Doug & Birgit Martens
HOW A SQUARE GETS AROUND
Of all the means of wilderness transportation possible the
canoe perhaps is still the simplest and best.
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
looking mountains I’d like to check out…
HUNTING THE YUKON’S BIG SALMON RIVER – (2nd trip)
Paddling lazily in the slack current of the river, the
canoe swept around a sharp bend to the right. Straight ahead
and a third of the way down the cutbank a commotion caught my
eye, and my heart skipped a beat at what I saw. Just a
hundred yards ahead a lone wolf loped down the sand of the
cutbank headed for the shore. The big .45-70 slid out of the
scabbard and leapt to my shoulder just as the wolf reached
But, noticing me she turned and fled along the bank in a
long curve for the bush. A cartridge slid into the chamber
and gunfire disrupted the silence of the scene…
This moment was the result of a second trip down the Big
Salmon, a major tributary of the upper Yukon River in the
The river heads at Quiet Lake, Y.T. and flows through a
chain of two more lakes, Sandy and Big Salmon, before winding
its way through some of the most beautiful country the
central Yukon has to offer, finally losing its identity in
the murky swirl of the Yukon River 80 miles above the little
village of Carmacks.
Because I had the first ten days of August available to me
for hunting before I would be guiding in northern B.C., I had
determined to make a second trip down this river. I had
seen a lot of animals on it the year before.
5 AM of August first saw me casting off into the perfect
quiet of Quiet Lake, for once indeed quiet, mist rising from
its surface in the pre-dawn stillness.
Trout rose near the canoe as my paddle jayed it along, the
wake being the only other ripple marring the perfect surface.
The miles went by and at last I felt the welcome tug of
water on the bottom of the canoe and a surge of electric
anticipation at the thought of the days of river travel to
come. Then we, Canoe and I, slipped through the channel
connecting the Quiet and Sandy Lakes, and I occupied myself
with pondering what might lie around the next bend of the
Sandy Lake, also calm as a painting, had a blackness to
the water which spoke of great depth. Though not a large
lake, the surrounding country made up for it, and I gazed
with delight at the mountains and especially at the point of
land jutting out from shore, where I knew the second
connecting link of river would inhale the craft once again
and give my arms a rest.
Then, after a short meandering ride through the spruce and
marshy backwaters, Big Salmon Lake appeared. The wind picked
up when I reached this large body of water but the sun was
shining and right around noon I entered the gate of the Big
Here, on the left bank, there is an old trapping cabin.
This was my goal for the first days effort and I pulled the
canoe in, had dinner and took it easy the rest of the day,
just enjoying the place and delighting in the solitude.
Next morning I ate well and hit the river. It rained off
and on as I drifted, now and then paddling hard to avoid a
big wave or to steer through a corner. Saw two mink, one
with a small fish in his mouth! Salmon were running heavily
and I counted a hundred of them before I lost track. I was
glad to see the big kings as I was after grizzly and this
would surely attract a few to the river. Also found a fifty
inch moose rack on the right bank.
Around six or seven I was heading down a slow stretch of
river when I suddenly heard the heart-stopping commotion that
usually accompanies a terrified large animal in the bush.
Looking up, I saw a few glimpses of the large grizzly, almost
pure black but with a yellow shoulder hump which lifted when
he hurtled an old dead log. He either scented or saw me
before I did him, which I thought was a terrible shame for
that had been an exceptional bear. There had been no chance
for a shot with rifle or camera.
My diary, written up that night, says, “camped around 9:30
or 10 on a nice spot on the river. Beaver splashing and owls
hooting. Called in a screech owl by imitating him. He flew
right overhead and landed in a tree. Too dark for a picture.
Good to be back in this country again.”
Next day I was after sheep. After an early breakfast I
ferried across the river from camp. Maybe three or four
hours or hard climbing and brush busting got me to the high
country. I began hunting westward along the top of the
mountain, hit a game trail and followed it over a pass, just
for a look. A large basin opened in front of me and about
three hundred yards down a large, dark object caught my eye.
Even by looking through the 200mm lens of my camera I
couldn’t be sure, until it moved its head sleepily and
swayed the caribou antlers he owned.
Watching him until he bedded down I tried to decide
whether to shoot this animal or not. It would ruin the sheep
hunt for sure, not to mention the work of getting him down
the mountain, but then again, he was a very fine bull…
I started the stalk down the boulder strewn mountainside
taking pictures as I went along, eventually getting right up
on him. I was maybe 20 yards from the bull when he stood up
suddenly and the lever-action put him right back down, the
shots echoing through the river valley. He rolled a long
ways down the slope, finally coming to rest on a bit of a
ledge. He was even bigger than I had thought. The antlers,
still in velvet, were massive and very long in the beam,
certainly a grand animal by anyone’s measure.
After taking hero pictures I went to work butchering.
Cramming the trapper nelson full of meat I swayed to the
vertical and swung the antlers up top. No doubt I’ll pay for
this trip some day in old age. Part way down the mountain I
entered the heavy bush. An so began an unbelievable
struggle, the likes of which I never hope to repeat.
Eventually the bush got so thick and choking and the going
down so steep that dozens of times it looked like another
Canadian Impossible Dream. I kept at it too, though, in the
true spirit of the Yukon, even though at one point I
scrambled down a forty-five degree stream bed, strewn with
slippery boulders (from the rain) which had been waiting
thousands of years for just this moment, sometimes rolling
the horns ahead of me and locating them again by the crashing
of brush down below. Perhaps six hours of this brought me
finally to the river. The velvet had taken one awful
beating, and so had the now-not-so-mighty hunter.
Along with the joy of reaching my goal came the
realization that I really couldn’t have packed that load of
meat and horn another step! It was that bad. I came out a
couple of miles downriver from camp so I cached my load there
and made my way through the thick bush and upriver to camp.
Finally I realized I was looking at a wonderful sight, the
canoe and my camp. Upriver something large and white was
moving across current. A wolf, perhaps? I still don’t know
as it disappeared behind an island. Weary but satisfied I
paddled across and tied up, walked into camp and passed out
on my sleeping bag for the night.
Next morning I overslept, (I hope I can be forgiven)
packed up camp and left around nine. Picking up the meat and
horns I stuffed them in the bow of the canoe. The horns
looked good up there. The salmon were running strong and I
saw fresh grizzly tracks on a few sandbeaches. It was
raining off and on all through the day, just enough to keep
things nice and wet. During one of these drizzles I heard a
low moan off in the distance. Wolf! I wanted one pretty
badly so I beached the canoe around a bend and began howling
back. He responded two or three times but I guess I must
have told him to clean up his room for he quit and that was
that. Carrying on, I travelled right until dark, made camp
and cooked a meal of fresh caribou steak – which went down
I quote my diary for August 5: “On the river from 9-9.
time is pressing me on, but not so heavily as to prevent me
from loitering here and there. One interlude in particular
deserves mention. I looked downriver about three hundred
yards in time to see something move. It proved to be a
yellow bear, but I didn’t get a good look at it. Grizzly! I
beached the canoe behind a bend, picked up the rifle, and
worried about the slight breeze at my back, headed very
carefully down the riverbank through the thick willow growth
to where I had last seen him.
My mouth was very dry and my heart was pounding like
crazy. Mosquitoes and black flies were thick in that tangle
but I paid them no heed. Eventually I reached the spot where
he should have been. Nothing! I then headed up a nearby
hill for a better look. Still nothing. About half an hour
of hard searching failed to turn him up so I got back in the
canoe and carried on. I looked at some fresh black bear
tracks a little downriver, concluding it had probably been
just a blond black bear. I still say it was fun sneaking up
on that “grizzly” in that thick tangle.
Also I stopped a few times and panned for gold in the
creeks joining the river, finding no colors.
Easing downriver, through that mountainous country, the
water clear and green in the shadows, watching the odd king
salmon go by on its date with death journey upriver, was my
idea of what good living is all about.
Camped ten miles past the junction of the South Big Salmon
river. For supper? Caribou by candlelight.”
August six was another full day. Hitting the river at 6 I
fought a strong wind all day. Nothing too special happened
until around one o’clock when a couple of well-spaced shots
rang out in the bush to my right. I rounded the bend and was
signalled to the left bank by two men in a canoe. They had a
moose down, a young bull. He had kicked his way into the
river from off the bank. I helped them get it back on shore.
They said they had seen one cow and another cow and calf
before this bull, which may have explained why I’d seen so
little game this day. Eager to continue hunting I passed on
the request for help with the butcherin, though they probably
would have given up some fresh meat. An hour later I met my
The first 500 grain cast bullet erupted a huge cloud of
sand just behind and at the heels of the loping wolf.
Chambering another round, I fired again. The wolf missed a
stride but kept going! At the third shot she began
spinning round and around, finally falling on her side at
the rivers edge. My first wolf! I let the canoe drift
the hundred yards down, having trouble believing what had
just happened! Then I photographed and skinned her, took the
skull and pushed off, travelling right until dark.
Reaching the confluence of the Little Salmon river that
night I camped and managed to make it all the way to
Carmacks, my destination, around three or four in the
afternoon of the next day.
