yukon river daze
by Birgit Martens
The Bradley ranch was a real little paradise in the middle
of the bush. They had cows and chickens there. They had
fields of hay and wheat and oats and also sunflowers. It's
right by the Pelly River. Vic and Huey Bradley, who are
brothers, had been farming this area for 33 years. It is a
land of unlimited possibilities.
While we were putting our canoe in the water Vic was
washing potatoes. They looked very good. A rainbow said
goodbye as we left this little paradise. We are now thirty
miles west of the Pelly Crossing. The sun went down. We had
to paddle two miles along the Pelly River to where it meets
the Yukon, then six miles down the Yukon to where we were
supposed to find the log cabin.
On the left shore, we could see a fort, Fort Selkirk.
On the way back up we hoped to have time to explore this
place a bit. It started to get dark and somehow in the bush
Doug did find Paul's camp and it was a real miracle because
it was hidden well. Our next problem was to find the key but
we couldn't find the hiding place. We looked everywhere with
candlelight for about an hour. I heard a "cough" and Doug
was just ready to give up and find out where we could maybe
put up our tent or sleeping bag. I decided to take the
candle one more time to that same woodpile even though we had
already searched it about ten times. But this time I tried
to be very calm, no fingers in it or fast looking, just very
slowly and it did help, we did find it. We opened the door
and I was so tired, I never even looked around the cabin but
just went to sleep.
Next morning Doug came back from a little exploration
tour. He had disturbed a mother bear with two young. He had
heard them running through the bush. They were very scared
of people. Maybe this was the bear I heard cough last night.
I hadn't known that bears cough and I'm glad that Doug only
told me later.
Doug tried to catch a salmon with a hook and took
another little tour. I was getting worried about him because
he had been gone quite awhile but then we also went on a
little exploration to the log cabin on top of the hill. Paul
had told us about it. We climbed up the cliff along the
shore of the Yukon River and found it. The window had been
taken out just like Paul had said. He had explained that if
he didn't take the window out, the bears would break in at
least once in the fall, so he decided to leave the windows
open and let the bears come and go as they pleased. Three
windows faced the river which was a long way straight down.
The cabin stood there just like a castle on the Rhein. It
was a place to relax, to sort things out. Here I'm king and
nobody can interfere. We had mashed potatoes and chilly for
supper and of course, thought of salmon late that evening.
After a long discussion and thoughts of yes or no we decided
to let the net into the river. Doug had a license, but what
if he caught twenty fish? But maybe we won't catch anything.
It took awhile before we were able to get the net apart, set
the anchors and all that, and we read in the evening by
candlelight about bears and slept pretty well.
In the morning I woke up and thought of the net right
away. Should we start at the back or in the front? Hey, I
can see a tail! It must be a salmon! But when we got closer
it was a beavertail. That was sad. We felt awful. This
poor little guy must have had a terrible end. What have we
done? As we got the beaver fished out of the net we weren't
even thinking of salmon anymore but Doug continued pulling
the net and there! Four salmon. Two were dead and two were
still very alive. Doug freed the smaller living fish. They
would have been better eating fish but what will we do with
so much fish? We have two big salmon in the canoe, a twenty
and a sixteen pounder. One was a male and one was a female.
It was really interesting and it was hard to believe that you
could tell that so quickly from the shape of the heads.
Most of the morning was spent taking the fish apart and
getting them ready so we were able to store them for awhile.
For dinner of course, we had a whole frying pan full. We did
try the cavier but I really didn't enjoy it too much even
though it is supposed to be a delicasy. Washed the dishes,
had a little nap, then we went on another exploration hike.
On the way there we had seen an old trappers cabin and we did
want to try the different paths leading away from Paul's
cabin. The vegetation around here is somewhat different. I
don't know how to call it. It was there instead of the wild
grass. Lot's of wild berries. Found many berries like
currants and raspberries and strawberries. I've also found
some new ones that I've never seen before. One looked like a
small strawberry plant, but only had one bright red berry
that looked more like a blackberry. Later in the book I
found that its name is "cloud" or "salmon-berry". And there
are many names for these plants. One was called Kinnikinik
or bearberry. Looks like a small blueberry. While I was
sitting at the picnic table studying all these different
kinds of plants I heard some rustling in the bush behind me.
