THE OBSESSION OF ALBERT FAILLE
Bent with age (he's 74), one of the last of the old-school prospectors still battles his lonely way through legendary Headless Valley summer after bitter summer, seeking a gold mine that unobsessed men say probably doesn't even exist
THE SOUTH NAHANNI, high in the Northwest Territories, is probably the most beautiful river in Canada, but it is a killer river and hardly anyone ever travels it. Some people say it's cursed. It goes from nowhere to nowhere, rising in the Selwyn Mountain glaciers, and rushing almost 400 miles south to the Liard River. On its way, it flows through Deadman's or Headless. Valley.
Last year I went down the Nahanni. through the wild and uninhabited country that gave rise to the legend of Headless Valley. This grisly legend is one of the most famous in the north, but for me it was overshadowed by the personality of Albert Faille, the strange adventurer who took me on the trip. For Faille says there is gold on the Nahanni, and he keeps looking for it year after year in this wilderness that has killed so many others who were doing the same thing.
It was in Headless Valley that a search party found the skeletons of Frank and Willie
McLeod in 1908. Near the skeletons, according to one of several versions of the story, there was a note saying the McLeods had found gold. But according to this version, the gold was gone, and so were the skulls of the skeletons. Hence the name Headless Valley.
Every so often since 1908 prospectors have fought their w;ay up the Nahanni to look for the McLeod bonanza. Nobody has ever found it, but at least a dozen of the seekers have either disappeared or have been found dead, usually in mysterious circumstances. And thus the legend of the haunted river grows.
“TWO MOUNTIES CAME TO BURY ME”
Today nobody looks for the McLeod mine any more, except Albert Faille.
I first met Faille (it's pronounced Fay-lee) at Fort Simpson, NWT, in April 1961. When he told me he w'as planning to go up the Nahanni that summer. I found it hard to believe him. For Faille is now seventy-four years
old; his hands tremble when he lights his pipe and when he walks an old back injury makes him bend almost double.
“But when I put a pack on my back it straightens me up,"’ he says.
Faille assured me that he knew where the lost McL.eod mine was—far up the Nahanni, above Virginia Falls, which are almost twice as high as Niagara, in an area where the mountains still have no names.
He told me he would find the gold if only he could get that far. He had tried before, every summer for seven years, but each time he had failed. Once his boat had capsized in the rapids, and he had almost drowned. Another time the cold weather had come early and the river had frozen; unable to get home, he had built a cabin and spent the winter in it.
“That was a funny one,” said Faille. “On the way out, in the spring, I meet two Mounties on the river, looking for me. Each one's got himself a shovel. They come to bury me."
Though the Mounties found Faille very much alive, his health wasn't too good. His food supplies had been inadequate for the long winter and one day he bit into a piece of his homemade bread and saw blood on it; and he knew he had scurvy. His teeth started to ache fearfully and he pulled four of them out with a pair of pliers.
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THE OBSESSION OF ALBERT FAILLE
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Six days out he built a second boat. Then the river erupted
"But this year 1 think I'll make it," Faille told me.
Fie had built himself a new boat, about 20 feet long, and had bought a new 18-horsepower motor to fight the Nahanni. He had earned the money for the motor by doing guard duty at the little Fort Simpson jail on Saturday nights.
"Always a few drunks in the jail on Saturdays,” Faille said, "most of them friends of mine. They keep yelling, ‘Let me out, Albert, or i'll beat hell out of you on Monday.’ But 1 never let them out and they never beat me up. I like those drunks. They paid for my motor.”
I had come to this part of the north in search of an idea for a documentary film about the Nahanni for the National Film Board. This was obviously it—if Faille would only cooperate.
“Are you going up the river alone?" I asked him.
“Would you mind if a cameraman went with you? To make a movie?”
"I'd like the company.”
As soon as the ice was gone. Faille planned to launch his boat in the Mackenzie River, where the village of Fort Simpson is located and where he lives alone in his little cabin. He would go a mile or so up the Mackenzie and then head into the Liard River. He would go a hundred miles up the Liard and then enter the Nahanni.
On the Nahanni, he would go through the rapids and canyons, through Headless Valley and on up the river until he reached Virginia Falls.