The “River Rats”, as they call their group of jolly jet-
boaters, were enjoying the waters of the mighty Yukon. The
five boat group from Grand Prairie, Alberta took a special
interest in my caribou horns and I and fed me a great
barbecue while they listened to my story. Next day I enjoyed
a faster ride on the river with the jet spray rooster tail
streaming out for forty feet behind us. What a contrast!!
I have only positive memories of this trip. I always
enjoy spending time in a wild sweep of country, but often the
full appreciation doesn’t hit until later. It’s sometimes
possible to forget you’re having the time of your life when
you’re soaked from mop to toe with rainwater and you’d just
as soon die as pack that load of caribou another mile. But
I’ll always enjoy the memory of leaving the sandy beach with
the huge antlers swaying in the bow and the freshly rolled
wolf hide under the seat of my canoe, and the peacefulness of
sitting near the evening fire, long after dark has closed in,
listening to a loon calling from some lonely lake deep in the
bush and planning the next days hunt.
“Working as guide and horse wrangler in northern B.C. and
Yukon I’ve seen hunters board the out-plane with songs in
their hearts and gratitude in their eyes. And I’ve seen them
leave with sinister expressions, plotting revenge on the
guide, the outfitter, and (for all I know) maybe even the
cook’s cream-centered hotcakes!
What constitutes a good hunt?
Would a good definition be one from which a hunter leaves
satisfied that his objectives were met? If he lands in camp
and expects to shoot one each of a Boone and Crocket ram,
moose, caribou and grizzly before noon he is going to leave
with a broken heart. Likewise if he expects to be waited on
hand and foot 24 hours a day like the ever-lovin’ Queen o’
the Nile, things are apt to go sour for him!
Certainly the game taken or not taken is a big factor in
determining the quality of the hunt but contrary to what many
believe the hunter-guide relationship is a lot more
What changed my perspective was a hunt I was involved in
Canada’s Yukon late one fall. Let’s rename the characters
to protect the guilty for now. If there are any.
At this time I was serving as horse wrangler in a camp
from which two other guides operated. The hunters flew in by
float-plane and we got acquainted over supper. This was a
“Dad and Son” hunt with a twist. The “Dad” was 78 years old!
A retired welder, he had prepared for this hunt by literally
running up and down the eight steps of his back porch at
least once for every year of his life, no breaks!
The son was a “Doctor of Means” away from his family (he
almost never missed a chance to call them on the camp radio)
for this special hunt. He wore a four-hundred dollar cowboy
hat with a real rattlesnake mounted in the “attack” position
on the front. This made a real impression on us all as did
the mountain of luggage which accompanied him.
I admit to becoming a leettle resentful when I was told
to leave my spare jeans behind so we could pack his gear over
to the other camp. It was hard not to compare my want for
clothes in late fall with his need for a 110 volt electric
razor, all the more considering hydro lines had not been
thought of within a hundred miles of any of us!
Both men were jovial and eager to begin the hunt of
their lives. It always seems that when new hunters arrive
there is a bit of ice that needs breaking. The more
experienced man began asking about the equipment we as guides
used. The pair were from the deep south and when he drawled,
“What kinda sleepin’ bags do y’all sleep in?”, one of us
came back fast:
“Three sep’rate ones.” So much for the ice.
The camp boss, “Johnny”, and “Roy”, the other guide took
them out that first day and later that night Johnny pulled me
aside and told me to guide The Welder next morning. He was
impressed with the man’s physical condition but really drove
it home that I was to take good care of him, hold his
horse at every mounting and dismounting, that kind of thing,
if only because of his age. I was eager to oblige.
Next day the four of us, Roy, the hunters, and myself
rode off in search of moose. There was some very good moose
country an hour or two from camp so we aimed our mounts
there, got up on the shoulder of a mountain and began
glassing. Around one o’clock Roy noticed a couple of white
spots in a spruce grove across the valley. These proved to
be the antlers of a fine Yukon bull. “What’re we waitin’
for?” asked the feisty old man, “Let’s get ‘im!”
So we crossed the valley on horseback and tied up at a
dry lake a half mile from the bull. During the stalk it
impressed me that the “old man” wasn’t breathing as hard as
twenty-three-year-old I was! We made it to the bull but it
was standing among four or five cows making a shot from our
position impossible. The Welder and The Doctor “argued”
about who should shoot the moose. Finally The Welder “won”
and son Doctor stalked closer and killed the bull with his
.270. Roy and I butchered and caped it, (he wanted
everything, even the feet) and we rode back to camp in the
dark, glad the horses knew the way, we sure didn’t! The
yellow glow of the gas lamp in the cook tent, visible from
miles away, surely was a welcome sight that night! I knew
Roy had wanted the older man to shoot the moose and I think
this may have been the start of the rising tide of ill will
which later climbed the beach swamping everything in sight!
Next day we moved base camp and hunted awhile from
there. The Doctor got a ram in the next few days and Johnny
took The Welder out on a flycamping trip.
The outfitter flew in with a letter pertaining to Roy’s
divorce and from subsequent events I gather it was not good
news. From this point on things took a definite turn for the
worse. As I attempted to bring the horses closer to camp one
rainy day, Roy met me and, yelling at the top of his lungs,
chased all the horses away, then screamed unprintables into
my face, his visage all red and inflamed and only inches from
my own. This was a new experience for me, but only with Roy,
and I didn’t know quite how to take it.
The snow and wet socked in tighter and hunter and guide
opted for the comforts of camp. I mentioned seeing some bear
tracks on the trail a quarter mile from camp and The Doctor
Roy made some gravelly comments about having to saddle a
horse for the little stroll, so The Doctor said to forget the
horse, he’d walk. With a curse, Roy tore the uncinched
saddle off the horse, and The Doctor decided to drop the
whole deal. They each retired to their own quarters in a
pair of huffs. Ohh boy, four days remained in the hunt, and
I had a hunch, a slight premonition, they would not be
blissful, idyllic ones!
The Doctor wanted to hunt with his Dad who was
supposedly hunting out of a fly camp one days ride from our
base camp, so the next morning we packed horses and pulled
out of camp with eight head. Snow lay a foot deep and the
mountains were breath-takingly beautiful. I took pictures on
the way on the sly to avoid being called a tourist, the worst
insult in all the Yukon.
Fresh wolf tracks crisscrossed the trail and once we saw
a cow moose and calf. Up on a pass someone had sprinkled
fresh fox tracks on the snow. Animals were on the move!
Roy was riding a bit of a tingly horse by the name of
Kenny. Suddenly there were hot moose tracks on the trail and
the little squirt just refused to step over them. I rode on
ahead on Buster and led the string for a few miles. We
dropped down into a neighbouring valley with no snow and up
along a creek to Johnnys fly camp, arriving just before dark.
A small bull moose standing in the lake curiously watched us
ride into camp and find no one. By the signs Johnny and The
Welder had left that morning for yet another camp. The
politics between Roy and The Doctor deteriorated further
still when it came to light that Roy hadn’t packed the
cooking pots. We actually set up two tents that night!
In the morning Roy decided to pull camp and take up
Johnnys trail. Though he had never been to the other fly
camp he was sure we could track them down. We got camp
packed up and headed out. I was leading two pack horses
halter to tail and anticipating trouble, looped the front
horses halter-shank over my saddlehorn. Sure enough, as soon
as he felt his halter pull, little Kenny, the squirrely one
began to arch his back and buck. This set Ike off and
Buster, also skittish, went crazy too, flinging The Doctors
.458 from my rifle scabbard. Finally we all settled down and
trotted off after the others.
The trail was clear but the sky looked like snow. The
trail crossed the creek above camp and switchbacked up a very
steep hill. Hugo, a gelded appaloosa, was trailing free a
bit ahead of our little string. On the steep hillside his
pack rolled on his wet back. He started bucking and
staggering wildly around above me and Buster, thankfully
finally coming to rest against a poplar tree, the clutter of
his bulky pack strewn all over the hillside.
After re-packing we carried on up the trail and onto a
pass. Here there was snow again and the trail was clear but
it was also starting to snow.
I was beginning to lose hope for this project as we had
no idea which direction to take should we lose Johnny’s trail
in the storm. A glance to the right showed a herd of some
twenty caribou, with three very shootable bulls. Roy talked
The Doctor out of the shot saying that we’d find his Dad and
come back so they could each get one.
“Are you sure they’ll still be here?” asked The Doctor
“Oh yeah, they’ll be here.” returned Roy
“Against my better judgement, I’ll go along with it
Working our way down off the pass into the bush the
trail became less and less distinct. From here one had a
panoramic view of a vast valley filled with eight-foot tall
brush, with two swamps in the middle. Not my favourite kind
of country. But the heavier snowfall soon erased this view
allowing us to forget what we were riding into.
Another hour or two and the fresh snow had completely
buried the tracks of Johnny and The Welder, cutting off our
last hope of a comfortable camp that night. It was nearly
dark and there was no telling how far we were from the next
camp or even what direction it lay in. Time to set up camp.
But where? Hardly any burnable bush existed in the valley,
just miles and miles of wet alder. But the Great Spirit
pitied us or maybe the horses or possibly the whole sopping
mess of us and gave us a small valley with some horsefeed in
the bottom and a little wood to burn.
We set up our wet tent on a 20 degree hill in the wet
snow and took our wet gear inside, though I’m not sure why,
it couldn’t have gotten much wetter! Somehow we got a fire
going and “cooked supper” with our can-openers. Conversation
that night was limited mostly to pained silences and strained
Warm air moved in overnight, melting the snow and
sending a deluge of icy water into The Doctors sleeping bag.