I was feeling fairly comfortable around this cabin now but I
still always turned with every sound I heard, usually it was
only a whisky jack or a squirrel but this time I did see a
big black spot moving around. I'm not sure how come I was
able to stay calm but I got up very slowly, went over to
where Doug was sitting, reading, and whispered to him, "Doug,
bear!" But instead of coming into the cabin with me he went
towards the bear and started taking pictures! The bear was
just ten meters from him, sniffing the teeter-totter that
Paul had made for his kids the summer before. He probably
wanted the rest of the salmon we had left for an attraction
for bears. We followed and the bear really did go towards
the scrap-pile and then all of a sudden he turned around and
ran away. It didn't seem to be because of us but why? He
took the same way back he had come from and ran into the
bush. We thought he might have been one of the young ones, a
one and a half year old, and that the mother was calling him
back. We were hoping that we would see the mother and those
young ones another time but waiting for them didn't work out,
so we decided to have supper, salmon again!
This time I enjoyed it even more than at dinner. I
thought of all the people at home and would really have liked
to offer all of them some of this treat. And then, I also
thought of the next winter when we would sit in the city
and remember it. For now we're here with too much of it and
we don't want it to go bad. Doug started to read in the
cabin, I washed the dishes, made some coffee and a desert
with berries that we had picked. By then it was dark and the
candlelight and the reading-man with his pipe in the corner
looked very inviting. I joined him and got out my embroidery
and Doug started to read out loud. "Grizzly". The author
tells of various situations where he follows grizzlies until
they feel uncomfortable and start following him, about Johnny
and Jenny the grizzly babies that he raised himself and lots
of other stories. It was such a very nice evening that I
really didn't want it to end. We sat there until 1:30 in the
morning, my stitching was finished and Doug's voice was
starting to sound sleepy. Goodnight!
Another sunny day. Just right to try and dry that
second salmon. Doug cut it into little strips. Just the way
Paul told us. We dipped it into a saltwater solution and
spread it on tinfoil. Bacon and eggs for breakfast!
Doug read again and I started to fold two bags out of cloth
to store the dried fish in to transport it home. Doug found
some tracks of the bear mom. She is very careful. Through
the bush she must have come to take her part of the salmon
leftovers. The ravens and the whiskey jacks are not that
careful. Doug did want to try the trail that was Paul's
trapline. I stayed in the cabin to watch the salmon and turn
it over and over. I read and I played cards. When Doug came
back quite tired at eight o'clock, we started to make our
final, special, salmon supper. We made a nice outside-fire.
We filled the last piece of salmon with onions and butter,
salt and pepper and rolled it into tinfoil. We rolled the
potatoes into tinfoil too. Everything went onto the coals.
We cooked some corn and coffee and at about ten at night we
finally sat down more tired than hungry but it was still a
very special supper.
Next morning we got up late but it rained outside so who
cares? We thought of walking along the trail that was
driveable to check it out but when the sun came out I thought
I should take the fish out and finish drying it. Doug
enjoyed cards so we went at it again and it was really great
to have the time for it.
Doug wanted to try to fish some more. He did like the
dried fish so much that he is now sorry we did let the other
two fish go. Well I sure hope he doesn't get anymore because
I sure don't want to spend another two days turning fish
pieces around in the sun. He went down to the Yukon River
and I turned fish pieces behind the log cabin. I walked
towards the picnic table and there'sa bear! Thirty meters
right on the trail at the clearing in front of the cabin.
But he didn't stay long. He turned around very quickly and
ran off. At first I stood there a little shocked. Then I
decided to run and get Doug and we went and looked at the
tracks. Well, Doug was not concerned about me, he just
thought it was too bad that the bear was gone. Then he took
his fishing rod and went back to the river.
Sometimes I tell you that I actually am more mad at
myself. I'm just so scared! I can hardly go ten steps away
from the cabin, even to get water. At around seven o'clock
I did feel like walking so we decided to try that trail that
you can drive. Before that Doug followed the bear tracks
again and noticed that it swam across the channel onto the
sandbank. He came back smiling. "Congratulations! You have
seen your first grizzly bear today!"
