I KNOW of no place in the world where the mail man is more popular than in the Yukon. In the summer—it’s a riotously colorful summer in the Klondike—His Majesty’s mail comes up river to Dawson on the chugging stern-wheeler which is Dawson’s only link with the outside world. Always the neighborly little town of four hundred souls provides a reception committee to welcome the vessel, and always the mail bags are carried ashore just as soon as the skipper and crew have greeted old friends and introduced passenger-tourists to anyone who happens to be convenient.
Then, from the river bank to the post office there troops up the little main street of Dawson a long line of news-hungry men and women. Impatiently they wait for the mail to be sorted and handed out by a postmaster who, himself, eagerly looks for word from his mother, his brother and his two sisters in far away Nova Scotia. Yes, it is pleasant to receive a message from ‘the outside’ in the summer, the riotously colorful summer of the Klondike.
But, in the winter, who knows what His Majesty’s mail means to the men and women who dwell in the lonely land of abiding night? After the little crowd on the river bank has waved a desolate farewell to the last river steamer of the season, after the land has become a land of frozen granite, after the eyes of the lonely trapper have grown weary vainly searching by the light of the stars for a human figure on the trail, after the cold’s sharp sting has become a thing of terror in an eternity of darkness, then it is that heart-hungry men and woman await the coming of the mail man with an indescribable longing.
Then it is that the man who carries His Majesty’s mails over a perilous winter trail of the frozen North, over mountains and glaciers, through great dark valleys is a messenger of comfort, of happiness, sometimes even of sanity to the citizens of the Yukon Territory.
A Dangerous Task
TUT IS is a dangerous and responsible task, that of carrying the mails from White Horse at the end of the steel overland five hundred miles to Dawson, but Frank Harbottle, the man who takes the first part of the trip from White Horse to Crooked Creek Junction makes little of the dangers and the hardships.
“I start from White Horse,” he told me when I was in White Horse recently, “with a caterpillar and a trailer, upon which are deposited the bags holding the mail, ometimes weighing eight or ten tons. On the first morn-
ing, I cover twenty-two miles, reaching Tahkheena for grub at the roadhouse, at noon. There I cross the Yukon River, leaving the tractor and trailer behind for the return trip, taking my mail bags across in a canoe, making a number of trips.
“There is a man stationed at the river who crosses with me, for there must be one man to paddle the canoe, and another to rock it. Where you come from, rocking a canoe is supposed to be sheer foolishness and foolhardiness, but a constant rocking is necessary on the Yukon, or the canoe would freeze into the ice before we reach the opposite shore.
“I then reload on a ‘cat’ and trailer awaiting me on the opposite shore, and proceed for sixteen miles to Little River, that afternoon. There is a shack there, where I build fires, cook some grub, and sleep.
“The next morning I make twenty-three miles, reaching Nordenskjoild, a small settlement named for the famous Danish explorer, one of the first men to explore this country. After grub, I go ahead another twenty-four miles to Braeburn where I leave more mail and spend the night.
“Then twenty-four miles again the next morning to Montague and grub. The afternoon of that day I go on to Carmax, a distance of twenty-seven miles, and I feed and spend the night there. The next morning the ‘cat’ and I make twenty-two miles to Yukon Crossing, where I again cross the river in a canoe, ‘rocking the boat’ every inch of the way, and I find another tractor and trailer awaiting me on the opposite shore. In the afternoon of that day I travel twenty-five miles to Minto, where I sleep in a shack.
“Then I leave the Yukon Valley and travel by the Stewart Vadey and the Pelly Valley, twenty-two miles to Pelly Crossing. Grub again, and the Pelly River to cross in the same old way.