The horses did, at least, hang around all night. Where could
they go? They didn’t know the country either.
At “breakfast” next morning I began to feel truly sorry
for The Doctor, so far from his family and practise, his now
grizzled visage sagging from his facial structure, the
rattlesnake clinging feebly to his hat, no longer in the
“attack” position, having lost its teeth and succumbed to the
rigours of the hunt.
The horses too, had my sympathies that morning as we
saddled up for the two day ride home. They were already
somewhat run down after two months of hunting on low rations.
In addition, our gear was so water-logged it was hard to lift
it onto their backs. I took the lead this time and found our
backtrail. The sky was still overcast and visibility poor.
Kenny went into his traditional bucking fit and succeeded in
loosening his pack. It was hard to avoid seeing the humour
in all this. Precious little was going right on this hunt.
But we made the pass. The Doctors knee was acting up so
the heavy man led his horse but little. The temperature
fell, it started to snow and the wind blew good and hard. It
was a low point in the trip. Roman-nosed old Hugo, the
clown of the string, stopped on the trail and
lowered his head to the ground, allowing his wet pack to
slide forward over his wet withers. He just stood there on
the trail, the pack completely covering his head, shutting
out his cruel surroundings. I laughed and groaned at the
same time. We re-packed him and slogged on, finding our
precious camp a few hours before dark.
As we started setting up for the night, The Doctor spoke.
“Roy, let’s go on to base camp tonight.” Roy gave as many
reasons as he could think of why it would be a bad idea but
The Doctor wasn’t satisfied.
“Roy, if you won’t take me, why don’t you let Doug?” He
turned to me, “I’ll pay you.”
Here I had to agree with Roy, though. It just didn’t
make sense to push the horses any farther, especially
considering the plane wouldn’t arrive until the following
day. So we spent another quiet evening in camp. I worked
very hard getting fresh wood bucked up with an old swede saw,
then splitting it and setting up an old stove in The Doctors
tent. I know all this effort on my part irritated Roy.
Maybe that’s why I did it but I like to think I just wanted
to keep things on a somewhat even keel. We were listing much
too far to port!
At one point The Doctor cornered me and said, “You know,
Doug, I’m worth quite a bit of money and when I get out of
here I’m going to spend my last dime making Roy’s life
miserable.” He winked, “I should, anyway.” Then he gave me
a hundred or two and told me how much he appreciated my help
on this trip.
I expressed my regret in the way things were going for
him, and meant it.
As Johnny and The Welder had not arrived by morning Roy
put two and two together and decided they must have gotten
their calendar mixed up. They had been out eight days and
should have been in this camp if they were to make it to base
camp in time to meet the plane.
Roy left a note on the table in the tent frame for them
and we pulled out. A couple of horses were following us in
the trail, unpacked, and they were enjoying their freedom.
Finally they showed up. I decided to lead them but they
wouldn’t let me catch them so I rode off, knowing they’d
follow anyway. We took a fork in the trail back up to the
first pass we’d crossed and waited for them awhile, our
mounts panting. Then I tied my saddle horse and went back
down the hill for Ike and the fool-headed Kenny. I groaned
when I reached the trail and saw the tracks carrying on past
the fork we’d taken. Hollering back up the hill, I set off
on a dead run through the bush. There was no snow and I had
no idea where this pair might be headed. I just followed
their tracks as best I could for half a mile or more. Just
as I considered getting my horse, I heard the familiar tinkle
of Kenny’s bell. It had come untied! Encouraged, I tried to
work my way around and ahead of them, talking to them in low
tones. But paying my pleading no heed, they broke into a
gallop on down the little valley. I just didn’t need this
today! I failed despite my best efforts to cut them off on a
sidehill and they plunged across the creek below me. I was
pretty played out now but waded in after them. The water was
up to my waist and very cold. Another mile and I finally got
ahead of these knotheads on a switchback on the trail, caught
them, head and tailed them, and led them back to my waiting
saddle horse. He was the only one who had waited for me
though and I felt the temperature rise within me.
I led these three horses up the hill and mounted up. I
was totally soaked from head to foot and there were fifteen
miles of snow coated country ahead of me. Buster was very
excited about catching up and I had to hold him back a bit so
he wouldn’t overdo it. I started getting chilly on Airplane
pass. Snowflakes drifted down on a northerly breeze. The
sparse, gnarled balsam was all frozen wet and I was not the
least bit confident in my ability to get a fire going, should
I lose my horse. I dismounted and hung onto my nervous pony
with one hand while I took off my gumboots and wrung out my
socks again. Ice was forming in my boots. (The life of a
guide is not always easy.) We carried on at a good pace, Ike
and Kenny not feeling as frisky now. Finally I caught up
with The Doctor and Roy and let my inner pig-dog out for a
bit, letting them know just what I thought of being left
behind, this before realizing they Had stopped to wait for
We made camp at dusk and clawed the freezing lash ropes
off the frozen packs with our numbed fingers, gave the ponies
some oats and cooked supper, happy, if only that the trip was
By 12:30 we were taking it easy in the cabin and
worrying about Johnny and The Welder, when suddenly their
jovial voices and the sound of shod hooves on the trail
drifted through the plywood wall of the cabin. The Welder,
dismounting on his own, remarked with as big a grin as I’ve
ever seen, “Now I know why cowboys walk that way!” I could
hardly believe this guy. 78 years old, having endured a
fourteen hour ride in frigid weather and coming out
“happier’n a gopher in soft dirt.”
Puny caribou antlers now rode one of the packhorses, the
only animal taken on his hunt of a lifetime. Later in the
cabin, he was full of youthful vigour as was his guide. We
all had to laugh as they told of their experiences of the
last eight days.
When they’d first left base camp they had ridden the
eight hours to the fly camp, and Johnny had been worried
about the gentleman all the way, constantly asking him if he
was all right. All at once, The Welder had hollered ahead,
“Are you all right, Johnny?”
Later, Johnny had been packing camp when The Welder
asked what he could do to help. Johnny told him the most
helpful thing he could do would be to stand over there out of
“Yeah, shut up.”
The end result of all this was that the old man went
away relaxed and happy with his piddly caribou while his son
left miserable despite having bagged a huge bull moose and a
good Dall Ram. No doubt The Welder suffered as much or more
physical discomfort and insult, yet somehow got much more
enjoyment out of his hunt. The difference lay not in what
they took home from the hunt but in what they brought to it.
chapter 3: Bear!
The fall of 1982 stands out in my memory for its red-
blooded adventure, its excitement, its hardships and its
sorrow. But most of all for its gift of the most
exciting night of my life!
The day gave no warning of the heart-pounding adventure
the night held in store. It was all peace and quiet from the
turmoil of the hunters and the guides. A day of grinding
sheep meat for hamburgers, of baking pies of cherry filling
in the cook-tent woodstove oven and a day of cutting and
hauling firewood in on my back from some distance from camp.
The two guides decided to leave the base camp for a fly-
camping hunting trip. I was “in charge” of shepherding the
remaining horses and putting up wood and generally looking
after things while they were gone. I was thrilled to have a
few days to work at my own pace without the friction and the
insults and I made the most of it, listening to the CBC on
the sideband radio while I worked and ate and generally
refueled my tanks.
Late the second evening, if memory serves me right, I
fired the coleman lantern in the tent and lay down for my
evening read. The wind was blowing hard from the south,
flapping the loose canvas of the tent, but creating no
particular discomfort, when suddenly there was a gruff
grunting sound from the front of the tent and the sound of a
terrified and heavy animal charging for the bush.
Of course the thought that it might be a bear entered my
cone of consciousness and this wasn’t exactly great black
bear country… I unsheathed my 45.70 and slipped the
finger-thick cartridges into the tubular magazine, laying it
on the bed beside me. Rifles are a comfort on dark stormy
nights inside tents as a certain night camping with a friend
long ago had taught. The .22 seemed to make the threat of
raiding skunks seem less ominous somehow and now the same
comforting feeling came over me about the bear, sort of.
Just as I was beginning to believe that the body odour of
a Yukon horse wrangler had done the trick, the sound of my
new woodpile being torn asunder reached my waiting ears. The
clatter was considerable and I knew I was definitely in for
some kind of an adventure…
All bears in the woods command attention, be they black,
brown, white or blue. And Yes, there really is a blue phase
of black bear on the B.C. coast! Something about bears
demands notice be taken of them. They shuffle along slowly,
head hung low and swinging from side to side and causing fear
and dread wherever they plant their turned-in forepaws. Most
opt for the shoot first and ask questions later motto and
many harmless creatures die as a result. It’s an unfortunate
state of affairs, exacerbated considerably by the multitude
of bear stories emanating from the deep, dark and to so many,
terrifying wilderness. Of the seven wild grizzlies I met in
person in the Yukon all but the two mentioned at the
beginning of this chapter fled in a blind panic when they
realized there was a man nearby.
Grizzlies, for all their horrible reputation are greatly
overated for the danger they present to people in the
wilderness. The fear their presence causes results in vast
tracts of unsurpassed wild beauty going unexplored and
shunned by those who would benefit the most from greater
contact with the wild.
