FLOATING DOWN THE YUKON

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1972

FLOATING DOWN THE YUKON

PIERRE BERTON December 1 1972

FLOATING DOWN THE YUKON

PIERRE BERTON

Just out of Lake Laberge (made famous by Robert Service’s poem about Sam McGee), we reached that section of the Yukon River known as the Thirtymile, a narrow, twisting watercourse of singular beauty. After this photograph was taken we cut our motors and drifted for most of the day beneath high, clay banks, so typical of Yukon country. The Ÿukon, unlike the Mackenzie, presents an ever-changing panorama so that cliffs are followed by grassy meadows or rocky bluffs or long slopes of evergreen. There is a surprise around every corner.

• At one of our camps we picked several quarts of edible puffballs which I deep fried in butter with wild onions as an hors d’oeuvre before the main dish (beans).

■ These spirit houses, which we happened upon in the graveyard at Little Salmon, are typical of the Stick Indians who inhabit the central Yukon. The windows have real glass and lace curtains. The town is empty of life.

Last summer, Pierre Berton took his wife and seven children, plus one boyfriend and one nephew, on a 600mile pilgrimage to his hometown of Dawson City. The group followed the original Yukon River route taken in 1898 by the gold seekers out of Lake Bennett, BC. Berton’s odyssey coincided with the publication of a revised edition of Klondike, his classic study of the stampede. The book has been partially responsible for a renewal of interest in the historic Yukon. Everywhere he went, Berton found serious attempts being made to preserve, restore and identify buildings, artifacts and sites. At right, he films the plaque marking the spot where George Carmack made the original discovery on Bonanza Creek. The captions below are the author’s own.

FLOATING

DOWN

THE

YUKON

BY PIERRE BERTON

Here we are on our way through Dreaded Miles Canyon, where many stampeders were wrecked. Now, because of a power dam, the ride is invigorating but scarcely dangerous. The dam blocks the river and I hope there won’t be any more.

No words of mine could ever prepare my children for the magic of the Yukon River and no words on paper, or photographs, either, can really capture it. There is an allure here that defies description. The Yukon gets under your skin as no other part of this country can; it has been under mine for more than 50 years.

Part of the magic, I suppose, is the feeling that the river is eternal. I remember one particular sunlit day when we all sensed this. We had fastened the rafts together and were drifting at about five miles an hour beneath the wooded banks and between the islands, talking, singing, reading or simply watching the dark scroll of the forest unwind. Somebody spotted a bald eagle in the sky and then two cow moose appeared in a slough on our left. Later we happened upon two grizzlies scampering up a hill-

side. It was impressed upon us that this was the way the river had always been and, hopefully, always would be. I doubt at that moment if there was another human being within 50 miles. For the Yukon valley is almost as empty of life today as it was when the first explorers slipped down its channel from Lake Bennett to Norton Sound on the Bering Sea; it must look today just about as it did then. The high clay banks have been spared the ravages of civilization; the swallows still nest there by the tens of thousands. The forbidding cliffs of black basalt still run for miles on the right side of the river north of the Pelly’s mouth; nobody has drilled into them or painted them or raped them with a rockcrusher. The green islands in the channels are devoid of billboards. The crystal streams that tumble down the wooded gulches are free of pollution. The few axe marks

At Carmacks, the only settlement left between Whitehorse and Dawson, I filmed these Indians at sundown pulling salmon from their nets. The fish cannot be taken on a fly because they refuse food on their 2,000-mile journey up the river to the spawning grounds. Only natives are allowed to catch them.

Here, at Fort Selkirk, the oldest settlement on the river, we spent a day and a half relaxing. It was an eerie experience to inhabit a town that once held hundreds of people but is now totally deserted save for a single Indian family.

Cabins and churches, trading post and police barracks, all stand empty. When I first floated down the Yukon with my parents and sister in 1926, this was a thriving river settlement. As late as 1939, when I stopped here, the banks were black with people waving at the steamboat. The Alaska Highway changed all that. Since it was opened, in 1943, the Yukon has become a river of ghosts. Oddly, that is part of its charm. The feel of history is here. Fort Selkirk was established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1848, destroyed by Indians in 1852 and resurrected during the stampede. Now it has become a stopping place for the increasing number of river tourists who find here, at the juncture of the Pelly and the Yukon, a little bit of the past, preserved as if in amber.

