According to Harry Auer, when he came to the Yukon to hunt big game in 1914: “When I first met him, I was tremendously impressed with his wonderful crop of hair, which was at least ten inches long and gave him the appearance of a human chrysanthemum. As he came in the cabin I naively inquired, “Who are you?” to which he replied: “Bones, merely Bones.”
The man who gave this cryptic reply was Morley Elbert Bones, and he was a truly memorable individual who lived in the Kluane area in the early days. Bones was one of the guides hired by big game outfitter Tom Dickson to take Auer’s hunting party into the St. Elias Mountains in 1914.
By 1919, Bones was outfitting hunts for his own clients. In that year, he brought 20 pack and saddle horses over the mountains to McCarthy, Alaska, to pick up a party of three hunters for a fall hunt in the mountains. He had left his camp at Kluane Lake, and first taken his outfit into Whitehorse before turning toward his Alaskan objective.
The plan for this sports adventure was for the party to proceed through the mountains in Alaska and the adjacent part of the St. Elias Mountains in the Yukon, to the White River, hunting as they went. They would then float down the White River to its confluence with the Yukon with their trophies in a boat constructed somewhere near the headwaters. Arriving at the Yukon River, they would flag down the first steamer headed up river to Whitehorse.
Travelling north to Alaska to rendezvous at McCarthy, G.O. Young and J.C. Snyder had stopped in Juneau, where they met governor Thomas Riggs. Governor Riggs supplied a sterling report about the man who would guide the hunters through Alaska and the Yukon.
Bones’s reputation was widely known throughout the North, reported Riggs, he was “absolutely reliable and a man whose word can be depended upon under all circumstances; in fact, one of the best outfitters in the North Country; a good hunter, thoroughly familiar with the country and … as good a judge of the dangerous glacial waters of the interior as can be found anywhere. You will find him to be a very queer man,” the governor added, “a man who is hard to describe; but you will soon learn to understand his peculiar manners.”
Young described his first impressions of the man who was to lead their hunting party for the next two months: “Bones was a well-built man about five feet seven inches tall and was past fifty years of age. He had a loud and unusual tone of voice which once heard would never be forgotten. We soon observed that he talked very little, but when he spoke – which was always in a slow deliberate manner and with much emphasis on some of his words – he always commanded attention. As I studied the face of this man whose word or promise was considered as good as the gold nuggets from the creek beds of that country, I tried to figure out what there was about him that was so unusual, aside from his long bushy hair and his slow and emphatic manner of speaking.”
The party proceeded through the mountains, bagging their limit of caribou, Dall sheep, moose and grizzly bear. Having constructed their boat, they proceeded down the White River laden with trophies, but disaster struck; the boat capsized and the trophies went to the bottom of the River.
The party returned safely to Whitehorse overland. True to his promise, Bones returned to the scene of the submerged scow later that winter with Gene Jacquot during a spell of cold weather during which the temperature dropped below minus 40. Bones sunk a shaft of ice to the bottom of the river, in search of the trophies, but was unsuccessful in locating any. The trip took them 33 days under harsh conditions.
So who was Morley Bones? In 1902, a Seattle newspaper reported that he had found a large gold nugget on a tributary of Mush Creek in the St Elias Mountains. In October of the following year, he and three others discovered gold on Bullion Creek, and recovered nearly $700 in nuggets in only nine days.
By 1915, Bones was settled at Silver City, near the southern end of Kluane Lake, where he had established the largest fox fur farm in the territory. His two-room cabin consisted of a large main room with carpeted floor and a large barrel stove in the centre.
“The log walls were almost covered with heads, horns, pictures and curios, making the place look like a small museum,” reported Young. “In one corner of the room stood a bookcase containing a good selection of books by well-known authors. On a crude stand in a corner was a small Victrola and many records. There was a large accumulation of unread newspapers, as Bones subscribed to London, San Francisco and Seattle papers. He seldom had an opportunity to get mail except when making trips to White Horse, or ‘to town’ as he termed it.”
Bones applied for a homestead of 160 acres on the shore of Kluane Lake, where he had built a cluster of a dozen log buildings that included a barn for his horses and cattle. He constructed a complex of pens to house his 50 foxes. He had a wind powered water pump and 10 acres of land under cultivation. The decaying remains of these buildings still exist today.
Bones’s little haven of civilization was situated in an area of extreme isolation. After the initial flurry of activity resulting from the discovery of gold, the population dwindled, and with it, the services and volume of traffic on the wagon road from Whitehorse to Kluane Lake.
July 8, 1927, Bones wrote a letter to Percy Reid, the gold commissioner, apologizing for the delay in sending in his annual fur report. “Your letter of June 15th…also yours of Dec 22 last…both reached me on July 3rd . This is the first mail I have had since the 19th of Dec last.”
Bones lived in the Kluane region for more than 30 years, but the isolation must have weighed heavily upon him. One prospector in the area, Al Supneck had died in his cabin near Bullion Creek, and his remains were not discovered for several months. Perhaps Bones feared a similar fate. In October of 1934, he sold his homestead to Jack Haydon, and left the Yukon for good.
Morley Bones returned to his native California where he lived on a small ranch and devoted his final years to fox farming. Plagued by stomach ulcers, he died in 1945.
So we know what he looked like, where he lived, and how long he stayed in the Yukon, and we even know some of the details of his character, but do we really know who he was?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org