As one writer wisely put it, “the grizzly objects to being
killed” and a great percentage of the horror stories one
hears do have to do with poorly shot bears. The Yukon
Territorial Government tourist information pack advises
that if attacked, you should play dead and with luck the bear
will lose interest and leave. A friend demonstrates the
common attitude among outdoorsmen with the following comment:
“Luck, hell, my .338 Winchester Magnum is Sure to make him
While fishing salmon on the Klukshu creek tributary of the
Yukon River I dozed in the hot afternoon in my camper with
the back door open. A black shape entered the clearing and
ambled fairly near my truck while I sat taking pictures,
quite thrilled as always, to see a bear in the wild. Others,
though, proved to be less happy about the visit.
“There’s a bear!!!” rang out a woman’s shrill scream. The
screamed warning had the effect of rapidly clearing the mouth
of the stream of human inhabitants. The bear, however, was
even more startled and raced off along the bank of the river
and into the bush where a shot suddenly rang out and ended
his terror and that of the campers and fisherwomen there.
During my northern sojourns I was privileged to hear manya
bear story, some of which were no doubt true. All of them
were interesting. In fact, I imagine that few human-bear
encounters are boring though many are more humorous than
frightening. One such incident took place I believe in B.C
or northern Alberta.
The crew dined in a common building, the cookshack, a
common enough practise where men gather make the changes
they’re paid to make. While the cook prepared the meal a
black bear bumbled into the clearing and, attracted by the
aroma of good cooking, he raised himself on his hind legs to
place his nose in front of the kitchen exhaust fan to get
a better sniff of the kitchen contents. The cook apparently
was gifted not only in the culinary arts but also in the
fields of humour and mischief and saw an opportunity for a
little fun. Taking a handful of pepper he tossed it into the
whirring fan. This of course, forced pepper up the bear’s
nose which set the terrified creature sneezing and coughing
as he raced for the sanctuary of the deep woods.
Another story about a certain guide named Eddy illustrates
the fear a sudden big bear can cause. Hunters and guides
sometimes get bored with hunting or fighting poor weather
and, like other creatures of the forest amuse themselves with
playing games in some shelter or other. In this case, it was
a game of cards in a tent.
After some hands had been played, Eddy felt the need to
pass some water and left the tent. Not caring to travel
from the tent he began his business before noticing the
huge grizzly facing him right front and center! Taking stock
of all possible priorities Eddy thought it best to back right
back into the tent. It’s not always possible to stop a river
when the dam breaks…
Less humorous for Eddy at least, was the time a bear
chased him around a log cabin three times before he managed
to enter the door and barricade himself therein.
Bears do like breaking into cabins when they think their
appetites may be satisfied inside. One such shack we came on
exhibited all the telltale signs, the claw marks, the teeth
marks and finally the caved in door. A emptied can of yellow
paint caught my eye, emptied that is by Mr. Bear who’d opened
it with his teeth and apparently drunk the contents! This
particular iron-gutted creature shouldn’t have been hard too
track in the days to come, had we cared to bother!
Early on in my Yukon days I bought an old red fiberglass
canoe and come the weekend, took it to a small river near
Whitehorse. Fighting my way upriver against the current I
rounded a bend and saw what I at first took to be an animal
the size of a large cow. Another second and I realized to my
great excitement that it was in fact a large grizzly bear. I
had this tag and the whole scene was almost more than I could
have hoped for. I raised the rifle and peered through the
The current here was swift and as I set the paddle down
across the thrwarts, it began drifting back downriver. By
the time I had my bear scoped a bush had drifted in between
the two of us and I held my shot for fear of wounding a
grizzly. The next instant the bear gave a whuff and pounded
off into the trees. The thumping of the bear disappeared
long before the thumping of my heart! Today I’m quite glad
to say I have never shot a grizzly and now I have no desire
to ever do so. I’d rather see a grizzly tearing into an old
log in search of ants than to watch a dead one hanging over
my fireplace year after year, collecting dust.
The range of the great grizzly has been reduced now to
only the most remote and inaccessible countries. Even here,
men travel through in search of minerals or game and shoot
bears indiscriminately. The parks and these difficult
regions are the last hope of this mighty animal, which fears
nothing in the wild. Sometimes even his fear of man is
… The woodpile continued falling apart in front of the
tent and noises wafted through the fabric from another
direction and I knew I was between two bears, a sow and a
cub as like as not! This was rapidly becoming hard on my
nerves of steel and my mighty man facade was cracking. It
occurred to me that should that sow attack, I would be unable
to shoot so well being somewhat in the position of a mouse in
a paper sack! This was not a very comforting thought and I
began to weigh my options. They didn’t weigh much.
Furthermore, my coleman lamp lacked the fuel to run all
night and the spare fuel was out there by the woodpile! I
turned the lamp way down so the fuel would last. Daring to
peek outside I was chilled to find it much like the blackness
one would likely find inside a large mother grizzly bear.
Finally I did the only thing any red-blooded chicken-
hearted fool would do and played a bluff. I yelled at mama
grizzly just as loudly as I could to terrify her and send her
scampering from the camp for good.
Very Unimpressed, she uttered three of the deepest,
lowest, meanest-sounding grunts I had ever heard in my short
life and I knew just exactly what this grizzly talk meant.
I pulled the sleeping bag under the wooden table and crawled
inside like a scared little farmboy in a thunderstorm and
waited, maybe even prayed, I don’t remember. And somewhere
during the night I drifted off to sleep. When they left I
do not know.
Next morning there were my two bears, up there on the
mountainside, two of the finest looking grizzlies I’ve ever
seen, looking all the finer for their great distance from me.
North of a grocery store and gas station known as
Johnson’s Crossing winds a dirt road maintained in the
summer. This road, built hastily in an attempt to pipe oil
south for the war effort, (check) in year, winds its way
through spruce and poplar and up a mountain, crossing over a
pass before dropping back into a heavily forested valley
floor. As you wind in and out across this floor, reciting
the “winding in and winding out” poem in honour of the
original Alaska highway, wondering if you’ll today meet your
Maker on one of these bends, you’ll catch a glimpse of water
off to your right- if you’re not watching the road!
If you leave your vehicle here and walk a few steps you’ll
find yourself looking down a steep dirtbank and into a swirl
of slightly muddied mountain water. This water, quite fit to
drink, only a day or two previously left the mountains of the
_________ range on its meandering journey to Teslin Lake.
From there it will flow down the Teslin River,(check) joining
the Yukon River at _________ eventually trickling through the
Yukon Delta in Alaska where it will be blown through the
blowspout of a whale if it doesn’t fill some prospectors
boot in the meantime.
A severely love-stricken Saskatchewan farm boy drove his
canoe-topped four by four up this road for about the seventh
time, steered off the road at the Yukon Territorial
Government campground and off-loaded the canoe. A battered
three horsepower outboard “kicker” of unknown origin had been
bartered with fifty bucks and now was fastened to the
farthest back possible section of the V-stern, red fiberglass
As I would be gone up the river for the next two weeks and
not everyone has faith I buried the truck in the bush some
distance away, loaded up and churned off up the river, or at
least that was the original intention. The roaring and
snorting and bellowing went on for some time but my position
in relation to the shore didn’t seem to be changing as
quickly as the sun’s position in the sky! But finally,
mercifully, the old kicker hit a rock and the sheer-pin did
what it was supposed to do and the whole propeller
Caching the kicker off in the bush where I’d be able to
find it on the way down later, I proceeded with my river-
travel in a more dignified, time-honoured fashion.
In R.M. Patterson’s “The Dangerous River” “lining” is
described as being a very satisfactory way of moving a canoe
full of possibles up a river. Having already proven the
truth of this to my own satisfaction on this very river, I
put the system to work again, and a new educational field
opened for me on the Nisutlin. Many more educations were to
shortly follow, some painful, some pleasant.
In “lining”, a thirty or forty foot length of cord is
fastened to aft and fore of the canoe and this rope is
grasped somewhat forward of the centre of the thus formed
loop. The fore of the canoe is then nudged out into the
current of the river and you walk off upriver, adjusting your
hold on the rope until the canoe pulls easily without
wallowing to port or starboard. It is astonishingly easy to
pull a generous amount of luggage along with you this way, so
much so that Dutch Ovens, large canvas tents, arctic sleeping
bags, and enough food to feed the whiskey jacks all along the
way, all present no problem and the heart is free to ponder
what it most feels like pondering at the time. In this boys
case a certain farm girl in Saskatchewan he was hoping to
impress, occupied all of his available pondering time.
This trip was the result of a flash of “inspiration”
received earlier that spring. Maybe a diary of a northern
river trip would be just the thing to get the message across!
This effort has surely been the second biggest mistake of my
life but at the time I was overjoyed by the prospect of
prospecting and enjoying two weeks on the isolated Nisutlin,
penning my love for my greatly desired future companion and
marriage partner into a two-bit scribbler I probably paid too
Travel that first three days was very satisfying and I
drank in the sights and sounds and feelings of the wild
country I had all to myself and indeed, I saw no other people
in the next two weeks, and even less sign they had ever
invaded the planet. I tried usually to keep it that way,
burning my litter and packing out my junk, except for certain
items such as sheerpins and props, incidentals along the way!