Now of course, my heart went deeper into my pants, but
we sure went on our walk. Just a small little round is what
I wanted to do. But all of a sudden, we had the idea that we
could maybe walk the ten miles to the truck. That way we
wouldn't have to take the canoe up the river. Because you
can walk the whole stretch, we could also see if there are
any parts that are hard to drive. Three hours we walked and
walked until we got to a bridge which had been lifted off the
road by ice during the winter. There we stood with all our
smartness. It was getting dusk. It was three hours to go
back and we couldn't drive over this. No gun. No matches.
No tent. What idiots.
After Doug finished shaking his head, he got past his
pride and we walked the last kilometer to the Bradley farm.
Hue and Vic were just sitting down for tea and invited us to
join them. We had a nice little talk and we told them about
the bridge. They smiled. And after awhile they said they
had a little secret. There was a way around the bridge.
That was great! They talked about bears, about farming,
about mushrooms. We found out that that beautiful log cabin
that we had met halfway along that trail that looked like out
of Hansel and Gretel was actually Paul's ex-wife's cabin.
But he had built it and all the bridges along the way we had
travelled. Pretty impressive!
Then we drove to the cabin.
The long day of the Yukon summer has our clock pretty
turned around. Of course we slept late. Around ten-thirty I
had to leave the cabin. I opened the big wooden door,
looked around carefully to the right, where the bear had
sniffed the teeter-totter- nothing there. Straight ahead
where the bear had stood when I was drying fish, and then to
the left, then around the cabin across the field where sure
enough, a grizzly walked! So back in the cabin, I told Doug
about it. He grabbed the camera quickly but the lens was too
short. He fiddled around, upset his camera wasn't working,
and I watched the young bear walk across the clearing,
straight for the hole where the beaver lay.
He picked up the animal like it was nothing and ran
straight for the bush. According to the book Doug had read,
this was typical of grizzlies. Very shy. Black bears play
more but you still have to watch them. Doug's photo did not
work out. The sun was right, the distance, there was even a
scene. But now its all gone forever. Too bad!
Doug stupidly tried to follow the bear. I was really
quite scared but he said it was just very hard to follow the
tracks in that kind of bush and the bear was probably pretty
scared and well hidden. Probably just as well. After that
we had something to eat. We read and lazed around. Doug was
getting somewhat depressed. Why go back to the city.
Especially why go back and try to persuade people to buy
insurance? Why would anyone want to have to work for money
anyway? We have to pay so many taxes and stuff and we only
need it in civilization. And here you need so little. Of
course, there were loans to repay so what choice was there?
People are against hunting but they buy meat on sterilized
styrofoam plates with lots of plastic around it, live in
apartments and have nothing to do with nature. They might
buy a plastic plant that they don't have to water. The grass
in front of the houses is kept dandelion-free. Maybe a
plastic deer lighted with green spotlights stands on the
lawn. Here it all sounds absolutely ridiculous and very,
At about five we decided to take the canoe up the river
to Fort Selkirk. Four miles in two hours to Fort Selkirk
against the current. Here the motor is really quite special.
Fort Selkirk is a small little town which was built in 1846.
The fur trade with the Indians and later the goldrush gave
the little town at the Pelly River junction an important
The big steamboats needed this stopover as well.
Indians attacked the place in 18?? and many of the
inhabitants moved to Dawson. Another boom time in 1950 gave
the Post Office and the police station and the two churches,
a school and a repair shop something to do. But most of the
rest of the people moved on to Dawson City on the Klondike
Highway, the Yukon River. Now this little place is getting
fixed up to be a tourist attraction for the canoe traffic but
our attention was mostly paid to the fruit found there, nice
raspberries and gooseberries, right behind the old repair
shop. We ate and we picked and I gathered them all into my
jacket and I looked forward to a nice bannock and berry
The way back went quickly. Not far at all. We took the
berries to the picnic table. I washed my hands. Where is
the towel? I had hung it on the line to dry and now it lay
on the ground. The towel was laying in one dirty clump.
Doug, before I touch this I want to know if by any chance it
had been a squirrel. But I was right, it had been the bear.
We looked at the holes. You could count the claws. The
biggest piece that had smelled like fruit was lying a little
bit away. I guess it wasn't so good after all.
We did find his tracks even right in front of the cabin
door. He was getting pretty brave. I made the bannock and
washed the fruit and added sugar and milk and we ate inside.
