It was a once-in-a-lifetime homecoming for ex-army man Lee C. Pooler, even if he couldn’t find his actual home.
“It’s rather difficult to explain how I feel. How do you describe nostalgia?” he said.
The California boy spent just one winter on the north shore of Aishihik Lake, but that was enough of a Yukon experience to last him most of a lifetime.
He made it back last week, with family in tow, 65 years after he spent one long and hard winter with five other men at the Second World War weather station at Lake Aishihik.
“I couldn’t even spell it!” he laughed.
When Lee was only two, a postcard showing oranges brought his family out to California from a bitterly cold Wisconsin winter.
Only 23 years later, Lee was sent back into something even harsher, and much more remote.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, 24-year-old Pooler decided to enlist in the army.
He moved around army bases for months getting basic training, taking aptitude tests, and being trained in an array of skills.
He took courses in haircutting, emergency medicine, cryptography, butchery, wilderness survival, and nutrition.
“All this was going through my mind: Where the hell are they going to send us?”
“You see, we travelled on secret orders,” he explained.
Pooler had no idea what was in store for him.
He became somewhat suspicious after leaving in Seattle and landing in Edmonton.
The first flight he took out of Edmonton was supposed to refuel in Watson Lake at night, but an electrical fire had wiped out the landing lights.
They turned around.
Pooler had been asleep. He woke up as they descended into Edmonton and thought: “This place looks pretty nice!”
They left again, and landed in Whitehorse.
With five other men, Pooler boarded a float plane. He still had no idea where he was headed. He never saw a copy of his orders. He was never given a map.
When he landed, he was on Aishihik Lake, and that’s about all he knew.
The Yukon stories he told his children in the following years captured their imaginations.
“For years my brother and I had been saying, ‘We gotta go up to the Yukon with dad,’” said Gary Pooler.
“But, something would always come up,” he said.
“This year we finally decided, we’re either going, or we’re going to end up talking about it.”
“So we went.”
Two weeks ago, Lee brought his sons, Gary and Mark, grandson Kevin, and daughter-in-law Olga Vasquez to his first army station.
On the first day, they all drove 80 kilometres down a dirt road and trudged around in a marsh, looking for signs of buildings or the old cooking stove.
A severe storm was rolling. If it started raining heavily, their guide told them, they’d get stuck in the mud.
Crestfallen, they had to call it a day.
The second day they took a boat almost 90 kilometres up the lake and landed in a small bay that looked vaguely familiar.
“That’s Soldier Bay,” the guide told him.
That blew the Poolers away.
“We’re almost positive the Aishihik First Nation named it Soldier Bay because that’s where they saw the float planes go,” Gary said.
When Lee Pooler’s float plane landed on Aishihik Lake in the summer of 1942, the commanding officer chose a sheltered bay in which to set up camp.
It wasn’t the best spot.
True, the wind kept the mosquitoes away, but the float planes couldn’t come in to re-supply very often. The soldiers were instructed to build a landing strip.
The decision was made: move to the north end of the lake.
They lashed together trees into two 4.5-metre-long rafts, adding wave-breakers and masts. General-use tarpaulins became their sails.
From very far away, they looked like strange moose swimming, some of the locals would later tell them.
Pooler walks well still with a cane, but when he arrived back at Soldier Bay this July, he was tired and told his sons he wanted to stay in the boat.
Gary and Mark each took one of his arms and helped him up the hill. Kevin, Lee’s grandson, followed behind.
They made it to the top.
Lee looked around
“This is it,” he said.
Gary was filming his dad.
Most of what Pooler remembered was right where he left it. The trees. The lake. The rocks. The once-buried emergency C-rations (that a younger Gary and Mark thought of as “buried treasure”) might have even been still around somewhere — who knew?
Pooler was back in that spot. He was back in that place.
He remembered how their radio at night would pick up skipped signals.
Around Christmastime it picked up a station out of Berkeley, playing Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. In hip-deep snow at subfreezing temperatures, Pooler wasn’t terribly amused.
He and his pals went four months without a shower, and flew out on government planes for a Christmas break.
“We couldn’t fly out on a commercial plane because we smelt like bears,” said Pooler.
They used a generator for electricity to send their daily weather reports into Whitehorse.
The US Army was sending airplanes through to Russia. They were stopping in Whitehorse and Nome for refueling.
The planes couldn’t go very high, and had to contend with strong winds. The weather reports coming out of Aishihik’s Weather Station made all the difference.
“The weather starts so quick up here and gets so severe,” Pooler said.
The winter sun rose only two fingers up on the horizon, he recalled.
He worked 12-hour shifts. Time off was spent on chores.
“We had to cut our own wood; we had to haul our own ice and then melt it for water,” he said.
Their lives depended on the heater, the stove, the saw, and sleeping bags.
Pooler took up chef duty more often than the other men would. He had some previous experience as a cook, but none when it came to tackling Yukon-winter cuisine.
There wasn’t much game, he said, though they did try to hunt moose.
One of the guys brought in a fox, out of which Pooler made a meatloaf.
He had to saw the feet off the frozen chickens they had in storage.
Most of the canned food had frozen and expanded, doming-up the ends and making a can opener almost useless.
Pooler took an axe to the cans.
Though the army men didn’t have antibiotics, they did have some medical supplies, painkillers, and training to perform simple surgical procedures — even appendectomies — and sick children were brought over to them on occasion.
On this return visit, Pooler met with the First Nations in the Aishihik area.
One of the elder ladies flirted with him.
Others thanked him for being part of a helpful and friendly team.
It made him a tougher Californian to stick it out, but it was “pure glee” for him to return home afterwards to the relative safety and warmth of the Golden State.
This time, the leaving is a little different.
He’s leaving for good.
“I’ve got a 25-year-old mind,” he said.
“In a 91-year-old body.”
And now he’s gone home again, to Santa Clara, his time of the Yukon made real for his sons and grandson, and stored for safekeeping in their hearts.