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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Yukon River; Galena Creek

for 6 years, the 2 eldest children and i lived in the Yukon.  if you like unsullied wilderness, and if seriously, even dangerously serious sub-zero temperatures don't worry you unduly, the Yukon is pretty close to heaven.  

galena is a mixture of nickel, silver and lead.  there's a lot of mining in the Yukon - or there was when i lived there.  Gold, of course, and silver, copper, nickel and asbestos come immediately to mind.  but the Yukon is mostly undeveloped.  there's one real city in the whole territory - Whitehorse, the capital.  Dawson City hasn't been a city since the gold rush at the end of the 19th century. these days, i think the winter population is just over a thousand lost souls.  in the summer, with tourism, which is the Yukon's main industry, the population mushrooms.  but in the case of Dawson City, gold city has morphed into tourist town.   so there are only a few paved highways, and not a whole lot of roads of any kind, except in the near vicinity of one of its few, and sparsely populated towns.  a good bit of the transportation there is still done by river, or by air.   

in about our 3rd year of residence in heaven-on-ice, i took a position working for a trapper who needed someone to keep house for him, and care for his 3 year old daughter, Annie.  as my eldest was then 3, and i knew the fellow to be a pretty decent sort, i signed on for the winter.  the cabin where we would stay was on the banks of the Yukon River, at the mouth of Galena Creek, about 35 miles upstream from Dawson City.  someone found galena there once, and named the place accordingly, but it wasn't a rich enough deposit to be worthwhile developing in such an isolated place.   when living in a wilderness situation, i've always liked being upstream of a main centre.  if need be, one can float down the river for help. the prospect of having to find my way upstream if the outboard motor on the boat were to fail worried me.  still does.   

so trapper Roger and i, with his 3 year old Annie, my 3 year old Mitchell and my 10 month old Raven, met one overcast October morning at the dock in Dawson City to make arrangements to take his small boat 35 miles up the Yukon River to his home at Galena Creek.  an hour or so before departure time, he handed me a $100 bill, and said,
 "Maybe you should pick something up for supper." 
 this was 1979. i'd never seen a $100 bill before ... i've seen precious few since.    after a few questions, i understood that he didn't expect me to outfit the crew for the winter.... just pick up some meat and a few things that could be made up quickly for supper.  which i did.  hamburger, maccaroni & cheese, and some canned veggies.  in the bush, where there are no deep freezes or microwaves, this constitutes fast food.  since that time, in retrospect, i've come to believe that the $100 bill was a bit of a test. whether or not i passed the test you are soon to discover.  

traveling 35 miles in october on a large river in a small, uncovered boat may be a pleasant way to spend the day in some parts of the world.  this is not the case on the Yukon River.  by October there's ice starting to form along the edges, the water is filled with shards that have broken from the edge, and air temperatures are hovering around the freezing point.   as we motored abreast of  forbidding rock faces and around islands bereft of greenery, small chunks of ice brushed against the keel of the boat. the low-hanging clouds began to drip sleet.  Annie and Mitchell were so bundled in hats and scarves, mitts, parkas and blankets, that, if they did complain during the trip, we couldn't hear them.   Baby Raven, in a green corduroy 'snugglie' child carrier, zipped close inside mum's parka, and topped off with a thick wooly hat, gave up arguing when she discovered she couldn't move, and slept the 3 or 4 hours of the trip.  with the wind and the sleet and the immobility of hunching against the wind against stinging sleet nerveless bums wedged together on hard, narrow wooden thwarts , by the time we arrived at our destination, we were all close to hypothermic.  

the cabin was a low roofed 3 room log builing, heated by wood.  the 5o gallon water barrel next to the wood burning cookstove was topped off daily, by Roger, from the crystal clear ice water of the Yukon River. from September till June it was crystal clear, that is....  the rest of the year it was murky with the silt carried off the melting glaciers, by the White River some miles upstream.  Roger had one small room, the children had another, and i was mistress of the largest room - kitchen, dining and living room, with a daybed that served as couch half time, and my bed the other half.  the only door in the place was between us and the wilderness outside.  closed doors inhibit the circulation of air (and heat) through a building with central heating, so the bedrooms had doorways, but no doors.  