That with the towel was just a little bit too daring.
Besides it was pretty cool and dark outside.
Sunday we packed, cleaned up, managed to get the canoe
back up on the rack and left. We hoped to make Whitehorse.
But that little trail, packed and loaded as we were, was
not as easy as before. We had to drive slowly and Doug
thought he could use this opportunity to learn some tree
identification. Which is the pine, which is the spruce? I
do find this very interesting but I do think he should rather
watch the road. This was driving me nuts and finally, half
way there we punctured a tirewall on a sharp broken tree.
We only have a small spare tire and the lugs had been
tightened with an impact so they were very hard to remove.
With oil and banging and patience Doug was able to remove all
six, finally, and then we found the spare tire wouldn't fit
the front wheel because the hub was too big! I started to
cry. So the whole thing had to be done on the back tire. He
put the spare on the back and the back wheel on the front.
After coffee at the Bradley ranch, we drove thirty miles
to the highway. Now, the city kind of drives me crazy too.
by Doug Martens
The end of our Yukon summer came all too soon and, maybe
listening more to my wallet than to my heart, we left
Whitehorse, grinding up the hill past Jacob's Industries,
where I had begun my Yukon adventure ten years previously.
It felt sad to be leaving once again. This sadness didn't
last long as we soon began arguing about whether or not we
had Andy's phone number and address or not. The arguing
continued right up the hill and when at last, the stop sign
was noticed, and the double-pumping brakes applied, there was
no time for the second pump.
A van had come to a stop without telling this driver and
the nose of our green canoe dug into its back on the left
side, pushing in the metal and attesting, once again, to the
structural qualities of our good old canoe, also to the
length it extended beyond the grill of the Landcruiser!
The driver was not inflamed but rather incredulous. "I
don't believe it!", he said over and over. Then he went on
to inform me he had just had that very spot on the van
repaired. It had cost him a hundred bucks and he would be
willing to settle on the spot for that. Fine with me and off
we plodded, my wallet and heart a bit lighter, thanks to the
mercy of the man.
On the highway, after some travel, I noticed the cruiser
when he blew his horn behind me and we pulled over. The
officer was not impressed with our Landcruiser packed full of
supplies to the point where it was impossible to see anything
in my rearview mirror and he did an adequate job of letting
me know how he felt about it. But Yukon officers are
merciful too and are used to seeing various misshapen piles
of half-rusted-out junk clanking down their roads and
highways, and he let us off with a strong warning. God bless
After restructuring my mirror, we were off. Fueling up at
the station, I recognized again, one of the bald triplets I
had seen photographs of in the shop window in Whitehorse. In
the first scene the bearded triplets, tall and around forty
years of age are seen in a barber shop, one trimming the
others hair. A bottle of something strong also appears in
the picture. Next picture, some hair is coming off a little
close to the scalp. Third scene, they are all bald and
strangely shaven and a little droopy around the eyelids!
Just above Fort Nelson in northern B.C. there is a turnoff
to the north. This highway, we knew would lead us near the
Nahanni River and over to Slave Lake, in the Northwest
Territories, and so, loathe to go back home just yet, we
made the corner, knowing we could travel from Slave Lake down
to Edmonton and thence home.
This trip proved to be one of the most enjoyable of the
whole summer, though the road itself had its long and dusty
stretches, alright! Indeed it is four hundred miles in
length, much of that over a sort of forested plain and when
the rains don't come, the dust billows out from under your
grips and settles on your supplies, on your hair and in your
With the gas-tank float clanking the bottom of the tank we
noticed the first gas station on the stretch, a hand-pump
model. I've seen only one other gas station using one and
that too was in a remote region of Alaska. A half-ton full
of friendly Indians pulled up at just the right time and
filled our tank. The business day should have been over but
they were eager to help.
We had to take a little stop-over here and spend a day or
two as this was very near the spot were the beautiful Nahanni
River enters the huge Liard River on its way to the MacKenzie
and the arctic circle.
Wanting to phone our family to let them know the bears
hadn't got us, we pulled into town. Five or six Indian
children raced up to the Toyota, all dressed up in bright and
shiny clothes, and full of life. "They're from
Saskatchewan!", we heard them say when they saw our license
plate, just as if no one from Saskatchewan had ever entered
their little rivertown.
