The story of the riverboat Brainstorm

The most notable of the riverboats that plied the waters of the Yukon after the age of sternwheel steamboats ended was the Brainstorm, which regularly hauled supplies from Dawson City down the Yukon River.

The most notable of the riverboats that plied the waters of the Yukon after the age of sternwheel steamboats ended was the Brainstorm, which regularly hauled supplies from Dawson City down the Yukon River, then up the Porcupine to Old Crow. For two decades, the arrival of the Brainstorm was a regular occurrence in the isolated northern village.

The Brainstorm was constructed in 1951 and subsequently operated by George Kirk, a retired Mountie who had been stationed at Old Crow for 16 years.

In 1958, when Kirk died, the Brainstorm passed to Frank Burkhard of Dawson. On June 5, 1961, Burkhard sold the Brainstorm, and two wooden-hull barges, the Burro and the Bee, to Ben Warnsby and Mike Stutter of Dawson City for $8,500. Warnsby showed me the original bill of sale when I interviewed him earlier this fall.

Warnsby arrived in Dawson as a young man in the spring of 1952. Born in Lincolnshire, England, he was lured to the Yukon by the promise of a job at the North Fork Power Plant, 40 kilometres east of Dawson City. The plant provided electricity to the town of Dawson, as well as powering the fleet of dredges that operated in the goldfields southeast of the Klondike capital.

He started working for the owner, the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, for $1.18 per hour. It may not seem like a lot today, but it provided him with year-round employment, and he was able to save some of it every year until he had enough to purchase the Brainstorm. To remain solvent after the purchase, Warnsby had to continue working for YCGC for another year while Stutter ran the Brainstorm.

When I asked, he couldn’t tell me why he decided to buy the boat (and the business), but he and Stutter, his lifelong business partner and friend, operated the Brainstorm for the next 14 years, until it was sold in 1974.

During that time, they transported large consignments of goods to the trader Joe Netro, as well as supplying the government needs, and those of Yukon Electrical, in Old Crow.

From the very beginning, Warnsby and Stutter had to work hard and be creative to stay in business. “We never made a lot of money,” he said, “and we never knew if we made ends meet until the end of the year.” Instead of the two trips per summer that had been the regular practice before, they started making as many trips as they could. They augmented this business by delivering supplies to small Alaskan communities for the U.S. government.

For two years, while oil exploration was active in the Eagle Plain area, they hired Harry Campbell of Dawson City to haul non-perishable supplies, including barrels of fuel, during the winter to the mouth of the Bell River on the Porcupine, about 160 kilometres above Old Crow. In the spring, upon delivery of their first barge load of supplies to Old Crow, they proceeded up river to the cache at the mouth of the Bell River, thereby saving a 2,200 kilometre round trip back to Dawson.

As soon as the freight was off-loaded and the bills paid, they would depart for Dawson with another load of supplies. Warnsby said that when he got back to Dawson, he would go home, shower and sleep while another shipment of freight was being loaded, and then he was off again. Warnsby and Stutter employed different strategies over the years, including exchanging places when the Brainstorm reached Old Crow. Stutter might fly in from Dawson to replace Warnsby, who flew out on the same flight, or vice-versa.

During their 14-year operation, they kept the same crew working on the Brainstorm: Paul Ben Kassi, John Kendi and Alfred Charlie from Old Crow, and Percy Henry from Dawson City. These were supplemented by others, including Gordon Frost of Old Crow, and Henry and Isaac Henry from Dawson City.

According to Warnsby, the crew was a well-oiled machine. These men knew how to read every ripple, every eddy and change of colour. Their knowledge of the Porcupine River was invaluable.

Once the Brainstorm set off from Dawson, they operated around the clock, seldom setting foot on land except at Eagle, for customs inspection, or if they were forced ashore by fog.

They also had a cook on board. At first, it was Stutter’s wife Joyce, but she was later replaced by her mother. Stutter and Warnsby had bunks behind the pilot house, and there were three bunks below, plus one in the engine room. They had electricity, a propane fridge and oil stove in the galley, and full plumbing.

Going downstream, they placed the two barges side by side, and then strung them out single file when they got to the Porcupine River, for the upstream journey. Later, they exchanged both the Brainstorm and the two barges for steel-hulled replacements, the latter by an unnamed 20-metre barge, which was lengthened an additional nine metres the following year.

When they arrived at Circle, Alaska, they took on a pilot who would help them negotiate the countless channels of the Yukon Flats until they reached the Porcupine River. Going up the Porcupine was no easy chore either. The channel is filled with shifting sand bars, and if they grounded on one of these they had two choices: winch the Brainstorm off, or wait for higher water.

Once they were stranded on a bar for several days. It was raining the whole time, and they were exhausted and falling asleep on their feet. In 1966, it was so dry that the Brainstorm was stranded at Old Crow for several weeks by low water. Warnsby flew back to Dawson to wait for higher water. The Mountie contacted him by radio to tell him the water was up, but when he flew in, the level had gone down again, and he flew out on the same plane.

Later that season, he got the Brainstorm as far as Fort Yukon, where he purchased several hundred barrels of fuel and headed back to Old Crow. They could not proceed beyond Canyon Village, so they cached the fuel there for the winter, and completed the haul into Old Crow the following spring. That year, the winter fuel was flown into Old Crow in a Hercules transport.

In 1974, Warnsby and Stutter sold the Brainstorm and went into placer mining on Hunker Creek. They continued to mine for the next 22 years. When I asked Warnsby what happened to the Brainstorm, he said that 10 years ago it was still operating in Alaska.

Reminiscing about his experience operating the Brainstorm, his eyes lit up and his conversation was animated. He made many friends, and had many memorable moments in more than a dozen years on the river. And during that time, neither he, nor Stutter, nor any member of the crew was ever formally certified by the government to pilot the Brainstorm!

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

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