It has been a year since my friend, Alex Van Bibber, one of Yukon’s most well-known and legendary pioneers, passed away. I miss him every day.
As unreasonable as it sounds, I wanted to believe Alex would be with us forever. He was pushing 100 years of age, was a lot younger at heart, had an infectious zest for life, was an active trapper and hunter and was always planning for tomorrow. He would bounce back from setbacks that would sideline the rest of us.
In his lifetime, he witnessed changes in technology and participated in events that shaped the territory’s recent history: gold dredges, cat trains, sternwheelers, snowmobiles, ATVs, bush planes, World War II, building of the Alaska Highway, the Canol Pipeline, establishment of trapline and outfitting areas and land claim settlements. He saw his first train when he was 22 and was hired to guide engineers surveying a proposed railway route through the Tintina Trench.
Stories of the gold rush and the territory’s early fur trade were also fresh in his mind. Alex’s father, Ira Van Bibber, came over the Chilkoot Trail with the thousands of stampeders. Eliza, his mother, lived a traditional Northern Tutchone life along the Yukon/Pelly Rivers before the influx of gold seekers. Together they raised 14 children on the family trapline in the McArthur Mountains, all of them taught to be independent, self reliant and bush savvy.
It seems like yesterday Kelly Hougen, a close and dear friend of Alex, called to say he was with Alex in the Foothills Hospital in Calgary. When I caught the next Air North flight I was not surprised to see many of his family also checking in. Grandchildren and great grandchildren all wanted to be with Grandpa-Daddy, hoping they could bring him home to Champagne.
The morning after our arrival, Alex’s doctor met with us. He said the hospital had never seen such a display of support for a single patient. Before he would discuss his patient’s health, he had to hear stories of this man who could generate so much love and respect. For the next half hour he was enthralled with stories of Alex’s life.
Then, news we didn’t want to hear. Alex’s health had declined considerably and he had told his doctor he did not want to continue the fight. In the doctor’s experience such decisions were “medically irreversible.” Alex slipped away in the early hours the following morning in company of family.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to spend time with Alex, and his brother Pat, the day before he died, telling stories, remembering adventures, good times and bad. “I’ve had a good life,” Alex said.
He used to tell me that we would get dead drunk on his 100th birthday. At one point he looked at me and said “I don’t think we will do that Harvey.” But there are often drawbacks to longevity. Alex and his wife Sue, who predeceased him at 99 years of age, outlived nine of their 10 children. In a span of less than two years, Alex lost two daughters, a son and a wife he had known most of his life.
Despite this painful past, or perhaps because of it, his biggest concern was leaving his daughter, Kathleen, alone. He needn’t have worried. If Alex’s send-off in Calgary is any indication, Kathleen is not alone.
The flight home was more subdued than the one down, everyone lost in their own thoughts about Alex. But once the flight service began, glasses were raised in honour and memory of a man much loved and revered. I think the airline ran out of rye and ginger.
We’ve all heard Alex say, “You are dead enough when you’re six feet under; while on top, live it for happiness.” He took his own advice, and perhaps the best way for us to pay tribute to Alex is to do the same.
Harvey Jessup knew Alex Van Bibber for more than 40 years. He lives in Whitehorse.