“In the afternoon, twenty-five miles to Crooked Creek Summit, where I eat and sleep, and the next morning I make another twenty-five miles to Crooked Creek Junction, where I transfer my remaining mail bags to the chap who finishes the trail to Dawson with a team of horses or dogs, depending upon the weather, another eleven /stays’ trip. I have covered, over the trail, about two hundred and fifty miles in five-.and-çt-half, days, and I immediately turn about, and the good old ‘cat’ and I
retrace our way over the mountains and valley? back to White Horse. ‘r
“Perhaps I should explain that it is not alway? possible to paddle a canoe through the ice of the rivers. That is done in the autumn when the waters are freezing over, and in the spring when the ice is breaking up. When it is frozen solid we cross with dog teams, and when we’re none so sure just how much weight it will hold, we cross in a canoe, drawn through the snow which' covers the ice, by dogs. If the weight of the mail bags in the canoe breaks the ice in spots, the dogs yank us out, and the mail doesn’t get wet, or sink under the ice, a? would be the case if it were carried on sleds.
“When the rivers are in flood or there are bad ice jams,, we swing our mail across the river on a raft hung from, wire cables, and we follow on in the same way.”
“With so many hazards on the route, don’t you have a. lot of delays?” I asked.
“Not so many; my time varies very little. Five-and-ahalf days each way, and I don’t mind telling you that, each hour of those days has its problems and its thrills. What was a trail in the summer is obliterated by the snow and ice of winter, and I have to know every inch of the way. My landmarks are mountains, and I drive at the rate of about fifty miles a day, through valleys and mountain trails, over glaciers, gleaming green in the dim twilight. You may notice that these snapshots are taken in spring or fall, when the rivers are not frozen solid, for, later on, there is not sufficient light to use a kodak. Even so, some of them were snapped when it was sixty below, a nice, invigorating temperature,” and the mail man chuckled.
“It must be a perilous life.”
“From the point of view of folks ‘outside,’ I suppose it is, but we up here are given to disregarding the dangers of our own country, just as you of the cities don’t stop to ponder upon the dangers of city traffic, and the reports in the newspapers about motor accidents. I’m sure that I’d be in a blue funk nowadajs at the corner of King and Yonge Streets in Toronto.
“But I haven’t many mishaps, at that. There are master mechanics in charge of each tractor to keep it in perfect shape, and I’m quite a mechanic myself at a pinch. But it’s a terrible thing to have to make repairs at forty to sixty below, for one can’t do a job on the internal workings of an engine with gloves on, and the metal burns the flesh when it’s so cold.” He Carries the Yukon Mail
Continued on page 61
Continued, from page 10
“Tell me about some of your experiences on the trail?”
Araminta Does Her Stuff
ELL, last winter I had a bad spill W over a mountain-side near Carmax •—ten miles or so. I was turning a curve, and something struck the steering gear, for ‘Araminta,’ the cat, ambled straight ahead, and took a header. I jumped clear; she turned over a couple of times, carrying the trailer along, and landed right side up, a couple of hundred feet below, leaving the mail bags scattered here and there on the slope. I had some difficulty righting the trailer, but managed to jack it up with a tree which I chopped down. Then I repacked the mail, made a sort of road by a detour back up the side of the mountain, by chopping down the larger trees, and, in three or four hours was ready to go on. You understand, of course, that Araminta’s favorite outdoor sport is mountain climbing, and that she knocks down and walks over the average small tree with no difficulty whatsoever.
“I must tell you about the small glaciers that form between trips. They are an annoyance, to put it mildly, and I’d hate Bishop Stringer to hear the cuss words which I have hurled at those ornery young glaciers. You see, a small tree or fallen rock, across the path of a mountain stream, will start a glacier to growing, and in a day it is twenty feat high, and has to be chopped away before you can go ahead.”
“Just how does it form?”
“Well, the descending water coats the tree or rock with ice, forms a higher barrier, against which yet more water flows and more ice is formed; more water freezes, and more ice is formed until there is a healthy young glacier, and a pile of ice is waiting for me when I come upon that spot on the trail. That happens often and it takes hours of heavy chopping to make a path through, for the trail ‘Araminta’ follows is so narrow that you can’t turn out. The trail is generally cut on the mountain side, a rough and narrow roadway, with straight high cliffs either up or down, both to right and left. Here and there are small bridges over the larger streams but, as often as not, I find them torn away by the ice, but ‘Araminta’ waddles right through. She doesn’t mind getting her feet wet—bless her!