"Are you comin' to the dance?" , they asked excitedly.
"There's a dance in town tonight you know!"
They told us a phone could be found at the store or at the
school where the dance was to be held. I headed for the
My second clue that this wasn't a typical reserve came
from the posters I saw pinned up all over the place at the
store, telling their viewers not to be "Mooseheads", not to
drink alcohol. The store was closed so the only alternative
was the phone at the school.
As we pulled up the dance was beginning and a loud
scraping and clanging came from within as the band played a
contemporary song. At first I didn't even look inside,
picturing in my mind another smoke and booze filled, violent
degredation of humanity. But, of course, I had to at least
have a look. We had been invited, after all! Rows of tables
were neatly positioned along the two walls, with chairs only
on the viewing sides of them. In these chairs sat the
members of the little community, old and young all together,
drinking coffee and coke and clapping after each song was
completed, just as people show their appreciation for any
fine performance. The room was indeed, set up much as a
church, but with one young couple dancing together at the
front. It was altogether a beautiful sight! If only this
community can hold to its stand in the years to come.
That night we slept under a picnic table in a beautiful
birch-treed campground near a pond complete with large lilly-
pads and a floating walk-way and next morning we were
awakened by the laughter of young boys on that walkway.
They had a .22 rifle and were talking about shooting a moose,
the boy firing a round once at some inanimate target, then
seeing us under the table and hollering a cheery "Good
morning!" our way. I responded in kind but cringed when he,
pointing the rifle out of a hole in a campground shelter,
allowed another child to lean on the muzzle and talk to him.
Some safety lessons would be in order here, I decided, but
they soon walked away and we got up and got dressed.
The driver of the motorhome which had pulled into the
campground the night before, drove away shortly thereafter.
I don't think he even once left the false security of his
motorhome, even to walk around and explore this beautiful
place. One could only wonder why and I found myself pitying
him and all the rest who see the north only from the sterile
confines of their motorhomes, missing out on the smell of the
bush, the crackle of the campfire and the songs of the loon
and the wolf.
"The risk of pain is the price of life", some wiseguy once
said. Neither my wife nor I would have had any interest
whatsoever in trading our travel experiences for theirs. But
then, I'm certain I've let my own fears rob me of plenty of
good things over the years, too.
Next day we stopped at the government establishment in
honour of the Nahanni National Park and thoroughly enjoyed
the stop. It is clear these people have a sensitivity for
the value of the land their mandate it is to protect and
care for. There we watched a video of Albert Faille taking a
passenger up the Nahanni in his flatboat. The movie camera
faced back. It made my skin crawl to watch the "frail" old
man there in the stern, coaxing the big racing outboard
along, feeling the riverbottom with a stick for depth, bright
orange fuel barrels rocking back and forth crazily all around
him in the impossible standing waves, and all the while
grinning as if there were no greater thrill in life than
riding the wild, bucking, kicking Nahanni.
Ever since reading and re-reading R.M.Patterson's "The
Dangerous River" I have harboured an ambition to see this
river up close personally for myself and it was a little hard
to turn down the opportunity of seeing Virginia Falls from
the government helicopter. To me this would have been like
opening a present before Christmas. I want to see it, but I
want to see it the way R.M.Patterson and Albert Faille saw
it, from a canoe after a long trek up the river, or maybe
just floating down to it, finally rounding the last bend and
feeling the pounding thunder and watching the plumes of spray
challenge the heights.
We spent the night in the campground here, one of the few
times we used a campground during the entire summer. During
the night, some animal was heard routing around outside but
after having a peak out from beneath the tent and seeing
nothing, I went back to sleep. My wife had a bit more
trouble I think and, in the morning, down on the riverbeach,
blackbear tracks were seen. I was sorry to have missed
After stuffing our tent and arctic bag into the brave
little Toyota, we lit out once more, myself feeling as if I
was being torn from a place I needed to spend a great deal
more time at.
But the miles rolled by amid the choking clouds of dust
and we marvelled at the endless flatness of the plain we were
crossing. Once we noticed a sign "emergency airstrip" and
got a bit of a chuckle, also the dust-covered signs
declaring this and that section to be dust-free seemed a bit
ridiculous. Maybe that's why they were there.