The Anglican church at Fort Selkirk, still in a good state of preservation, is marked by a sign stating that it is under the protection of the Territorial government. Almost every historic structure along the lonely river is identified in this way But at the moment there are no funds available to ensure permanent preservation. In 1898, more than 200 soldiers of the Yukon Field Force were stationed here to maintain law and order. The army has recently built a cairn and preserved what is left of the barracks and graveyard. I offered $20 to anyone who would sleep there but no one took up the dare. We were all too affected by the haunting presence of those who had once occupied these cabins.

on the trees are half a century old; no one has bothered to log the Yukon valley. The blue hills roll off into the mists of the horizon, ridge upon ridge, unmarred and unscarred. The river cuts its serpentine pathway through them, sometimes squeezing narrowly between rocks of shattered conglomerate, sometimes spreading itself thinly over tawny meadows, changing from mile to mile yet never changing from decade to decade in its unrelenting journey to the sea.

It is ironic that when I was young and living on the banks of the Yukon, I hungered for cities I had never seen in the same way that today’s youth hungers for a wilderness experience they have never known. Today our communion with the wild comes in fits and starts through a few square feet of cottage lakefront or a brief encounter with an untrammeled corner of a national park. But the Yukon experience is total. You can camp anywhere and be sure no one else will camp beside you. You can drift for days without encountering a soul. You can seize and keep an island for your own.

For 11 days we lived on the Yukon, protected from the intrusion of the world. We read no newspapers and heard no radio. We cooked fresh Yukon salmon over hot coals and fried grayling newly pulled from the river. Our food was seasoned with wild onions and our liquor was mixed with the juice of cranberries gathered on the spot. On several occasions, at lunchtime, we picked our dessert from nearby raspberry bushes. Once we passed an Indian smoking salmon on a rack by the bank; the resultant hors d’oeuvre was better than any served by a three-star restaurant. So were the mushrooms gathered in our hats and deep fried instantly in the pan.

Yet, in the midst of this wilderness, we were always conscious of the passing of man and the presence of history. Wherever we camped we were made aware of the river’s gaudy past and this served to enrich our journey; an old gangplank rotting in the weeds; the remains of a wood cart rusting in the willows; the hull of the old stern-wheeler Klondike, outlined beneath the ripples below a slide of black clay; the Evelyn, her paint long since peeled away, sitting on the ways at Shipyard Island near the Teslin’s mouth; a skeletal gold dredge half submerged just past Dutch Bluff; pink insulators wired to the trees marking the original Dawson telegraph line; an abandoned church vestry crammed with missionary tracts from 1900; empty trading posts, police stations, telegraph offices, mission houses and schools; old cabins by the score, some of them tottering on the lip of the eroding riverbank; old stumps, old kettles, old frying pans, old picks and shovels and, of course, old graves. Men were here once; now they continued on page 76

The mission school at Selkirk still contains the original desks and the reading exercises used to teach Indians and half-breeds. Some of my contemporaries went to this school and some are still trapping and hunting along the Yukon.

BERTON from page 39 are gone; the river goes on.

The ghost villages — there are 16 of them between Whitehorse and Dawson — contribute to the feeling of timelessness. In many of these, delphinium and Arctic poppy have escaped the neat confines of long-forgotten gardens and run wild through patches of fireweed and yellow arnica. Abandoned bedsteads poke up through the waving foxtails. The bright berries and shiny leaves of kinnikinnick blur the edges of broken machinery. Junk has been transformed into artifacts.

But old memories haunt certain cabins; Joe Ladue’s crumbling trading post can still be found on Ogilvie Island; it was from here that Robert Henderson embarked in 1896 on the journey that led to the Klondike strike. The orderly room of the Yukon Field Force has •been preserved at Selkirk as a reminder of the time when Ottawa felt the need of troops in the Yukon to save the territory from the Americans. At Yukon Crossing we explored the remains of a roadhouse where my mother had stayed in 1910 during a memorable week-long journey in an open stage coach in the dead of winter. And opposite Kirkman Bar there was an abandoned cabin where a colorful French Canadian named Laderoute once ran a river post office. He wore gold earrings and kept a herd of pet goats that followed him around like dogs and I can still remember a certain June day in 1926 when an earlier family of Bertons, making this same river journey, sat down at his table to a luncheon of porcupine stew. I was only six at the time but the flavor, hot and gamy, still comes back to me.

Thirty years after that first river trip, my mother wrote these words: ”... the memory of those lazy days, drifting with the current through that silent, wild country, with my children young and my husband in his prime, has never left me and remains as vivid and as sharp as if it all happened a week ago. Wishing is futile, I know, but I would give a great deal to be able to do it all again.-”

And so would I, and so, I think, would my children. No doubt they will have that chance, as I had — unless we spoil the Yukon country, too, with hydro dams, pipelines and asphalt. ■