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.