After a long time, though, the topography began changing
into a more rolling type of country and then we began
noticing some waterfalls next to the road. We must have
burned a whole roll of film on one, first seen from the
bridge above it. We admired the way the good-sized river
rounded the bend, and dropping and narrowing, formed huge
standing waves before sluicing through a narrow chute in the
rock and plunging into a strange bowl-shaped hole, before
dropping another 30 feet and flowing on through the rocky
Actually the only unimpressive thing in the scene was the
bridge on the highway which passed nearly above the falls
themselves, detracting from a view we never would have seen
had the bridge not been there...
We had a ball watching the action of the water and
listening to the steady roar. It was just amazing how such a
large river could pass through such a narrow spot so quickly!
Then, it was off again until we made the Lady Evelyn falls
on the Hay River, a truly magnificent sight. This large
brownish river travels through the bush sluggishly until
suddenly, without warning, the bedrock sheers off and drops
fifty feet or more. The whole river plunges off this
precipice with frightening power. I couldn't help but wonder
how many river travellers had been swept over that edge,
never to paddle again. To get an especially impressive
picture, I found a small jut of land just above the falls
where a tree had snagged and gingerly tiptoed out for a look.
I could just imagine how I'd feel in a canoe at this point.
Believe I'd back-paddle!
Hay River was a real surprise after all that driving
through the forest. Large ships dock in the mouth of the Hay
and Slave Lake itself reaches out toward an invisible shore.
Standing on that beach was just like standing on the shore of
a saltwater ocean. Imagine such a huge body of water inland!
The summer's trip could be said to have ended here, with the
pair of us gazing out over an open sea, wondering what new
delights the Lord had yet to bring us.
The Yukon has its scenery and its wildlife but to really
know a place, you must know the people. Live there.
Ed Jacobs left the states many years back and founded a
machine shop/ oxy-acetelene plant which made him a very
wealthy man. Yet no one seeing him drive that old yellow
wagon with the bald tires, himself dressed in green workshirt
and pants held up somehow by an ancient leather belt, and
living in a house trailer which should have long ago been
donated to the squirrels, could make an accurate guess of the
size of his wallet.
His machine shop proved to be an invaluable source of
new friendships and income when I first entered Whitehorse in
There I met Zdenek, a Czechoslovakian who, with his wife
Jana, fled his home country to escape the politics there.
There I met Paul Paquet, the quickest and best welder I've
ever known, who was first told me of the Big Salmon River,
and showed me kindness in inviting me to his home for a meal
of delicious fresh moose roast. There I met John the Greek,
who usually, with one rather glaring exception, showed great
patience in instructing me on the use of the lathe I was
supposed to operate there. There I met Danny DeForrest
whose whole family I grew to appreciate for their well-
disciplined and kindly natures. And there I met Paul Rogan,
one of the greatest influences on my life. And, of course
there was Andy.
Andy Petersen, a gifted taxidermist who works so he can
fish, treated me well and taught me a lot in his own way. He
had no particular aversion to showing me his choice fishing
holes, though he must have known I'd take full advantage of
them all. A man of about fifty when I first met him, he
carried a certain sadness with him all the time, due to
certain events in his history, which sorrow he attempted to
relieve by meeting new people in cafe's and whereever,
discussing the topics which most interested him, namely
hunting, fishing, and the mistakes and tragedies of those who
had died in the bush. There were always plenty of these at
hand in the north and every year someone and sometimes more
than one added to the pile of discussion material by swamping
a boat, or returning to their moose without a rifle, or by
crashing their bush-plane. And if there weren't enough of
these, there were always the incredibly near misses the Great
Spirit uses at times to gain our attention!
On a fishing trip with Andy, we listened while he
related his story of near disaster on Asiak, where the wind
had whipped the waters of the forty-mile body of water into a
hilly and watery graveyard for ill-prepared laketrout
fishermen. I gathered he'd come pretty close, but with his
experience and the motor not conking he'd made it. We sat
in a roadside cafe a hundred miles from Whitehorse waiting
for the fishing partner I had yet to meet for the first time
and the hours dragged and his wife became steadily more
worried hoping Larry hadn't gotten into the sauce again as is
the custom of several individuals in the north.