Here he would beach his boat and portage all his gear, his food and his gasoline to a point above the falls. He would also carry up lumber and a smaller motor, and above the falls he would build a new boat for the next part of the trip. The grueling portage, a mile and a quarter uphill with each load, would take about a week. The whole 500 mile trip would take six or seven weeks, depending on the mood of the Nahanni. Then, near the top of the river, he would pan for gold.
The Film Board liked the idea and assigned it to Don Wilder, a cameraman-director from Toronto. Wilder arrived at Fort Simpson toward the end of June. He hired two young rivermen and their boat, from which he could photograph Albert Faille's odyssey, and as soon as the ice left the river they all set out for the Nahanni.
In mid-August 1 chartered a plane at Watson Lake, in the Yukon, and flew in to join Faille and the Wilder party on the Nahanni. Wilder had grown a beard, and he looked tired. His trip had been arduous. Several times he’d stopped and lugged his heavy equipment high up mountainsides. so that his camera could show Faille's little boat in relation to the awesome immensity of the country.
He'd stood knee-deep in the river for some shots and he had had to hang on to his camera through roller-coaster rapids. But he had been successful, as those who have seen the recently released NFB film, Nahanni. will know.
Albert Faille, however, had not been successful. Wilder told me what had happened. For the first six weeks of the trip. Faille had done everything he had planned to do: he had fought his way through the rapids, he had
reached Virginia Falls, he had made the backbreaking portage (although with some assistance from Wilder and his two helpers). Above the Falls, he had built his second boat and had proceeded far up the Nahanni, toward its headwaters.
Then, suddenly, the smooth upper reaches of the river erupted unexpectedly into violent rapids. Apparently the ice that roars down in the spring had brought tons of rock and silt with it. depositing them on the
river bed. The channel he had known before was gone.
Faille had not been able to get through the new rapids, so he had steered his boat to the shore. He had lightened it by putting his gear, his gasoline drum and his motor ashore. Then he had stepped into the water and tried to pull the boat through the rapids by his own strength.
With alt the effort he could muster, he could only go a few yards. Reluctantly, the old man had brought his
boat back to shore. He was only forty miles from his destination, where he thought the gold was, but it was too far to walk overland. There wouldn’t be enough time before freeze-up. Once more, the Nahanni had beaten him and it was time to turn around and go home again.
Don Wilder had filmed these last scenes just a few' days before 1 flew in to join him and Faille. I could see the disappointment in Faille’s pale blue eyes. His back seemed more stooped than ever.
“Hello,” he said to me. And not much more than that. His ordeal had left him with little desire to talk.
The next day I was alone with Faille in his little boat. We w'ere off down the Nahanni and he was sitting in the stern, steering and probing the river with his sounding pole as he searched for treacherous rocks and shoals. He w'as silent and sad as he headed for home, 450 miles away.
During the next week, his boat carried me through some of the most magnificent country I have ever seen. The Nahanni itself was always changing character: sometimes it was as placid as a quiet lake and then it would foam into rapids that tossed the boat wildly about. There was the looming mass of Sunblood Mountain, the splendor of Virginia Falls, the great canyon walls that rose straight up from the river for about fifteen hundred feet.
Those August days were warm and green, and there was something exhilarating about traveling through totally uninhabited country. We'd travel most of the day, stopping for lunch and again in the late afternoon to make camp. Now and then we’d look up to see an eagle wheeling high overhead, perhaps looking for a lamb in a herd of mountain sheep. Now and then a caribou would run back into the forest, frightened by the sound of our boat.
But I hadn’t come all this way just for the scenery. I wanted to know w'hat kind of a man Albert Faille was. Why did he keep looking for this gold, which many people said didn’t even exist? What kind of a life had prepared him for such easy acceptance of solitude and danger?
Each evening, after supper, we would sit at the campfire and talk, and he would reveal a bit more of himself. Slowly 1 pieced together a picture of a strange and lonely life.
Faille told me that he had been born in New' Salem, Pennsylvania, in 1888. He was brought up by foster parents and knew nothing about his real parents, except that his father w'as Swiss and his mother was from Bohemia.
"I used to have a little tin tag,” he said, “with my father’s name on it and my mother's name and the date of birth. One day my shack burned down and 1 lost the tag. That was my last connection with my family. 1 don't remember my father’s name, but my mother’s name was Mary.”
