In praise of Eagle Plains

Everyone who lives in this vast and varied territory, which Harry Waldron used to describe as a "207,000 square mile outdoor insane asylum." 

COMMENTARY

By Doug Sack

Everyone who lives in this vast and varied territory, which Harry Waldron used to describe as a “207,000 square mile outdoor insane asylum,” has a favourite place sonewhere between the B.C. border and the Arctic Ocean, and I am no different in that regard.

Mine has remained constant from the moment I first saw it in the mid 1970s from the seat of a D-8H Caterpillar bulldozer. I’ve been an Eagle Plains kind of guy ever since.

Now this is not to say I’m a Dempster Highway kind of guy, even though it’s my favourite road in the world, because the road itself has caused me to mutter more angry curses than sighs of pleasure over the years and I’ve often described it as “the Road to Nowhere” because it concludes in Inuvik, N.W.T., a town I’ve never been able to find a reason to like. Inuvik is certifiable proof that it is possible to go too far north in life’s elusive quest to find peace, truth, serenity or beauty, but this is not the time nor place to dwell on unpleasant places.

To limit the boundaries of spectacular even further, the Plains of Eagle have a very definite beginning and end in the middle of the Dempster, if you know where to look and why.

For sure, the first third of the Dempster runs through some amazing country, including the craggy Tombstones, the bald mountaintops along the Blackstone and a nice long run on the banks of the bucolic Ogilvie River. But it’s the dramatic uphill run out of the river valley where the real fun begins as you climb up to the southern doorway to the Plains.

There, where it flattens out on top, you’ll find a mandatory pit stop with a big view of the Ogilvie far below where it meanders north-east to join the Peel and, eventually, the mighty Mackenzie on its journey to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Do not drive past the viewing platform, because it is one of the great historical photo ops in all the Yukon.

There, right in front of your eyes, you’ll find a 30,000-year-old history lesson in which you can clearly see the exact spot where the Laurentide Ice Sheet ended. It’s as if the last Ice Age knocked on the front door of the Eagle Plains but decided not to come in.

To your right are the rough peaks of the Ogilvies, devastated by millennia of glaciers and mile-deep ice fields. To the left are the gentle rolling peaks of the tundra-covered Richardsons, untouched by any erosion other than that caused by wind, sun and rain.

The contrast is as stark as seeing a photograph of an 80-year-old Bombay Peggy standing next to the angelic Jackie Evancho, but maybe you have to be a mountain man to describe geology in such feminine terms.

To put it more clearly, from that point north along the route of the Dempster to slightly south of the N.W.T. border where they grow smaller and smaller eventually disappearing into the flat Arctic tundra like the tail of a sea dragon disappearing under water, you can see how all the mountains of North America would have looked had they been spared the devastation of the ice.

The plains also have many people stories, starting with the varied native cultures who hunted the great caribou herds for tens of thousands of years, and some interesting white man misadventures of the last century, such as the Lost Patrol. In a nutshell, a Mountie patrol making an annual routine trip from Fort MacPherson to Dawson in the winter of 1910-11 got lost and starved to death. Their bodies were found the following spring by a rescue patrol led by Cpl. W.J.D. Dempster, for whom the highway is named.

And “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” saga ended violently in 1930 on the Eagle River, where Albert Johnson was tracked down and killed by Mounties using an airplane piloted by flying ace Wop May.

While neither of those tragic stories has anything to do with my high regard for these proud plains, the legend of Harry Waldron is another matter because he was a good personal friend back in Dawson in the ‘70s.

To outward appearances, Harry was just another government welder who worked 40 hours a week bending metal to suit his will. Off-duty he was a “life of the party” kind of guy who entertained tourists for years in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling casino in Dawson by picking up tables with his teeth and, occasionally, going on-stage to recite Robert Service poems, a hobby at which he excelled.

For reasons known only to him, while welding on the Eagle Plains as his working career was winding down, he proclaimed himself “The Keeper of the Arctic Circle” and sat in a rocking chair dressed in top hat and tuxedo at latitude 66, 33 degrees north, to recite Service to unsuspecting busloads of tourists. He did that for years at one of the coldest and windiest spots on the plains, well known for frequent sightings of grizzlies, and nobody ever knew if he had a deal with the tour companies or if one of his loose screws finally fell out.

He passed on several years ago but is immortalized with a photo at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre as a significant contributor to the lore of the Dempster. I camped at the Arctic Circle last week for three nights to honour his memory and noticed his job has been taken over by a dancing gopher who greets every tourist, especially the children, and eats right out of their hands.

When I got back to Eagle Plains Lodge and mentioned to owner Stan McNevin that Harry has been replaced by a gopher, he laughed and suggested he probably would have preferred one of those dancing girls from Gertie’s but at least a local got his job.

Maybe Harry actually believed the Yukon is an outdoor nuthouse and needed a doorman in a tuxedo to welcome visitors to the Arctic Circle, where the nearby mountains look like they’re made of soft green velvet soon to turn to the rainbow colours of autumn and finally the quiet white of winter.

Personally, I think he just wanted people to have a good chuckle as they passed through the Yukon’s most beautiful spot.

Beauty and laughter have always travelled well together and it’s as if they were married where the Eagle Plains cross the Arctic Circle. Harry knew that. I know it. And, now, so do you, but I would love to hear from other Yukoners about places you love or loathe… and why. It could make good column fodder down the road.

Doug Sack was the sports editor of the Yukon News from 1974 through 1984. He’s currently touring the territory.

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