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Monday, September 19, 2011

From the Yukon Journal - Thursday April 15, 1976

Stayed Wed night at Pine Creek. Flat tire on trailer. Arrived [Thursday] at Takhanne River campsite. River running. Set up camp. Lots of snow. Warm weather. Saw our second Mountain Bluebird. Good omen.
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.


susan said...

Having grown up 25 miles north of Toronto in a time when electricity wasn't always reliable in winter I have a pretty decent respect for cold. The numbers below a certain level on the thermometer aren't just a matter of degrees but of just how quickly bits of a person are in danger of freezing and falling off. The idea of heading out to the deep Yukon to homestead is far beyond any adventure I either planned or fell into myself and your story has already caught my interest.

An unfortunate number of manly men feel threatened by any sign of female competence in their territory. I don't blame you a bit for refusing to speak to the condescending mechanic. Hopefully, he's mellowed.

I do remember one wooden house camper story from when we lived in Vancouver. A couple parked theirs in front of our house one night after having spent months out in the deep woods. We had a late meal with them before they went out to their traveling cabin to sleep. Around 10am the next morning the girl awoke and did what she'd been doing regularly - she leaped naked from the back in order to shake out the blankets. There were only a couple of near miss traffic accidents.

Ron said...

'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."

WOW! I am so impressed. That's AWESOME!

As much as am a 'city boy' I also adore spending time in the great outdoors. I usually try to take anywhere from four days to a week's retreat in the wilderness a year. Totally alone in a little cabin. It usually takes me the first two days to just to decompress.

I come back renewed and refreshed everytime!

Nature is so good for what ails ya, isn't it?

clairesgarden said...

thats amazing , thanks for sharing. there's not many people brave enough to head off, "out there", to live without electricity and cook with a wood burning fire. I never have and doubt that I could. a weekend in a tent is more than enough for me, I love to come home to my bed and a hot bath.
and those minus temperatures.... yikes!!
loved this and hope to get to read more!!

linda said...

to say the obvious...why you didn't freeze to death or kill mitch or both...well, it speaks of traits i never possessed....these stories keep me riveted as i try to imagine this lifestyle you kept as well as your dignity... thank you for letting the $%^^% "friend" know how much you appreciated him......

i am glad you now live in your own warm house and are here to tell the story of another time and place in which, i have no doubt would have killed a lesser woman!! xox

gfid said...

Su - i didn't PLAN to go to the Yukon, so much as fell into someone elses's plans. I have few regrets and much gratitude that we all survived more or less intact. The naked woman shaking out the blankets was NOT ME! I was the one running naked through the pasture, after the goat who stole my soap.

Ron - yes, Nature is good for what ails us. I still find myself yearning for wilderness solitude when life gets too crazy. But I'm slightly more civilized about it these days.

Claire - bravery suggests some awareness of what one is getting into. I have to confess to more ignorance than bravery. ...and I suspect that if learning to cook and heat with wood was essential to survival, you'd pass with flying colors.

Linda - I did freeze the skin over my cheekbones more than once... but that's another story.... I learned a lot about the dignity of manual labour, living in the bush, and I continue to hold it in high respect. These days, when I bump into him occasionally, Mitch has the good grace to look just a bit sheepish. His present wife has made it abundantly clear that she has never done, and never will chop wood, haul water in buckets, endure extreme temperatures, etc.

Cicero Sings said...

My but you are a gutsy gal! ... and resourceful ... but necessity IS the mother of invention ... or so they say.

Great stories. Keep 'em coming.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Granny Fiddler
Enjoyed your April in the Yukon in winter. I can hardly imagine a -35C day and the extreme frustration involved in fixing up Bertha- but I note you also have the fondness of memories. Interesting to look back on it all and ponder how well you coped/ survived such harsh conditions /; combined with unreasonable and unhelpful mechanics.

Best wishes

gfid said...

Cicero - more guts than brains sometimes, but thanks.... i've heard it said that mothers are the necessity of invention.... we're good at pinpointing areas where improvement is needed.

Lindsay - there is still some pristine wilderness left, and only the hardest heart isn't touched by it. despite the dangerous extremes of climate, i consider myself privileged to have been where i was, when i was. the mechanic was/is only one of many - not just men - who underestimate what women are able to do.