April in the Yukon is still winter. Everything is covered in snow. Daytime temperatures hover around the freezing point on a good day. And we were CAMPING!
We had this John Deere green, home- made plywood 'camper' on the back of an old red Ford pickup we called Bertha.
Bertha had seen some tribulations. The most memorable one was a few months before The Big Adventure In the Yukon, when my parter... we'll call him Mitch.... had a few days off work, and thought he'd replace her head gaskets. He worked as a 'doodlebugger'. No kidding, that's what they called them. Some offshoot of seismic exploration for the oilpatch, I believe. If you have any history with the oilpatch, you'll know that days off are rare and retractable. Someone didn't tell someone else that there was work to be done, or someone else didn't show up for the job, so Mitch's crew were called back before they'd even had time to change socks.
And I was left with a truck whose entrails were glistening in various locations on the dirt floor of the garage. In a small northern Alberta town about 15 miles from the nearest mechanic. In January. This was an unheated garage, whose only source of light came from the open door, or a trouble light on a 50 foot cord plugged into the kitchen wall.
Trouble light picture thanks to wikipedia
It was -35C that day, in the few hours of sunshine January brings. I swear it was colder in that garage. Certainly, it was colder by the time I had the baby settled for the night, and knew I'd have a few hours to work. But I had help. Yes, being the thoughtful guy he was, Mitch wrote out instructions for me to put the truck together in order to take it
to his buddy, that mechanic who was 15 miles away, so HE could put the new head gaskets in.
Well, I grew up with truck drivers. I can't remember a time when I didn't know what a wrench was, and nobody told me I couldn't do it, so I didn't know any better. I put the truck together, in the blistering cold, in the light of that lone trouble light. I broke a few lightbulbs in the process.... glass is fragile at those temperatures.... but in a few hours I had dear old Bertha back in one piece.... well, two pieces.... I couldn't find the hole in the oilpan, to put the plug back in, in order to pour in the engine oil. It had been a long night. I remembered my brothers talking about oil pan plugs sometimes being in odd places. I'd call the mechanic buddy in the morning; he'd be able to tell me where it was.
The words Mr. Mechanic said to me are burned in my memory forever. After I'd spent half the night putting the #%*! truck together in the dark in 30 or 40 below weather, he said, in a voice of pure condescension, "Diana, if you don't know where the oilpan is, just leave the truck alone." He knew very well I wasn't looking for the oil pan, but for the orifice IN the oil pan. There clearly was no point in continuing that conversation, so I hung up on him. Hard.
He didn't say anything at all to me when I pulled to a screeching halt in front of his shop early the next afternoon, grabbed the baby, slammed the door and handed him the keys. Nor did I say anything to him. The scorn in my eyes said it all, and my ride back home was waiting.
Bertha was a good old girl. After we built the plywood camper for her, she became 'Bertha Box'. It wasn't much of a camper, really. A plywood cube with a small heavy duty plastic 'window' on each side. The entire back side hinged at the top for entry. A ledge was built at the height of the top of the truck box, where we lovingly placed the mattress from our bed, complete with a bearskin souvenir from a previous adventure. a smaller ledge, attached to the wall at the foot was supported by hinges and chains, for the baby. Underneath this, in the box of the truck, were all our worldly goods, cooking and food supplies. In the trailer was our grubstake - lengths of stovepipe, rope, tools and hardware to build ourselves a cabin in the wilderness.
We had a spot all picked out. A sheltered valley amongst mountains, heavily forested, rich in wild game and fur, with a salmon bearing river running through it. After a year of practice living in trapline cabins and primitive farmhouses, we knew how to be comfortable without electricity and all that goes with it. We had the hang of heating and cooking with wood, and lighting the winter's darkness with a coal oil lamp. (the rented place with the dark, cold garage was a temporary luxury. We wanted to use power tools to build the camper, so we had to have electricity) We'd spent a year or more poring over maps and reading everything we could find about the Yukon, native land claims negotiations, climate and microclimate, fishing, hunting, and edible native plants. We were certain we could just show up, knock some trees down, build a cabin and move in.