IT’S a mighty pleasant thing for me when I have passengers over the trail,” continued Mr. Harbottle, “though the experience is not always an unmixed joy for them. Last November I brought down Captain George Black, our federal member of Parliament, and his wife, when they went ‘outside’ bound for Ottawa. Mrs. Black has written and published an article about that trip, but she didn’t give herself half the credit that she deserved. She had the courage of an old sourdough, and the only time that she got scarey was when we crossed the rivers through the ice. I think that she’d rather have risked being frozen in, than put up with the everlasting rocking of the canoe, all the way across.
“I brought Judge Macauley down on my next trip. He’s been over the winter trail before, but it was his first experience in being followed by a large pack of hungry-looking wolves. I may say that that often happens, and I frequently encounter bear, fox, moose, and caribou, and I meet mountain sheep by the hundreds over the trail. It’s a great hunting country up here, you know.
“But to return to the judge; he’s no boy; he’s been $ Judge in the Yukon for wenty-five years, and, as a matter of
fact, he was going ‘outside’ to visit his first grandchild in Belleville, Ontario. He’s a great sport, and as fine a man on the trail as on the bench—and that’s saying something! I certainly enjoyed having him with me that trip.
Both Corpse and Criminal
“T’VE had less pleasant companions,
A however. During my service I’ve had to bring down several insane people being sent to asylums in British Columbia or elsewhere. Of course I always had a Mounted Policeman with me, and I was sworn in as special guard. The same thing is done if I’m bringing in a criminal for trial. Just a few weeks ago, one policeman and I brought over the trail a murderer by the name of Davis, and incidentally, we brought along the evidence, the frozen corpse of his victim!” Mr. Harbottle chuckled: “Yes—quite a trip! The murderer had killed his partner, couldn’t bury him on account of the frozen ground-—it’s like granite in the winter, you know—so he kept the frozen body in his cellar. He must have spent a pleasant few months there with such a companion. He was out of luck, for a Mountie passed that way, made tender enquiries for the apparently absent partner, got a bit suspicious when he heard the answers to his questions, made a search, and—that’s the story.
“I’ll admit that the life has its dangers, but it’s all in the day’s work, and I give you my word that I wouldn’t change my existence; that I never envy anybody. This is my country; I know it, and I love it, and I take it as God'made it. My brother is Colonel Colin C. Harbottle, in command of the Toronto Scottish Regiment, and perhaps some brothers might feel that he had the ‘birthright’ of man, and that I had the ‘mess of pottage,’ but I feel that it’s the other way around!”
“Ditto,” Said the Bishop
T FOUND, much to my regret, that it A was not possible to see and talk with the man who carries the mails on from Crooked Creek Junction to Dawson. He was in the interior for the summer months, prospecting. However, I was told that he is another such a man as Frank Harbottle, and a real sourdough. Here’s a story about him which is decidedly worth telling.
A certain bishop, struggling over the trail with his dogs and his dunnage at sixty below, found it unusually hazardous, and hard-going. He was on his way to visit an outlying mission, and to confirm a group of Indian children.
Needless to say, the bishop was not dressed in the approved clerical fashion, but was heavily upholstered in furs! Travelling south on the trail, he met the mail man going north, and was not recognized as a parson. The two men built a fire and had their grub together. As they devoured their bacon and beans, the bishop inquired anxiously: “How’s the trail you’ve covered to the south?”
The mail man told him.
He was an old-timer, that mail man. He had been in the Mounted Police, and the river steamship service, as well as the mail service, and his vocabulary embraced the profanity of all three callings. He described that trail to the south to a nicety, but not at all nicely. The crisp Yukon air surrounding that little camp fire on the Klondike mountain-top turned blue, as the mail man told the bishop all about the lamentable condition of the trail to the south.
Then he asked the cleric; “And how’s the trail that you have covered, to the ' north, old-timer?”
The bishop, briefly, and with no hesitation, replied “The same!”
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