File was hard on the farm that Faille's foster parents ran, and he grew to hate their cruelty. At the age of eight he ran away from home and since then he has spent most of his life alone.
The eight-year-old boy wandered across the countryside, sleeping in barns and boiler rooms, sometimes
traveling with hoboes, sometimes earning a few cents by doing chores on farms.
“Nowadays they’d pick you up and put you in school,” Faille said. “But in those days it was different. A kid could be on his own."
Faille learned how to ride freights and by the age of ten he was in Tower, Minnesota. He found an abandoned shack near the town and moved in. An old man—“I think his name was Hudson”—showed him how to trap animals and sell the skins. For most of the years to come, trapping was to be his main livelihood.
But he did other work too and when he was eighteen he had a job in a logging camp in Minnesota. He vividly remembers one day there when the camp watchman handed him a newspaper.
“Want to read this, Albert?” said the watchman.
“1 can't read,” said Faille.
“Well, then,” said the watchman, “I'll teach you.”
Faille wandered around the United States, doing odd jobs in farming and forestry. “Sure, I was a bum,” he says. “But I always made my own way. I always had good clothes and a dollar to spend.”
In 191 7 he joined the U. S. Forestry Engineers and w'ent to France. After the war he came back to Minnesota, got married and started trapping again.
But by 1924 trapping in Minnesota had become unprofitable, so he came to Canada, to the Northwest Territories. He spent the winter of that year trapping on the Beaver River.
He had a partner in this enterprise, a huge man called Fred Mayo, who had come with him from Minnesota.
Together they set their long traplines out through the frozen forests and all was going well until Fred Mayo got sick. They had been eating nothing but beans, pork and homemade bread all winter and Mayo developed scurvy, a debilitating disease caused by vitamin deficiency. The huge man was so weakened that he could do nothing but lie in bed in the cabin he and Faille had built.
Faille had to leave the traplines and stay to nurse Mayo by feeding him pails of tea made of tamarack sprouts, spruce tops and jackpine bark. Mayo slowly regained his health and, toward the end of the w'inter, went back to Minnesota, promising to return the following year.
Despite Mayo's illness, the winter on Beaver River had been profitable. The traps yielded a good catch of lynx, marten, mink, fox and beaver and the two men were able to share $5,000.
Mayo didn't come back the following winter and so Faille trapped by himself. This time he made $5,000 alone and he was convinced that he should make his home in this country.
He sent for his wife. Marion, and w'ent to Edmonton to meet her. But despite his enthusiasm for the Beaver River country, Marion refused to come and live with him in the wilderness. Faille had an agonizing choice to make, and he chose the North. Marion went back to Minnesota.
That was 1926, in Edmonton, and
it was the last time Faille ever saw a city. It was also the last time he ever saw his wife, although he sent her money regularly until she died, in I 950.
“I don't know why Marion wouldn't come,” says Faille. “1 offered her a good life. Lots of Indian women offered to come in with me, but I never cl ici it. I always thought I might some day go home to Marion.”
After he said good-bye to his wife, Faille settled into the lonely routine of the solitary trapper. His partner, Fred Mayo, never came back.
In the summers, there were people to talk to at Fort Simpson. But during the long winters his only companions were the dogs that hauled his sled along the traplines and the chickadees and whisky jacks that scavenged for food. There were also the wolves that howled in the sub-Arctic night and occasionally attacked him.
He had a hundred miles of traplines and each day during those winters he would cover a section, remove the animals from the traps, and bait them again. At night he would sleep in a tent or in one of the several tiny cabins he built.
“Weren't you lonesome?” I asked
“Yes,” he said, “but mostly I was too busy to be lonesome.”
By 1943, Faille was fifty-five years old and the life of the traplines was becoming more and more grueling for him. He was offered a job as engineer on a boat operated by a doctor who cruised up and down the Mackenzie River, treating patients in the little settlements. He took the job, and found it pleasant, but after eight years he became restless again. So he decided to become a prospector and look for the legendary gold of the Nahanni. He was now sixty-three.
One evening, during my trip down the river with him, I asked him what made him so sure there was gold in this country.
