When I first came to the Yukon, I was mentored in the art of safely traveling in the bush by Jim Bennett. An adventure, I learned, was just a trip that wasn’t very well planned.
On a lovely day in May 1971, while we were hiking in the Gladstone Pass, north of Kluane Lake, I attempted to cross a small stream.
To steady myself, I grasped a willow branch, but instead of holding firm, it had a lot of give. I was in the stream quicker than I could react, still holding onto the sagging willow branch.
Quickly, I scrambled from the stream, sodden, and holding my camera out of the water. I wanted to continue hiking, but Jim insisted I dry off first, so we started a small bonfire, and shortly the water had evaporated and I was ready to continue.
Jim pointed out that I was no good to myself, or him, if I became sick. There would be no medical help available for days. This was before satellite phones.
I took it to heart and in the following years I traveled the countryside with my backpack, fishing rod, notebook and camera, visiting many interesting remote places – often alone, without major incident.
During my first summer in the Yukon, I made a list of all of the gear I carried in my pack. It became my checklist for future expeditions into the wilds. It included sleeping gear, tent, spare clothing and plenty of dehydrated food. I never forgot to bring anything on my checklist.
I never bothered with water purification, and never came down with beaver fever or other intestinal malaise. Maybe I was just lucky. I had spare laces for my boots, extra matches in waterproof containers, and plenty of plastic Ziploc bags.
Yet my travels weren’t without some unpleasant bumps. On one occasion I climbed to the top of Sheep Mountain the day before I hiked into Kluane Park. My muscles were so stiffened the following day that I could barely walk. It was agony.
I once dried out my boots, which had become wet after a spring snowfall, over a fire. They shrank and dried hard. By the end of the day my feet were covered with countless blisters. Thank goodness I had brought along a pair of cotton sneakers, which were less painful to walk in.
I viewed every non-essential item as a burden. For instance, a rifle was simply an extra weight I would have had to lug for a week. There were a couple of times when I might have needed one. I awoke in my tent one morning to the sound of a bear just outside. I could hear him breathing on the other side of the flimsy nylon barrier. I lay motionless in my sleeping bag, terrified that I would become a bear snack. Eventually, it moved away and I was able to continue my normal routine. I always kept my food cached well away from my tent.
Boats posed their own challenges. Once I accompanied a party of fisheries biologists up Aishihik Lake. I assumed that they knew how to operate a power boat. I was wrong, and we ended up stalled mid-lake in large waves. Nobody thought to bring paddles! We eventually limped into a sheltered cove and I was thankful to get my feet back on solid ground.
Then there was the time I braved the waters of Kathleen Lake in my canoe. The three-foot waves were white-capped. The fact that the wind carried my canoe down the beach with me running after it was a strong hint that it was not the right day to paddle on Kathleen. I survived that too.
On another occasion, when we were traveling into the Tatshenshini valley with a train of pack horses, I held back from the rest of the party to answer the call of nature. It was a lesson in horse psychology.
Once the rest of the pack train disappeared around a bend in the trail, my horse wanted to rejoin the others. I managed to get one foot into a stirrup, but bounded along beside the horse one-legged, as though I was riding a pogo stick. Fortunately, I regained the saddle, and the others never saw this awkward display of horsemanship.
Trucks offered many opportunities for awkward moments in the bush. A four-wheel drive can give you a false sense of security. I once became mired up to the axles on what I had assumed was solid ground near Otter Falls. The cable winch only pulled the shallow rooted trees out of the ground. Using the inadequate screw jack, my assistant and I spent nine hours slowly raising one wheel at a time till we could put on chains and place logs in the ruts.
I never used a four-wheel drive again, but cautious driving wasn’t enough. Thus, driving into the Dickson homestead on Kluane Lake a few years later, I became mired in a wet spot on the trail.
I walked out to Burwash Landing where a couple of young fellows offered to pull me out with their truck. They became stuck right behind my truck so I walked out a second time and thumbed a ride to Destruction Bay, where the tow truck came to my rescue. That was another half day lost, but eventually I made it to the old homestead to take photos.
My stories of history hunting are devoid of harrowing experiences because I didn’t have any. No bear maulings, no broken limbs, no starvation. I never even got lost. But I learned the Zen of bush travel – that a good journey is as important as the arrival.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org