That first night found me setting up camp a fair distance
above the entrance point of my trip. Happy with my progress,
despite my failed whiteman-paddle, I left my canoe near the
waters edge, right-side up and began my epistle. Epilogue?
In the morning, when I loaded it again, something seemed
to be missing. Anyone with experience and sufficient funds,
both of which were sadly lacking in my case, would have
carried a spare paddle with him on a two week wilderness solo
canoe trip. Mine was still in the store. The only
explanation I could come up with was that a beaver must have
taken off with the thing! No motor, no paddle, no problem!
A young spruce tree grew there on the sandy beach of my
bank of the river and a few hours work with my axe produced a
very rude facsimile of the very first paddle seen on earth,
the one Adam likely carved to propel his craft away from his
“helper” now and then, after the fall in the Garden.
It weighed all of ten pounds, the wood being still fresh
and green like the young man who carved it but, by Crackey!
it did the trick and I knew I wasn’t doomed to return to town
humiliated and disgraced. That would come later! After a
brief trial in the river I chipped more fat off the blade
until, finally, it was manageable in my hand and I paddled
some distance upriver, between the overgrown banks where
lining the canoe would have been a fool’s nightmare. There
is another way of moving upriver which is referred to as
“poling” in which a long pole is pushed into the bottom of
the river and climbed hand over hand until the top of the
pole is reached and the process repeated. I have never tried
I found it was almost always possible to cross and re-
cross the river, taking advantage of the sandy beaches on the
inside of the curves and rarely having to paddle against the
current at all, though from time to time life got
interesting as the rockpiles were crossed, the canoe bouncing
against them, being suddenly drawn from behind by an “eddy”
or reversing current of the river. Sometimes the trees grew
near the edges or even hung down into the current, making
paddling or crossing the river necessary, but “always there
was a way” and three days later found me nearing the sought
after mountainous section I knew by my map was on the river.
The continuous melt-water running through and over and
around my runners (I made no effort to keep them dry) had had
a crippling effect on my left ankle. I could hear and feel
the tendon creak against the sheath within it and the pain of
going on began to overshadow the pleasure of it all and the
company of adventurers called a halt for a day lay-over on a
sandy little island. (There must be more than one of me or I
couldn’t talk to myself like I so often do!)
The camp was comfortable and it was very enjoyable to
spend a whole day there with clear mountain water passing by
on both sides, soaking in the heat and drinking in the
sunlight’s warmth and also that of, I’m now ashamed to say, a
bottle of Hudson’s Bay Dark Rum I’d foolishly brought along,
seemingly just for this occasion. It’s astonishing how
eloquent one can become and more astonishing still to later
realize what drivvel one can come up with when taking
such medication. What can you say when your minds a total
blank? I don’t know if my ankle was helped but the day
passed pleasantly enough, though I’ve since regretted ever
being taken in by the trappings of this evil “medicine”.
There’s an easy way and a hard way of learning most things.
A day or two here found me ready to recommence the
“expotition” up the Nisutlin and so with renewed vigour from
the rest, I travelled on towards the mountains, soaking it
all in. Soon I came to a place where I was stumped. The
vegetation overgrew the bank on my side and the water
deepened until it reached the pockets of my Levi shirt, the
current too swift to fight with just a paddle and the
opposite bank looking far less inviting, being also overgrown
and just above a quick bend in the river.
There was one ray of hope, other than a portage through
all that brush and tangle, and that ray was very faint.
Directly across from my precarious position lay a sandbar,
prepared just for me. If I could just climb aboard and ferry
across in the usual way with the bow nosing directly into the
current, paddling like Popeye, I just might make that bar.
There was good enough reason to paddle like Popeye! If for
any reason I didn’t make it I’d be swept backwards into an
undercut bank of the river and quite possibly upset and
pinned below the surface of the river against a “sweeper”,
there to literally “breath the Nisutlin” until drifting off
into a hotter body of liquid to burn forever for my
unconfessed sins and rebellion! A sweeper, by the way, is an
evergreen which has fallen into the river and now sweeps it
free of floating swimmers and what-have-you.
With nothing to lose but my soul I jumped in along with a
few gallons of riverwater, picked up my sticky piece of
lumber and gave it all I had. The canoe wanted to get caught
in the current and it took everything I had to straighten it.
Then I dug for the opposite shore, realizing to my sudden
horror that I wasn’t winning this battle with the river. I
wasn’t going to make the sandbar! The bow of the canoe was
five feet or so from the last tip of the sandbar I had to
reach and I felt I was really done this time. Glancing down
into the water I’d soon meet much too personally, I realized
I could see bottom and it looked shallow! Not one to
normally pass up any given advantage, in I plunged, but only
up to my knees this time! Shoving the canoe onto the island
I sat down very rattled, and crossed myself! I’m not even
Catholic, nor do I ever cross myself, and I still wonder to
this very day what made me do this. I know I felt a great
sense of gratitude well up in my heart and I took a little
time to pause and reflect on what might have happened at this
spot, forty miles upriver, had the Great Spirit not been One
Who kindly helps fools, small children and drunks, myself
then qualifying on all three counts! But let’s not dwell on
this too heavily!
Another piece of river and I came suddenly upon the wolves.
Pulling the canoe upriver, handing the rope from one hand
to the other through the trees, I’d just started rounding a
bend to the left when through the remaining trees of the
point of land I noticed to my unbridled excitement a wolf,
then another, and then another! The four or five pups
were trotting about and sniffing around there on the opposite
sandy beach and I struggled to believe that I had really
found a family of wolves!
The canoe was quickly tied and my camera grabbed from its
bag and the film-burning began in earnest, as usually happens
when I see some sight in nature that I won’t likely see again
for awhile. When they’d all disappeared back into the trees
I crossed the river and searched the beach. Shortly I
discovered their den and, with the remembrance of Farley
Mowatt’s story resurfacing in my mind, thought what a great
opportunity this situation could present to get some fine
photography done on the shy creatures.
So I began disrupting their lives for a time and set up
my tent some distance away there on the beach by the river,
making my cooking fire and writing the days events into my
diary, which I was gaining more false confidence in each day.
Each night I camped there I heard the mother wolf howl but
that was as close as I came to seeing any more of my wolf
pack, though if I’d had my eyes open one night I surely could
have got an eyeful and a half!
The weather had been amazingly kind to me on this trip
all the way through, but one night, just to remind me such
things could happen, it sprinkled, washing all the tracks on
the beach down like a school marm brushing the blackboard and
next morning I awakened to find a sight which really
got me revved. The mother wolf had left her fresh front paw
tracks two feet or so from the back of my smallish nylon
tent. This would have placed her nose right up against it in
the region of the tenters feet! This didn’t alarm me as I
knew how shy and intelligent wolves are, and I knew how well
my .45/70 could kill one in the sad event I would have to.
After a couple of days of hanging around the camp and
hoping for the pups to put in an appearance I decided I’d
played Farley long enough and would go out and seek the
animals on my own two legs. The first days effort yielded
only total exhaustion and an empty can of beans as I found
myself fighting a war of crawling under and over, and
balancing on the previously mentioned pile of burned pick-up
sticks most of an afternoon.
Although afraid of meeting similar troubles on the other
side of the river, I dared to try it and taking my Trapper
Nelson backpack with tarp, camera, and a bit of food I
ferried the river and pulled up the canoe, setting off on
foot once again toward the base of the towering mountain
whose view I’d enjoyed half a week now. As always in the
Yukon, the climb was a hard one, first pushing through
forests of spruce and brush and then working my way up the
side of the mountain, pausing often to breathe hard and check
my progress against the mountain across the valley, usually
satisfied to see some new gain had been made.
The climb took all of that day and when finally I had
made the uplands I enjoyed the view a bit and then pondered
where I would hole up for the night, deciding finally on the
head of the little ravine I had just followed up the
There, I gathered what scrub wood I could find and
stowed it for the night and huddled as near the fire as
sleeping only off and on as the high altitude night settled
over the central Yukon and the stars showed themselves. The
temperature dropped well below my happy level and I longed
for the comfort of my arctic bag back at camp, hoping all was
well there and the wolves were leaving things alone.
Eventually a glow began forming in the east and lighting
up the ravine valley rock opposite my position with a rosy
glow, turning slowly to yellow and then bright daylight as
the sun kept the Creator’s promise of Yet another days light.
After putting out the fire, I packed up what little comforts
I had and hiked up toward the east, back up on top of the
mountain. Suddenly I heard the thumping sound of a medium-
sized animal’s feet on the moss and looked up just in time to
see a real live lynx race across in front of me and hardly
twenty paces distant! In another second the cat was gone but
I felt thrilled to have even seen one in the wild at all.
Another short hike and I sat down on the edge of a rock
cliff. The rain showers had swept the air clean and
visibility was good to any distance. A long way off I could
see many mountains covered in snow and ice, even now in July.
The cliff below me swept down a thousand feet to a base of
scree and below the lush green of a manicured golfcourse no
one knew of, the forest sent its perfume heavenward. Over
the Nisutlin a rainbow could be seen where a passing shower
was happening and way down there, I don’t know how many feet
down, the Nisutlin followed its serpentine course along the
valley floor. I could see from here just where the whole
valley swung off to the right and knew, again from the topo
map there must be a good sized lake back in there. Someday I
would have to see that lake but I was quickly running out of
time and would have to turn back if I was to take the job I’d
applied for as horse wrangler and guide for one of the
Yukon’s outfitters. But what a country! What a view! And
all of a sudden I felt a rush of emotion and wanted to cry.