“Before 1900,” said Faille, “there was an Indian called Little Nahanni who brought some nuggets out. of here. He gave them to Bishop Bren-
ner, at Fort Simpson, and he made them into a watch chain and a ring. About thirty years ago 1 saw that ring on the Bishop's finger. The Bishop was an old man by then.
“It was that same Indian, Little Nahanni, who told the McLeod brothers where to find the gold.”
Faille told me this while we were camped hi Headless Valley. The McLeod brothers' cabin had long ago been washed away by the river in one of its springtime rampages. But somewhere here their skeletons were buried, perhaps near this very campfire. The RCMP had investigated the case anti was satisfied that there had been no foul play, but rumors of murder persisted in this case and others. And the more old-timers you ask about these things in the North, the more versions you get.
For instance, what about Martin Jorgenson, who went looking for the McLeod gold and whose skeleton was found around 1913? Was there a bullet hole in his skull? Or was the skull completely missing? And what about the note that he left, saying he had struck it rich?
In 1929, a prospector named Angus Hall disappeared in the Nahanni country. In 1932, Faille found the bones of Phil Powers in the ashes of a cabin that had burned down. In 1936, Mulholland and Eppler vanished into thin air. Holmberg was found dead in 1940 and in 1949 Shcbbach was found in his cabin: his diary showed that he had been 43 days without food and just before he died he wrote DEAD MAN HERE on a piece of wood, nailed it to the cabin door, and went inside.
There were other strange deaths, too, including that of a man who committed suicide by strapping dynamite around his waist. No wonder, then, that the Nahanni had fired the imagination of writers for Sunday supplements and men’s adventure magazines. In their offices, thousands of miles away, they have concocted gorgeous inventions about head-hunting Indians, demons, savage mountain men ruled by a white goddess.
Neither Faille nor anyone else who
Kit for a 74-year-old in search of Eldorado
has traveled the Nahanni has ever seen a demon or a white goddess. But what about more prosaic phenomena, like murder?
“Were the McLeods murdered?” I asked Faille.
“No." he said. “They probably starved to death."
“Then what happened to their skulls?"
“Grizzly bears probably took them
We went through the whole list of deaths and Faille—like the RC'MP— attributed them all to natural causes. By “natural causes” he meant drowning, freezing, burning, landslides, wild animals and starvation.
Then how had Faille managed to survive? After all, he had traveled the Nahanni country more than any of the others.
"Some of them had bad luck,” said Faille, "and some of them were careless. I've always been careful. And besides, my number hasn't come up."
On the last day of my trip downriver with Faille, I asked him. once again, why he kept looking for the Nahanni gold.
“I guess it's because I'm restless," he told me. “I've got to keep on the move. I've been on the move all my life and I can't stop now.”
Another time I had asked him whether, if he struck it rich, he would have a fling in some big city like Montreal or Toronto. After all, he hadn't been “outside” since his trip to F.dmonton, thirty-five years before.
"No,” he said, “I don't like cities. I was in New York in 1919, when they demobilized me from the army. I only stayed one day. I didn't even go sightseeing.”
"Then what would you do with the money?" I asked.
“Maybe I'd buy a big boat. Get somebody to run it for me and get somebody to cook for me. Just go up and down the Mackenzie in it and stop here and there and chew the fat with people.”
On another occasion when I asked him why he wanted to find the gold, he said: “Maybe I want to start a gold rush. Get a lot of people to come here. They'd say, ‘It's the Nahanni Gold Rush. Albert Faille started it.' ”
My trip with Faille was now nearing its end. Headless Valley was far behind us and in the distance we could see the box-like mountain called Nahanni Butte. This is where the Nahanni empties into the Liard River, and here there is a tiny settlement of about ten white people and fifty Indians. I had arranged for a plane to pick me up here and fly me out to Fort Nelson, B.C., from where I could get back to Montreal by airline. Faille would continue on down the Liard to Fort Simpson, where he would spend the winter in his little cabin.
And so, on a hot August afternoon. Albert Faille put me ashore at Nahanni Butte. This admirable old man had brought me safely down the haunted river and now it was time to say good-bye to him. But before I did that I asked him one more question. And of course I knew the answer in advance.
"Are you going up again next summer, Albert?" I said.
“Sure." he said. "I'll be dead or drowned before I quit." ★