Senior painter recalls his adventures

Les Allen doesn't hunt, trap or prospect any more, but he still paints. But, at 91 years old, it takes him a little longer to finish one these days.

Les Allen doesn’t hunt, trap or prospect any more, but he still paints.

But, at 91 years old, it takes him a little longer to finish one these days.

“I’ve been on that one about a month,” he said, showing off a nearly complete portrait of a long dead Tlingit elder, Ishkitaan of the Raven Clan, a distant relative of Allen’s wife, Pansy.

The portrait is for his eldest daughter. Allen doesn’t sell his paintings anymore; he just gives them away as gifts.

“I’m happy with my pension,” he said. “I enjoy painting. It’s a good pastime. You feel like you accomplish something.”

Allen has accomplished a lot over the years, as evidenced by the paintings that adorn the walls of the Whitehorse apartment he shares with his wife.

There are a few pastoral works of a canal near where he grew up in England. One depicts the cabin he built at Johnson’s Crossing, where he and Pansy raised their five children. Another shows the couple salmon fishing, which is how they met more than 55 years ago.

“That’s a story, eh Mom?” he asked Pansy, who sat across from him, busily knitting an afghan.

Back then, Allen and his friend Bill Whitmore spent their summers prospecting. They had built a cabin on the Teslin River near where Pansy’s family had their fish camp.

“The first season we just helped her uncle Joe, and then later on we saw they were having some trouble too, so we started helping them,” said Allen. “Of course there were also some young girls.”

To catch salmon they’d string a net between two boats and paddle upstream over the spawning bed.

“They decided to put Pansy and me in the shore boat,” said Allen. “I was sitting pulling and she was kneeling facing me pushing on the oars… So the damn oar broke; she fell right in to my bloody arms and that’s when I asked her if she would marry me.”

The couple built a house at Johnson’s Crossing, and Pansy taught Allen how to live off the land.

In the summer he’d work as a fish guide. In the winters he’d trap and paint, which he taught himself to do. Back then he wasn’t shy about selling his paintings. They also sold moccasins Pansy made from moose hide she’d tan herself.

They lived like that for 10 years, but with five little mouths to feed there wasn’t enough money coming in, so Allen took a job fighting wildfires for the forest service.

“We used to live in the smoke for weeks in the camps,” said Allen. “I lost my sense of smell through doing that.”

The job didn’t leave him a lot of time for painting. It wasn’t until he retired that he took it up again.

Originally from England, Allen first came to Canada during the Second World War as a airframe fitter, servicing airplanes for the Royal Air Force at a training base in Saskatchewan.

“I’d heard all kinds of stories about Canada,” said Allen.

His parents lived in Canada for a few years. His mother never cared for it, and they returned to England before Allen was born.

When the Second World War broke out, seven of Allen’s nine brothers and sisters volunteered for service. He lost one brother during the invasion of Sicily.

While in the air force, Allen was stationed overseas, in India, Singapore, as well as Canada.

“I used to like to travel,” he said. “That’s why I went to all them countries during the war.

“Every time they wanted volunteers I was right in there.”

In 1948 a family he met while stationed in Saskatchewan sponsored him as an immigrant.

A year later he and their son, Bill Whitmore, decided to try their luck in the North.

Originally they planned on going to Yellowknife, but when they were offered a job in Keno they decided to head for the Yukon instead.

They had to pay their own way up, flying from Edmonton on a DC-3.

“I thought we were never going to get there,” he said, “Boy it took a long time.”

After a night in Whitehorse, they got back on a transport plane heading to Mayo. With no seats on the plane they had to ride with the freight.

“I went all the way sitting on a side of beef,” said Allen.

For the next three years, he and Whitmore worked at the mine cutting wood to heat the bunkhouses. In the summer the pair would spend their time prospecting.

They never did strike pay dirt.

But they did spend one rainy summer working a gold claim near Kathleen Lake.

“When we decided to quit, we had a little bit in a pill bottle and my partner said to me, ‘What are we going to do with this?’

“Of course it was only $35 an ounce back then, and that had to be pure, so I said, ‘Give it to me,’ and I took lid off and threw it back in the river.”

For a few seasons Allen worked as a deckhand on a sternwheeler, and in the 1950s he and Whitmore helped reintroduce some bison into the Yukon.

All of them died, save for one bull that tried to return to Alaska. It was last seen harassing cattle on a farm near Haines Junction.

“Eventuality it disappeared too,” said Allen. “I don’t know, maybe it got back to Big Delta.

“It would be good to know where that one finished up.”

The only thing left from that adventure are some photographs in the Yukon archives.

“It was quite an education – all these different jobs and whatnot,” said Allen.

Just over two years ago, Allen and Pansy moved from their house in Johnson’s Crossing to Whitehorse.

“A lot has changed, he said. “When we first came, Two Mile Hill was just a dirt trail into town from the Alaska Highway … It’s been quite an interesting life.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

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