Finally his pal staggered in and related a story the
events of which still had him shaking and off-plum, even
after travelling from Whitehorse. The details came out all
in a clump but after awhile, we strung them together in what
we believed might be their true succession.
Apparently, after successfully purchasing the diesel fuel,
the two men had decided to stop for a quick one before going
home, the temptations of the big city being too great for
them to withstand after all the isolation of living at the
Andy's one-armed friend soon found himself on the floor of
the bar about to have another opening made into his chest by
means of the knife his assailant held high in the air over
him. To his eternal credit, his partner had booted the knife
from the man's hand, whereupon they'd apparently been sent
outside where there had been some further problems involving
a hunting rifle.
We had to return to Whitehorse to collect our fishing
partner at the jail-house. The subsequent fishing trip
itself was uneventful.
On another fishing trip that summer with Andy we noticed a
car burning in the ditch by the highway, apparently un-
occupied. Upon inquiring casually at the restaurant at
Braeburn, as to the events of the burning car we were told
simply that one of the locals had become frustrated and had
decided to do battle with it. Both the man and his car
apparently had lost this battle. This reminded someone of a
story of a man in Whitehorse, who becoming frustrated with
his wife, had lit his house on fire. Maybe we'll have to
start registering matches.
Then there was Sylvia. More interested in the great
outdoors than in what rpm to run Ed Jacob's lathe, the
weekends usually found me somewhere in the mountains.
One such trip led me to meet a woman by the name of
Sylvia, originally from Saskatchewan, who had developed
quite a roughneck life in the hard, cold Yukon. Her face and
hands had a brown leathery appearance which testified of
braving many a sub-arctic storm. She trapped in the
winters and ran a small horseback outfitters camp in the
summer months. The place had no electricity or phone,
so she lived in a little breezy run-down shed heated
with cordwood cut from the local bush.
She obviously had an unusual philosophy of life because
comforts of city living were only twenty miles away. I
sensed a kindred spirit and thought there was a chance I
could learn something from her. The first time I spoke to
her, though, she stopped me dead in my boots. Looking me
square in the eye she kindly asked, "What are you after?"
Surely a simple enough question and I knew I had a very
simple answer but it was one I was not prepared to give.
How could I tell such a lady about my selfish ambitions and
desires? How could I begin to tell such a lady of my plans
to exalt myself? She had wisdom, I sensed that even then,
and I had a pretty good idea what she would have to say about
my foolish ideas of self-exaltation, so I just spluttered
and mumbled and said nothing much. Later on, with more time
to think, her question burned in my brain and it was very
hard not to deal with the issue of where my life was taking
me, but in the end I found a way. I ignored the subject!
Her partner, a young man from Vancouver had found his way
to Fish Lake also. Ian towered well over six feet tall and
his boot size matched his height perfectly. He had no
difficulty covering twenty miles of bush in half a day's
walk. I was stricken with no particular desire to hike with
him. Once he served me spaghetti and meat sauce for supper,
telling me later with a grin I'd just eaten my first grizzly.
I had thought it was beef and had enjoyed it thoroughly!
