Dick North: Farewell to Yukon’s great storyteller

On September 23, the Yukon lost its renowned author, Dick North. He was 84 years old.

On September 23, the Yukon lost its renowned author, Dick North. He was 84 years old.

In 1897, a 21-year-old sailor from Oakland found his muse, not as a gold miner, but in the stories of the old time miners, related around the stoves of their primitive little log cabins. His name was Jack London.

London took the stories of the North away with him, retold them in his own words and became famous, but he never returned to the Yukon.

More than a half century later, Dick North also came to the Yukon, and like London, he too thrived on the people and stories of the North. But, unlike that other great writer, he stayed in the Yukon where he made his home – and reputation – for the next 50 years.

I knew Dick North from the years I spent working in Dawson City. At that time, he was already the curator of the Jack London Museum, which is in a part of Dawson I like to refer to as “Authors’ Row.”

He encouraged me when I was writing my first book, even introducing me to his literary agent in Toronto. I will always be grateful for his moral support when I was still uncertain of my own ability as an author.

When I was writing that book, about the early prospecting in the Yukon, I found a short story by London titled Men of the Fortymile, which renders in his vivid prose an actual event I had found in the historical record. Excited about this discovery, I rushed down to talk to Dick about it. This was the tip of the iceberg, he assured me, and he was right. All the time that he was in the North, London kept his ears open and listened to the stories told by the veteran prospectors who wintered at the mouth of the Stewart River with him.

In his book Sailor on Snowshoes, North relates many other London stories and their origins in true events that occurred in the Yukon and Alaska. The Yukon inspired London’s career, and in the same way, it inspired North’s.

Dick North was born in New Jersey, but in a mobile pattern that he followed for most of his career, moved to Long Island, West Virginia and New Hampshire while growing up. After serving in Italy during the Second World War, he earned degrees at George Washington University in D.C., and at the University of California Berkeley. Dick North could have had a career on Wall Street, but as he said in his own words, the New York City Library became his favourite hang-out as he devoured magazines, books and newspaper articles from the turn of the century.

He was hired by the Las Vegas Review Journal on the basis of a couple of articles he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City. This in turn led to his transfer to another member of the same newspaper chain, the Daily Alaska Empire in Juneau. He also worked for the Yukon News. The rest, as we say, is history.

Over the following decades, he wrote his classic stories of the manhunt for Albert Johnson in The Mad Trapper of Rat River, and its sequel, Trackdown. His book The Lost Patrol was the account of a party of Mounties and their guides who perished trying to make a winter patrol from Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, to Dawson City.

These books were followed by Arctic Exodus, the chronicle of a great reindeer drive across Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta in 1929. The Man Who Didn’t Fit In was his only work of fiction, and perhaps his most interesting book, while the autobiographical Sailor on Snowshoes was his last.

North earned his place in the History Hunters’ Hall of Fame for two specific projects: the search for, authentication and salvage of Jack London’s cabin, and his dogged determination to uncover the identity of the Mad Trapper, Albert Johnson.

In the former project, over the course of several years, working with the likes of Joe and Victor Henry, Robin and Yvonne Burian, Eleanor Millard, Russ Kingman and actor Eddie Albert, Dick assembled the evidence that confirmed that a small log cabin on the Left Fork of Henderson Creek was indeed the place the future author lived while prospecting, unsuccessfully, in the winter of 1897/98.

The cabin was eventually disassembled and moved to the Stewart River by the Burians, where they reassembled the original logs with new ones cut for the purpose, to form two cabins: one to be shipped to Oakland, the other to be installed in Dawson City.

For years, North sought evidence about the Mad Trapper, and in his book Trackdown, was the first of several people to propose the true identity of the man known as Albert Johnson. His theory, and those of others, have since been disproven by DNA testing.

Dick North became an institution in Dawson City in the 1980s and 1990s, when he held court in the Jack London Museum, which was constructed adjacent to the restored half-cabin. In later years, when age prevented him from fulfilling his duties at the cabin, Dawne Mitchell succeeded him as curator of the display.

Yet, when I once saw him in Dawson, then in his late 70s, he was strapping on his skates in the hockey arena for a little lunchtime exercise. In recent years, I occasionally bumped into him at the Java Connection, where he and his wife Andre would go for coffee.

A few years ago, at a Commissioner’s Tea in Dawson City, the peripatetic author finally received his Canadian citizenship and chose the Yukon as his final home.

Not one to call attention to himself, North was recognized widely for his contribution to northern literature. He received a service award from the Klondike Visitors Association for his work at the Jack London Museum. In 2003, he received the Commissioner’s Award for Public Service “for his contribution to the Yukon’s history and the economic life of the City of Dawson.”

In October of 2007, he was honoured by then-Governor General, Michaelle Jean, with his appointment as a member of the Order of Canada, which recognized “a lifetime of distinguished service in or to a particular community, group or field of activity.”

He has also been honoured by the community of Dawson City, which named a street after him in the Dome subdivision.

Most of all, he is remembered for the body of Yukon literature that he leaves behind, and in the hearts and memories of the many people who knew him.

Richard “Dick” Parsons North, C.M., B.A., April 19, 1929 – September 23, 2013

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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