weather into the
Well, it rained all through the night, soaking half my
bed, my rifle and even my camera which I had so carefully
placed into a "waterproof" bag. It had just one hole in
it...and that was enough. "I think the films okay."
After taking stock of it all in the morning I decided to
pull out and arrived at Carmacks shortly after noon.
I still was not eager for human fellowship and built a little
fire up the river from the town and cleaned up before
visiting the big city...
There were lots of coyotes in the Yukon River valley. I
heard them every morning and evening I was on it but I really
was hoping to see some game. All the river bars and islands
seemed to have been sprinkled with bear tracks but even by
travelling late I didn't see a one. In fact, all the game I
saw was found in the mountainous section of the Big Salmon.
Should've spent more time there, I think, but I had heard and
read this was a ten day canoe trip so I believed I couldn't
afford to take it too easy with winter closing in. In my
estimation there are only 6 days actual travelling time
between Quiet Lake and here.
Next time, the board of directors decided, I'll go in
August when the salmon are running and the bears are spending
more time on the river. Also there are still some sheepish
looking mountains I'd like to check out...