Maybe I was pleased when he'd hoped for a different response
for next time he served me fish-head soup. A large pike-head
bobbed about in my bowl on the wooden table. Meat's meat, I
guess though the parasites bears carry in their flesh
Then, there was Zdenek. I remember with great fondness
an evening spent in the eight by sixteen foot square plywood
box in which his family of three, not including their Great
Dane, preferring the freedom of mortgage-freedom, had spent
several winters before building their permanent log home. We
sipped cognac and smoked cigars while the couple related
their adventures in Czechoslovakia and later, those of their
He had, when still a young lad, learned to make a rude
sort of explosive mixture, and, with grandparents gone had
set the mixture on a lid of cooking soup to dry. Forgetting
the concoction, he'd left the house to play... Of course
there was a deafening, for the dog inside, explosion, with
noodles being blown right into the walls of the kitchen, the
roof nearly parting company with the walls, there being later
found a crack in the plaster all around it just under the
roof, and flattening the cooking pot beyond all hope of
More greatly desiring freedom than the comforts and
paternalistic "care" of his homeland, Jana and Zdenek fled
Czechoslovakia by hitch-hiking, losing all worldly
possessions on the highway when they'd thrown them joyfully
into the back of a stopping truck, only to have it roar off
without them. After living for a few days on raw fish caught
in a small stream they'd been picked up in their bedraggled
condition by a woman from Paris, who'd taken them to her home
where her family had treated them to the very best enjoyments
Paris is capable of offering. After a week of this
incredible hospitality the wealthy French family arranged for
their emigration to Canada as political immigrants. This was
not, at the time, unreasonable, as life in Czechoslovakia was
severely restricted to the point where, every citizens every
movement between cities had to be posted with government
officials and your life-long occupation also chosen by the
Reaching Canada, they had apparently un-sprung just as a
tightly wrapped spring uncoils when freed from its
restrictions. Getting a room and a job, the first thing
they'd done was to buy a five hundred dollar television on
After spending some time around Edmonton they'd settled
in the Yukon, refusing to borrow now, even to finance a
house, so they'd be free to leave Whitehorse at a moment's
notice. We talked a long time that night, or rather they did
the talking and I did the listening, what they had to say
about their lives truly fascinating me, coming as I did from
a more localized, perhaps more sheltered life. I could
identify with their love of freedom though, as I had just
recently come unsprung from an oppressive, totalitarian
public school regime which had forced me to spend fourteen
thousand hours sitting in a series of cruel wooden desks and
listening to a series of adults indoctrinating me largely
against my will. At the least, I don't remember ever being
Truly, the treats of the Yukon for the senses seemed to me
to be inexhaustible. Even the people were interesting and
deeply interested in life. I found their zest for life and
freedom refreshing and was glad for them, that they'd found
the freedom they'd been so eager to obtain.
This same attitude was seen in Paul Noirot of Whitehorse,
the french gunsmith who had his own tales to tell! His
desire for freedom had been so great, and his resentment for
those who attempted to restrict it so great that a soul-mate
and himself, in France, working as "helpers" for the French
military, when bringing the large pail of coffee for the
officers mess had added somewhat to the volume of the pail,
around a corner and just out of sight. Their crime went
Paul has a "gift of entertaining" which "must be seen to
be appreciated." Not tall, he makes up for it in sheer
visceral enthusiasm for his topic of the moment. The red
beard and commanding voice hold attention as story and
philosophy and politics get braided altogether in his speech,
along with plenty of humour.
Even though I rarely spoke while in his company, I didn't
feel in the least put out. His survey of Canadian politics
at the time and more so lately, has a rather raw and nasty
edge to it, though. In his view, we are only ten or twenty
paces behind the regulation imposed on so many others of the
human race at other less desirable points on the globe. The
threat of mass-registration of firearms terrified the man, if
such a man is terrified of anything, and he determined to
fight the process with all his will and ability as he saw it
as yet another step in the subjection of the lethargic
citizenry of Canada. He spoke of the confiscation by the
Germans of his uncle's large firearms collection when their
military entered France. This had been an easy thing for
Hitler's henchmen to locate as the firearms were all
neatly registered with the French authorities.
In a recent letter he wrote, "I am at my wit's end and do
not know what I can do anymore for my family, my country or
myself. In my wildest dreams I never thought Canada could be
reduced to this squabbling mob of under-achievers and the NDP
Party is just the right one to bring it to it's well-
deserved, miserable conclusion."
Before labelling Paul an extremist and an alarmist and
mailing him off we should at least briefly consider the
perspective from which he views Canada, so different as it is
from that of those of us so blessed as to have been born
These two men, Zdenek and Paul, though largely unknown to
one another, are both men who have experienced some or other
degree of political oppression and both express identical
sentiments. We Canadians should give them an ear rather than
continuing our political snoring and failure to involve
ourselves in the struggles of those individuals among us who
already have been denied the most basic of human rights and
dignities. It may be soon our turn to suffer alone while
our apathetic countrymen walk on by us forgetting that the
strength of any country lies in its ability to pull together
in the right direction. A piece of high-grade steel and a
man both lose their strength when they lose their tempers.
No tampering with the "economy" will do us much good.
Our nation will regain its strength when it's citizens regain
their old determination to reverance their God and maintain
their love for and involvement in the difficulties of their
fellowmen. Both I think, would disagree with one or more of
these last points, only adding thereby to the particular
savour of the north.