Don Taylor’s pioneer wilderness life at Stewart Lake

After six months of coughing up blood and being juggled through the Yukon medical system, Taylor's diagnosis was finally confirmed by the BC Cancer Centre in Vancouver in early November.

Don Taylor, self-proclaimed “citizen advocate” and former Watson Lake MLA, is battling lung cancer.

After six months of coughing up blood and being juggled through the Yukon medical system, Taylor’s diagnosis was finally confirmed by the BC Cancer Centre in Vancouver in early November.

At 77, chemotherapy was out of the question due to Taylor’s advanced age, but the radiation therapy has zapped the tumour for now. His lung has stopped bleeding. His doctor hopes the radiation will put the cancer into remission.

Recently, Taylor returned to Yukon, tired, but happy to be home. His month-long medical visit to Vancouver was his first extended stay in that city since 1948.

Taylor has been living solo for almost 25 years at Stewart Lake, following his retirement from politics in 1985. I’ve known him since the early 1980s, when Taylor was Speaker of the Yukon Legislative Assembly and I lived in Whitehorse.

Over the last two decades we have kept in touch by radio telephone and, in recent years, by e-mail. Last summer, I visited him at his cabin.

Stewart Lake is tucked away in the southeast corner of the territory, approximately 60 kilometres by air from Watson Lake. It’s a gem nestled in the gently slopping Stewart Cassiar Mountains, known for its trout and northern pike populations, which once supported two sport fishing lodges.

Both are now closed, a symptom of the decline in Watson Lake and soft Yukon tourism market.

After driving to Watson Lake, I flew to Taylor’s place in an old Beaver piloted by Bill Seeley of North Rockies Air Service.

After Seeley landed on the lake, Taylor, dressed in traditional green bush pants and white T-shirt, grabbed the tail hook of the Beaver and spun the aircraft around, tail-first, for unloading.

A diminutive figure, Taylor looks fit, belying the cancer in his chest. He can still do the heavy work of a much younger man.

Welcomed with a bear hug, we filed up to Thunder Cabin, our party’s sleeping quarters for the next three days.

Sitting at the eight-foot long plywood table covered by a well-worn checkered tablecloth, the lake is framed in the picture window before us. Thunder Mountain is central to the view, where Taylor has indicated he wants his ashes scattered.

Taylor, a lifelong conservative, tells us, tongue in cheek, that he applied to have the peak named Thunder Mountain by the Geographical Names Board before someone in Ottawa could nominate former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

In fact, the mountain was officially named on August 19, 1981, a date locals celebrate every year.

First elected to the Yukon legislature in 1961, Taylor faithfully represented Watson Lake for 24 years until he retired in 1985.

Appointed Speaker of the Yukon legislative assembly in 1974, Taylor kept order in the house during the territory’s transition to party politics in 1978.

Aided by few power tools, Taylor started building his wilderness camp’s plywood cabins in the late 1970s.

Taylor’s Place Wilderness Camp was to be a retirement business. The cabins are plain, but comfortable with bunks lining each wall and big windows offering a panoramic view of the lake.

The place has solar power, which feeds the radio, computer, TV and a few overhead lights.

We chat – about his fight with the Yukon government over the fate of ailing Watson Lake and his life as a senior on a remote lake – as he fiddles with the squelch dial on the VHF/UHF radio which squawks sporadically in the background.

Scattered bits of conversation drift in over the airwaves. Taylor keeps watch over a small circle of trappers and outdoors people who live in the trackless wilderness covering southeast Yukon, and northern BC.

During the winter months at 7 p.m. daily, Taylor faithfully runs a radio check, calling a list of trappers to relay messages, deliver weather reports and bits of news and gossip. On several occasions Taylor has been the lifeline whose radio contact prompted rescue missions for injured or sick trappers.

Though surrounded by some of the best fishing in the Yukon, Taylor doesn’t enjoy sport fishing. Whenever he wants a trout, he simply trolls the lake just off his shoreline and, minutes later, dinner lies flopping in the net.

Raised by adoptive parents in Aurora, Ontario, in 1948 Taylor left home for a summer job at the Independent Biscuit Company in Calgary. He was 15.

Taylor never returned east and, after quitting the plant job, spent the next year as a ranch hand, including a stint at the famous Douglas Lake Cattle Company in the BC interior.

He spent the winter of 1949 working as a clerk in the Unemployment Insurance office in Vancouver.

He hitchhiked up the Alaska Highway in 1949, arriving in the Yukon with $8 in his pocket, a kit bag hung on one shoulder and a Winchester rifle slung over the other. Still a teenager, Taylor met up with a Yukon miner who grubstaked him to prospect for gold and minerals. He spent the next 11 years staking claims across the Yukon, covering a lot of territory, but never striking it rich.

Taylor mixed prospecting with several tours of duty as a Yukon game warden.

Watson Lake was the first Yukon community Taylor encountered on his trek up the Alaska Highway.

A collection of Second World War Quonset huts and log cabins in the early 1950s, the frontier image made a lasting impression on him in his youth.

In the late 1960s Taylor began his love affair with the lake when offered summer caretaker duties at the old log Stewart Lake Lodge.

Taylor erected a tent frame at the lake in 1973, and, by the end of the decade, he had built Thunder Cabin. Construction of the main cabin commenced around 1985, Taylor said, and the first winter he almost froze because the temperature dropped to minus 40 in November before he had the insulation installed.

Taylor subsists on his limited Yukon government pension income. At one time he had high expectations that his wilderness lodge business would flourish. Briefly he ran ads in Legion Magazine and offered special discounts to military and retired forces personnel. By the early 1990s, his dream of a successful lodge business was dashed after CP Air cancelled jet service to Watson Lake, following collapse of the local mining economy.

From November to February, Taylor is surrounded by silence and long periods of sub-Arctic darkness. There is no ski plane service during the winter since the lone operator, Angus Air, shut down in 2008.

Taylor confesses to being lonely at times, surrounded by mountains and the stillness of the boreal forest. He’s been searching for a female companion to spend his final years with. Unfortunately romance has eluded the bachelor on the shores of Stewart Lake. In the 1990s he was briefly married twice to American women, whom he met and courted through mail correspondence.

Both marriages dissolved after less than a year when the ladies quickly tired of the wilderness lifestyle and solitude of bush living.

An eternal optimist, Taylor is still searching for that special lady to join him.

During this trip, Taylor’s German friends, Gunter and Krista Ermert, who live down the other end of the lake in the summer, have been invited to watch the World Cup of Soccer on the flat-screen television. We watch the game beamed via satellite from South Africa more than 8,000 kilometres away.

The stately Cassiar Mountains form the stadium back drop as the game plays on.

Satellite technology has provided Taylor with access to the world wide web and e-mail since 2006.

Last year, he developed an internet blog posting letters, commentary and pictures on a variety of government accountability issues.

This is the first Christmas that Taylor will spend in Watson Lake in 24 years. He’s usually at his cabin.

But, health permitting, he intends to return to camp this spring.

Kevin Shackell is a former Yukon News reporter who lives in

Kanata, Ontario.

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