There was no one to share the place with. No one at my side
to admire it with me. I felt I was in heaven but all alone,
and what fun would there be in that?
It was here that I decided to leave my reclusive life
behind and become involved with people again. I’d been
struggling for awhile already with the notion of leaving
everyone behind and holing up somewhere way in the
backcountry but today, although I knew people would give me
grief in their living and their dying I knew I wanted to pay
the price. But someday, I would have to share this beauty
with someone of the cleverer gender, and I began mapping out
the jetboat trip up this river I would take her on sometime.
Reaching camp early I made the decision to run the
river. The wolves weren’t happening and the trip down would
take a full day and I was out of time.
Excitement gripped my heart as I tore down the tent and
rolled my bedroll, packing it all neatly and tightly into the
canoe for the ride down to the road. This should be fun!
Then I remembered some of the more challenging stretches and
began to have my doubts. I had been able to pull the canoe
up and through all the difficulties, but could I run them?
But soon the rougher stretches near camp had been dealt
with and the river swung gently to right and left. The sun
bore down and the temperature must have neared ninety.
Stripping off my shirt, I lazed in the stern, finding a
comfortable position on my back and lazily watching the
scenery go by.
Wasn’t I the master of this river? Wasn’t I an absolute
“monarch of all I surveyed?” “Hadn’t I paddled a thousand
miles of river and dealt with many difficulties
successfully?” It was indeed strange that the mountains
themselves weren’t shouting praises down to me as I drifted
gently down the river, not worrying that my canoe was
reversing position in relation to the sluggish current of the
young river. That was no problem, surely, for one so
experienced and skilled as I! No, no. Indeed, it would
probably be fun to run this next riffle backwards, with yours
sincerely in the bow and no aft paddler at all, and try to
miss that one single boulder near the left side. That should
present no problem whatsoever, although it did seem to be
heading generally my way. Perhaps I’d better apply a little
more force in my sidestroke here. Now, now, you must be
kidding! Oh NO!
The canoe bit into the rock and heaved up upon it
placing me in an extremely awkward position. I couldn’t
believe this was really happening! There had been a hundred
feet of open river all around this one boulder and I had to
hit it right in the middle! As now forseen, my balancing act
there on the rock did not last very long and ever so slowly
the other end of the canoe began to pivot around until, when
broadside with the current, it flipped and I found myself
kicking in the river for the first time in my career of river
Soon the canoe full of water had righted itself and I
had reached the bottom with my feet. Hauling back for all I
was worth I worked the amazing weight of the thing far over
to the right shore and aways down the river and commenced
The bailing and emptying of the canoe, and dealing with
my sodden sleeping bag and grub box gave me time to think and
that night I wrote in my diary that “a wiser fool got back in
the canoe and paddled off downriver.”
The canoe weighed a lot more now and so did the long
lens of my camera, which did not survive the dunking too
well. The slide film was also practically destroyed. I laid
all of this out on top of the packs to dry in the hot sun and
I forged my way downriver with the behemoth paddle and
wondered how quickly things could go wrong for a fool in the
As I passed by a bank of the river I looked up in time
to watch another lynx drift past, bemoaning the lost
opportunity for a picture he had presented. More rapids were
conquered, though not so bravely and one time some more water
sloshed in over the side because of the lack of freeboard I
now had to spare. By now the hand-hewn paddle felt like an
old friend and I wouldn’t have traded for my first one, had I
Near dark, I got the camera working on a new roll of
black and white and photographed a moose too many times, the
only one I saw on this particular trip, and nearly at dark I
arrived at the truck. I sure was glad to be able to sleep in
it instead of in that soggy sleeping bag!
The diary was not damaged and was sent with a bit of
gold purchased in the city of Whitehorse the next day. This
was the only metallic gold I found on the trip. It crossed
my mind to send the book and all to her older sister instead,
the one without the boyfriend,but that didn’t seem altogether
upright somehow. It’s hard to say just where a feller goes
wrong sometimes… But then “what doesn’t kill you makes you
stronger”, they say.
“He climbed up big mountains and hunted great bears,
All to impress her but was unawares,
That while he was gone trying to be something big,
Another was with her and up was the jig!”
chapter 4: watch and learn!
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.
I don’t know already if I wrote that he also is
divorced and now I also know why. His wife had a lover and
Andy was not happy and in his anger killed him with a knife.
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.
chapter 5: big salmon 2
EXPLORING THE BIG SALMON – TOGETHER THIS TIME!
So This was Whitehorse! Doug shook his head again.
Much new stuff was being built. Everything was changing
within these last three years since Doug had been there. We
went to eat at MacDonald’s. I enjoyed being back in a city,
seeing people, very interesting people, some right out of the
bush with big beards and hats and leather jackets-hippies,
and also very normal city people.
We went to visit Paul Rogan, really different people!
Very fast and talkative, politically interested and very
critical of the government and social issues, also very
funny. He’s from France and lives with his girlfriend. They
both have children out of first marriages. They didn’t have
much time but the half-hour with peppermint tea was very
nice. They invited us to come eat bear with them one other
At Fish Lake I got to know Ian and Sylvia. They have a
horseranch there. We drank tea in a Very small little place
full of little niknaks. I did feel more comfortable here,
maybe because I’m getting used to living in small quarters.
We talked and talked and talked for a long time but finally
we left to put up our tent. It was dark but on the horizon
the sun did want to come up again. We put up the tent, kinda
Mickey Mouse, and slept well.
Doug and I went for a picnic at the Yukon River, then we
went to Andy’s. Doug worked on the motor, Andy painted
some fish and I packed things back and forth again.
Again we packed everything together for a canoe trip!
It was a very hot day. We bought all the groceries for the
ten days. Doug repaired his rifle at Paul’s place and
together they went to get an assistant fisherman’s license
which cost him a dollar! Now we’re allowed to get salmon out
of the Yukon River with a net! Wrote a few postcards and put
them in the mailbox and then let’s get out of the city.
Well, then in all this hectic heat we had to follow a very
slow bus. Doug is usually a very defensive driver, but this
time it got him and he did pass the bus at a stop sign.
We were already on the road about a kilometer when we
noticed the police car right beside us. He must have
followed us the whole way. Because our rearview mirror
wasn’t attached we didn’t see him! Hm! Doug thought he was
stopping us because of our broken taillight that we lost at
Asiak Lake when the canoe rack broke but No!, it was because
of our incorrect passing. But now he found out that we
didn’t have a rearview mirror. He was pretty mad and said
he’d have to pull us off the road if we didn’t immediately do
something about our rearview mirror. We did have the mirror
but the piece to connect it wasn’t there. Doug had ordered
it but the wrong piece had come. There was wire, he
attached the mirror at the next gas station and we tried to
clean the dirty plastic windows. We were just very happy
that we didn’t get a ticket from this nice policeman.
But we didn’t blame him, we also shook our heads. We
Are crazy! We did get to Johnson’s Crossing, bought a drink
and phoned Doug’s Mom and Dad and then we went again to Quiet
Lake. But this time I wasn’t scared at all. It looked very
familiar. I was looking forward to this adventure. At the
end of Quiet Lake we met a few Indians that were on their way
to their hunting camp. They were there with lots of horse-
saddles and they were waiting for more luggage and more and
more people arrived. We drank some coffee with them and we
sang. It was very interesting. We got to learn a few Indian
words as well. I’m sorry I forgot them already but the tribe
they were from was called Tlingit. At eleven o’clock at
night we did start our journey to the end of the lake where
we were happy to find an open cabin. We ate a German meal
and enjoyed the first night alone in awhile.
We wanted to get up very early but again, didn’t make
it. Doug went out at nine to make a fire and came in
really quickly. There’s a boat, let’s go! In a real hectic
we packed all our stuff together, jam, moccasins, empty
yogurt containers, everything quickly into the canoe and by
the time the boat came we had everything in the canoe. We
stood there groggy, hungry and unwashed and the guys who also
belonged to the hunting camp kind of talked funny like they
wanted something, I dunno.. But we canoed on. We looked for
a nice place along Sandy Lake. The mosquitoes were not bad
there at all. We washed our hair, packed everything together
right, made some eggs and bacon, toast and coffee and it all
felt a lot better already. And again on the Big Salmon Lake
we again tried to find the man with the crow feather. We did
find him on the island. We had coffee and cookies with him
and learned a lot of new things about this place. Robert
Dunlop was a retired director of a theatre group and he liked
to spend the summers on this isolated island. He was very
funny, I hope we meet him again. Then we went to the log
cabin we had stayed at for a week. It just about felt like
coming home. The man with the crow-feather came in for a few
minutes as well. We made some corn chowder, it was a great
Next day after breakfast, we cleaned up the cabin and
paddled on down the river. I was a little scared. The first
three or four loops were really quite neat, it reminded me of
a roller coaster, they were somewhat fast but very friendly.
Doug always told me: “Paddle on the right. Paddle on the
left.” But All of a sudden he yells: “Back-paddle!” Then
he jumped into the water and pulled us to shore. I was quite
shocked. I thought it was more of a practise thing than a
real emergency but when we examined the whole thing there was
a big tree hanging across the whole river. So Doug scratched
his head and tried to find away to get past it. Then we just
pulled the canoe past the tree on the inside curve and we
Then, just a little farther, the same thing happened.
