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 lose interest!" 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 scope. 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 limited... ... 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 canoe. 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 disappeared. 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 much for. 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 it. 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 mountain. There, I gathered what scrub wood I could find and stowed it for the night and huddled as near the fire as possible, 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 running. 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 bailing. 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 bush alone. 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 been asked. 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!"