by River Rat standards of the day, this was a ritzy place.  well chinked, warm and dry with a sheet metal roof and FIVE glass windows with sliders and screens!  separate rooms!  and real linoleum on the floor!  there were even kitchen cabinets, that ran the full length of one side of my domain, with DOORS on every one o them!  the opposing wall was lined with bookshelves, full of books! and there was a 2-way radio tucked tidily in one corner of the same shelf, connected by wires to a car battery which sat beside it.  i'd even noticed what i suspected was an electric wringer washing machine under a tarp beneath the overhang of the roof on the front porch.  which promised the existence of a power generator. the yard was tidy, and mowed!  half the people in town didn't mow their yards.... no one in the bush did.... no one except Roger.  across the yard was a screened outbuilding filled with metal bins for bug and mouse-proof food storage, and a haunch of moose hanging from the ridgepole.   a meander along the tidy trail to the outhouse disclosed a toilet seat covered in the fur of a lynx too damaged to sell because the squirrels found it before the trapper did.  

when we first stumbled in, numb with cold and damp, the place was dark and chill. the fire had gone out days before.  Roger lit the coleman lamp suspended by a hook and wire from the peak of the roof.  my first sight of inside of the place was of an old-fashioned Alladin oil lamp standing at pride of place in the centre of a 6 seat dining table. the eating surface of this table was made of 3 inch slabs of spruce, sanded and varnished to a sheen. there were matching chairs whose legs and back supports were of peeled and varnished willow limbs. i set to work lighting a fire in the cook stove, then the Fisher wood stove next to that.   fingers numb, the first match broke in my hands without so much as a spark.  but i was more gentle with the second, and as the flame slowly curled up the paper, and the kindling started to crackle, with hands shaking with the cold, i fed larger sticks into the fire.   when the tops of the stoves had built up some heat and begun to radiate, i unwrapped the many layers on the children, replaced damp clothing with dry, and began to plan dinner. 

as i pulled the hamburger from the grocery bag, the till tape fluttered to the counter.  which reminded me that i hadn't given Roger the change from his $100 bill. i'd spent less than $10.  remembering this, i slipped the raw meat out of its cellophane tray into a frying pan that had warmed on the stove. as it began its satisfying, meaty sizzle, i then reached with my right hand into the pocket of my still damp jeans for the bills. i had the meat wrapper in my left hand, and the cash in my right.  as i said to Roger, "here's your change"  i hooked an available finger of my left hand which wasn't busy holding the meat wrapper, to open the Fisher stove. a roaring fire now filled its belly.  i turned to him, and in one graceful, fluid movement, threw the contents of my right hand into the stove, and handed Roger the contents of the left.  

surely i was hypothermic, for i stared, dumfounded, at the bloody plastic in his hand, and wondered, "where in the world did he get that?"   he, however, being well over 6 feet tall, to my 5 1/2 feet, having more body mass, was less damaged by the cold, and in full possession of his wits. he lurched past me, thrust his arm, at something approaching the speed of light, into the inferno, and deftly nabbed the $92  i'd offered to the fire gods before they were even warm.  if i have ever been telepathic, it was at that moment.  as clearly as if he had said it out loud, i heard him think, "Dear God, what have i brought into my home?!"

to Roger's credit, he didn't fire up the boat and take me back to Dawson the next morning.  the meal i prepared met expected standards, and i didn't appear to be a child beater, so he took a calculated guess that his home and family weren't threatened. i spent a most pleasant winter keeping house for them, and we both felt a twinge of regret when i returned to to Dawson the following spring.

but, to the best of my recollection, Roger NEVER again left me in charge of money.  


susan said...

I'll be looking forward to reading it whenever you get around to posting it :-)

lindsaylobe said...

I enjoyed reading very much your wonderful story about the Yukon. It’s retained its freshness (I mean interest) due to the vivid descriptions which painted pictures for me with each new sentence. I look forward to hearing more about your earlier life experiences!!

Did you keep in contact with the trapper? or any of the folk at Galena.

Best wishes

gfid said...

su - here it is!

lindsay - it was a bit awkward, as he wanted arrangements to change to something a bit more personal, and i didn't feel the same way. so, no, we haven't kept in touch. but i go back to Dawson every few years to keep in touch with old friends, and my eldest son lives there now.

susan said...

That was a great story - so well told it didn't need any pictures but I definitely saw some. I spent a little time in the mountains of BC but almost always in summer - tiny cabins, airtight stoves and outdoor toilets would have been too much for me in winter. You're truly a courageous lady.

I'll be back to read it again since now it's time to make our dinner. All the best :-)

clairesgarden said...

ha, laughing out loud here!!
what a fabulous life!

gfid said...

su - courageous?.... maybe i just didn't know any better. but i've never been sorry i did it.

claire - i laugh now, but at the time i wanted the floor to open and swallow me whole.