We could always just go a few meters, go back to the shore,
look things over and think. Five times, five big ones and
then we came to a spot where there was a total wrecked canoe.
We did make a fire there to dry off our pants. We did think
about turning around. Doug said he really couldn’t forgive
himself if anything would happen to me. He did do this tour
two times before so why should it go wrong this time? I
didn’t really want to turn around. We went on. One time we
unpacked the whole canoe. One time we guided it on the
painter. Then one last, real scarey part went down like a
slide. We had to pull our heads in because there were
branches over top, there was a few scratches on the canoe,
but then we got to a slower, wider river.
Doug thought the worst must be over and I hoped he
didn’t forget anything and also nothing new would have gotten
placed there. We did make a very nice little camp, with
mosquitoes, barbequed some weiners and enjoyed watching the
river. We did see moose tracks and we also a mother moose
Friday, July 24th:
Happy Birthday, Doug. I did get up before Doug which I
really don’t like to do and seldom do because I never know
what I will find in front of the tent. I started the fire,
made two big pancakes, put jam in between them and decorated
them with little orange segments. It just about looked like
a cake. I put the whole thing on our cooler, decorated it
with flowers, leaves, candles, little presents and cake and
sang the birthday child out of bed. It was a beautiful
At around eleven o’clock we had everything packed up and
pushed off the shore, it rained. My runners were still
soaked from yesterday and all around I was pretty cold.
After awhile we did stop and I looked for my jogging pants
and an extra sweater which both were somewhat damp. The
mosquitoes weren’t worried about any of this at all. All
they had in mind was their thirst for blood. We wound along
the river like a big snake. I would like to know how many
kilometers this all is if you would just fly over it.
Ten miles what we had to do, not very much but it was
very nice. Doug said the mountainous part was the nicest
one. We did see three moose on this cool, wet day and we
were really in no rush. At around four o’clock we stopped at
sheep creek, the sun came out a bit very surprisingly, we
built the tent, made some supper, build a fire and the whole
bit. It all doesn’t take only five minutes.
We like to take time and I have to say when it gets kind
of evening-looking I’d like to have our home set up already.
I did wash my hair even and I dried my clothes and when
everything was finished it did start to rain but this time
for real, so we went into the tent, drank half a bottle of
wine out of yogurt cups to celebrate the occasion. I made
some popcorn. In Canada you salt popcorn and that suits the
wine very well. When the rain was not as bad, Doug put on
his rubber suit and rubber boots and took his goldpan and
tried a little. I brushed my teeth and disappeared into our
sleeping bag. I embroidered a little on a picture for Verna
and then went to sleep. Everything seemed cold and wet and
somehow I could tell a cold coming on. When Doug came back
without gold I got all kinds of … So Doug looked after my
cold and thanked me for a nice birthday.
Next day, Doug warmed some water and made breakfast and
thought maybe we should set out a day so I could look after
this cold and just not even let it get really bad. This was
a really good idea. That means that we don’t have to clean
everything up and look for a new camp. The sun came up very
hot. I did wash a few clothes, washed up the canoe and wrote
diary. The mosquitoes are not bad in the heat but that also
when it hatches a lot of horseflies instead. A land of
extremes. About two in the afternoon Doug decided to go and
look for a lake he could see on the map. He took the axe and
left me with the loaded gun. Doug’s need for exploration
doesn’t have many borders. Neither Doug nor I have seen a
bear so far. Doug did find that lake and he even swam in it.
That is really incredible because these mountain lakes and
rivers are so very cold. The Tuesday before we had left we
had heard of a guy who had been pinned under a log in a creek
when he took the Wheaton Creek. They were able to rescue him
just in time before he died of hypothermia, and that in July!
The lake without name, was warm. Doug suspected
hotsprings or something like that. I would like to see that
lake in winter. We made supper and I was a little
disappointed that I didn’t go along in spite of my cold. But
after my first adventure of hiking in the Yukon I was pretty
sceptical. We did go hiking in the evening along the river
and looked at the cabin across the creek. It didn’t have a
roof but Doug thought in about three days this log cabin
could be repaired so it would be useable. That would be
something! The log cabin belongs to a Mr. Fox who is an
Indian who are allowed to build a cabin anywhere. Besides
his family they were trappers along this river. The log
cabin at the end of Quiet Lake, and the one at Big Salmon
Lake and also this one here would all be his. We had also
found out that Austrians not Germans, that lived in that
cabin for a year were allowed to stay there for a year for
free because they were fixing up that log cabin. That might
be an idea for this one as well. Then I heard a noise in the
bush. What it a moose? Or maybe a bear? Doug took his
camera right away, followed the noise and I stayed behind
him. We found a very colourful chicken. Doug followed it
and took a few pictures. I’m very much looking forward to
them. Back at the tent I made sandwiches for the next day
and packed everything that I could already pack, cause
tomorrow we do really want to start early!
At nine o’clock we pushed off. That is not bad for us
especially if you consider it takes an hour for us to fold
the tent, pack the bags and load it all into the canoe and
fasten everything. But our late mornings are really not that
bad either because this morning the tent was still full of
dew and damp.
Today the current was a little faster than Friday and I
think we have also figured out a little better how to handle
the canoe. We always have to check for stones that are
sticking out or close to the surface, sweepers, hidden roots,
shallow water. We had dinner at moose creek, boiled eggs,
salami and pepper. We still have really great food all the
time but we’re not quite satisfied. EXPLORING THE BIG SALMON – TOGETHER THIS TIME!
So This was Whitehorse! Doug shook his head again.
Much new stuff was being built. Everything was changing
within these last three years since Doug had been there. We
went to eaEXPLORING THE BIG SALMON – TOGETHER THIS TIME!
So This was Whitehorse! Doug shook his head again.
Much new stuff was being built. Everything was changing
within these last three years since Doug had been there. We
went to eacould see
them getting ready to jump up. Could see them look at the
funny hook, but they were just not ready for it or else they
knew what it was. I think they’re smarter than we think. So
on we went. These were the hot days so for every bend we
went we looked and checked out first the river for anything
difficult, then the shore for anything. Often we would see a
duck mother with little ones trying to go around the corner.
She usually saw us first and with lots of noise and flapping
of wings she tried to hide her young. Around the next bend,
of course we followed her, the water takes us in the same
direction, and all of a sudden there is nothing to see and
nothing to hear and the ducks have disappeared. But when you
look close you could see in the roots along the shore, how
the long row of little ducks, quietly paddle against the
current. That is pretty smart.
And now around the next bend in this very far away place
we see an orange tarp with two boats. Four people are
building a little hut. The lady says hi but other than that
we are not being acknowledged. They must have just arrived.
On the map we could see that there is a little lake close to
the river so we were suspecting that they might have been
flown into this place. It was a strange meeting. We pulled
up our shoulders and of course, just went on. Around the
next bend all of a sudden we could see how the pine trees
were swaying really strongly just along the shore. This was
accompanied by a loud noise. The water splashed up (as the
whirlwind crossed the river) and we tried to get to shore as
quickly as possible.
It turned out okay to explore this little place. It
seemed to be another camp of this Mr. Fox. But there was no
cabin. There was a bench and a well-built fireplace. There
was a skeleton of a canoe that looked very much like it was
built by Indians. The skeleton was probably covered with
bark or leather. We also found a strange-looking rectangle
out of branches in two trees. It was nailed on. My first
thought: It sure looks like you could attach a poster,
“MacDonalds welcomes you to Big Salmon River.” My second
thought was maybe to dry a bear skin.
We did find lots of strawberries, mosquitoes and ants.
The wind was gone. We saw the trees on the other side of the
river move. It must have been a mini tornado or something.
We went back into the water and paddled on to the next sandy
beach. We didn’t put up our tent. We did make a lean-to
against wind and rain. We jumped into the ice cold water to
refresh ourselves. We had rice and cheese and sand for
supper and slept deep and good.
We woke up to very hot weather. We did make a fire
anyway, to make coffee. We poured the coffee into our
thermos and tried to escape the heat but even on the water it
wasn’t much better. It just was a hot day and it was slow
water. We both were a little irritated, yet the area we
travelled through was beautiful. The landscape changed all
the time. Doug did want to get to a certain spot where his
map showed that a glacier had ended there. I already just
about had a heatstroke when we finally got there. We saw one
of the lakes in which the ice must have flown and it was very
beautiful. And we found three beds, the grass pushed
together. Doug said that is an animal bed. He also thought
from the size he could tell that it was too big for deer but
for moose it was too small. It probably was caribou- very
interesting! First we sat in the shade for awhile and then
we took a big moose highway along the mountain slope to one
of the lakes. It was a beautiful view, there was hardly any
mosquitoes, nice walking, just beautiful. This lake to the
right had a kind of a U-shaped appearance and at the end it
looked very swampy and we thought if we were here in the
evening it could well have lots of moose in there. On the
way back I saw a chicken. Doug thought, no, it’s probably a
squirrel, but since when do squirrels fly? Doug thought of a
good idea. It sounded like a good idea. To distract the
chicken, I was supposed to follow the path. When I was far
enough away I set down the goldpan very quickly so I could
hold shut my ears. Cause when Doug’s big bear-killer booms,
it’s very loud and it must not have been easy to hit such a
small chicken with such a big bullet so there would still be
some meat left. But it worked! And here we were sitting.
Doug took the eatable parts of the chicken out. Doug looked
at me but I didn’t make a face. He thought it was probably
time to get me back into civilization if this didn’t matter
to me anymore. We did put the meat on a piece of bark and
into the goldpan and passed a beautiful place with lots of
strawberries. It looked just about like a planted field.
They were big and full, well, relatively big for the wild
strawberries. We filled the rest of the goldpan with the
strawberries and were looking forward to a very delicious
We got back to the canoe. I washed the meat and put it
in a bag and hid it in our cooler. I guess it was against
the law to shoot a chicken because the season only starts on
the first of August and this was the 27th of July. Doug had
already decided where we were going to camp. It was a place
where he had camped eight years ago where a grizzly had
signed where his territory was. He scratches a piece of bark
out of the tree at about two meters of height. And that was
another hour away. I was thankful that the water was
somewhat faster at this point. And there again, the task of
putting up the tent, get out the bag with the clothes, the
cooler, the bag with all the tin cans, the box with the
dishes, the paddles, the camera bag, the sleeping bag. We
did it all already like in a dream. Doug got some wood, I
made a fire and soon the corn, some potatoes and the meat
were cooking. I washed the strawberries and mixed up some
dried skim milk. What a delicious meal. By now it was
eleven at night and we had a real campfire. Tonight it was
actually dark. We had coffee and talked a lot. Everything
was just fine.
Slept long because today we have no other plans than
just to enjoy this area. I’m writing the diary. Doug’s
looking for gold. He’s also trying to get the salmon. I can
hardly believe it that I the scared German, really like it
here. Towards evening we had wanted to go for a little hike
but after three hot days there was a big thunderstorm which
we took as an excuse to go to bed early. Yes, life is very,
very different here in the wilderness. Money, time,
electricity are such strange words- unecessary. Eating,
having a place to dry your hat, and being alert all the time
are important in the civilization as well, only now I can
tell how really important it is. I can tell how much Doug
lives here, especially when I compare this with the way he
can be in town and how uptight he can be there. I can see
how he just blossoms here with just the thought of a moose
around the next bend in the swamp that he has to wait for.
I’m really impressed with this love, this urge to be one with
nature and its inhabitants but it also scares me a little
because it isn’t quite the same as I can follow it. I do
like it here, it’s very fascinating, how death and life are
so close together everywhere, all the time. Dead trees,
broken and killed by water and right beside it a new little
pine tree. Life is so easy here. But actually it is easy.
It’s just people who make it complicated. But I cannot put
civilization away. I do like cities to a degree and I
especially like people. We had a good talk about this, very
honest and important. And we do want to let each other grow
in either way and get to know each other more all the time.
I got up at five o’clock! Who would have ever thought
that? At first I looked around everywhere to see if there
was any sign of bear who was looking for food, but I quickly
tried not to think about it anymore. Then I made a fire, it
wasn’t very easy because it had rained so much the night
before, got breakfast ready, woke Doug and together we packed
up the canoe. We were ready at seven o’clock to take off and
it started to rain very hard. We put on our rainsuits and
started out. It was good that we got going then because we
were able to kind of paddle out of that weather and I think
if it would have gone on like this for long the canoe would
have become a bathtub.
The water was pretty fast here as we were leaving the
mountains. We were quiet so we could see some animals
because the weather seemed right for that. We saw some duck
families and some squirrels and some whiskey jacks. One time
we heard some noises in the bush and some stomping away.
The area became more hilly and the water slower. The
cloudiness became worse and Doug couldn’t resist any longer
and started the motor. Then around 11:30 we made it all the
way to South Big Salmon. It was cold and very moist. We
were very wet and very cold. We tried to make a fire. The
six Swiss canoes that we had been following, they must have
been three days ahead of us. That’s what we could tell from
the diary at the Big Salmon Lake. They had left some wood
under a bush- how nice of them! We made a vegetable soup out
of a tin. I usually don’t like it but I had never liked it
as much as I did that day.
It got a little lighter and we went on always looking
for stones. Sometimes the river would split. Do you take
the right or the left or the middle. It was very tiring in
time, but everything went good so far and the water was quite
easy to travel on til now. Around six o’clock we got to the
North Big Salmon. We were already quite tired. The water
that came here out of this creek was black and it was
mosquito city and a grizzly had made marks on the tree.
The Swiss people has also been here. Now I guess we’ve done
as much as they’ve done in two days. We were pretty tired
and tried to decide if we should go the last thirty miles to
the Yukon River or stay here. We decided to open a can of
beans, eat it cold and ate a buttered bread and go on.
The first thing that we met were very fast rapids with lots
of stones sticking out. One of them we actually drove right
on and we had a hard time to balance the canoe across it.
Afterwards, Doug remembered that spot but we’d hoped for
thirty miles of slow water as it had been before, not such
nervous dangerous, fast water, especially when you are half
asleep. After four of those kind of spots we stopped. Doug
was very frustrated, tired and finished. “Why do I have such
a bad memory? It would be better I had none. Then I
wouldn’t always try to depend on it!”
I gave him a grape sugar. I tried to encourage him
because for some strange reason I kind of enjoyed this. Doug
couldn’t believe my positive attitude. We were thinking of
stopping but we thought we’ll just try around another bend
and then we’ll see and then it actually started getting a
little better. Doug started the motor but the water here was
pretty because of the North Big Salmon and I always had to
check the depth of the water with the paddle.
Around 9:30 our gas ration was out. We started to
paddle. The landscape was wide and open. There was some
wind. At one spot it was very interesting. There were small
little hills right beside each other like little marshmallow
heads. At the last one the river wound itself around like a
round swimming pool. From here it’s half an hour to the Big
Salmon village in the Yukon Valley.
And here we are in this little ghost-town. It used to
be important. People used to live here when the steamship
was going from Whitehorse to Dawson all the time. Today,
there were two people there, who were Germans, who had been
on a tour from the Nisutlin River to the Teslin Lake to the
Teslin River and along the Yukon River now. I didn’t tell
them that I was German and I don’t think I will. I can
hardly believe how many Europeans are on the rivers of
Canada! Here we were standing, dog-tired, should we put up
our tent. We looked at some of the old log cabins. Some of
them had fallen roofs and beams, one had sunk into the dirt
and sat there crooked.
One must have been a store at one time and it had many
shelves. One of the shelves was full of bottles, wine, beer,
whiskey and scotch. I guess anyone that comes by adds
another bottle. The roof, floors were quite okay. There
even was a bed. On the wall someone had signed, “Helmut
Kohln – Ich war auch da.” Let’s sleep here said Doug.
I couldn’t close my mouth until I could get used to this
thought. Doug had already unloaded the canoe and made a
fire. There we sat on the bed on our sleeping bag and drank
cold coffee out of the thermos. There, something came
running into the door. I couldn’t say we had company from a
mouse, no, we were the visitors. Doug had no problem
accepting that and he behaved like a guest and the mouse
behaved like she owned this place. The gun case, that was
leaning against the bed beside me the little mouse took a
leap and used it as stairs to get into our bed. All I could
do was quickly take the case and shake her off. While this
mouse ran into a corner another climbed onto the bottle-
shelf. I am not going to take my clothes off here. I
decided to crawl into the sleeping bag and just forget-
sleep. I had just dozed off when Doug screamed and scared a
mouse off my pillow. That was it for my sleep. I kept
listening for them until five in the morning. Mice moved
everywhere. They were active all around the bottle-shelf, in
the kitchen cupboards, in our pots, scratching around. I
noticed one mouse along the floor trying to get to the door.
It went back so I opened the door. I thought maybe she wants
out. I quickly got my feet back into the sleeping bag but
she didn’t go out. Another one came in. The sun came up and
so did I. I made a fire outside, dried our clothes, wrote
diary and thought about our whole trip. A hundred miles we
did yesterday. That was absolutely crazy and today we want
to do another seventy to get from along the Yukon River all
the way to Carmacks.
Next morning Doug got up at about 8:30. It was a nice
sunny day. We took it easy a little and made some pancakes
for breakfast, and started out at about eleven. The Yukon
River is very wide and relatively fast. The wind is very bad
though. We were so tired and the sun burned on our brains.
We just stopped for a short tea break at the Little Salmon
and went on. I’m sure I have a sunstroke or something cause
somewhere the gas had been out a long time and we were
already hoping after every bend to find Carmacks. I just
finally lost it. I started to get silly. I could only laugh
and it was getting crazy.
We asked someone on the shore how far it was to Carmacks
and in very broken English he said, “Eight to ten miles”.
No! We had thought it would be very close. I’m sure this
man was a German.
About ten in the evening, with wind against us, we got
there. The campground was full and the few little spaces in
the forest were full of glass splinters. And now after all
this paddling and being over-tired, we have to clean up this
mess, set up our tent, make a fire, the whole thing. Ah,
what would I do without Doug? I slept like a stone.
300 kilometers with the canoe, 55 hours on the water.
chapter 6: paul’s cabin
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 of my good friends, I think, would disagree with one or more of
these last points, only adding thereby to the particular
savour of the north.