A century of stories: Dawson elder J.J. Van Bibber turns 90

It's been 90 years since J.J. Van Bibber was born at the side of a trail near the Pelly River. Two days later, mother and child walked the rest of the way to the trading post at Russell Creek. "Well, I was a bit too young to walk then," says Van Bibber. It's stories like these that have earned him some attention over the last few years.

It’s been 90 years since J.J. Van Bibber was born at the side of a trail near the Pelly River.

Two days later, mother and child walked the rest of the way to the trading post at Russell Creek.

“Well, I was a bit too young to walk then,” says Van Bibber.

It’s stories like these that have earned him some attention over the last few years.

On August 29, more than 100 people gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday at the Yukon Order of Pioneers hall in Dawson.

The occasion also marked the first public screening of a short promotional film introducing the man and his life.

The film, Telling the Children, is one step toward a feature-length documentary, which Lulu Keating of Red Snapper Films is currently raising money to produce.

Meanwhile another Dawson independent, Jody Beaumont and Michael Edwards of Cirque Consulting, are producing a book that will feature Van Bibber’s photos and stories, to be completed by the fall of 2011.

I first met Van Bibber this summer, as an archival researcher on a project of my own.

Now I find myself writing a manuscript for the book.

As everyone involved in these projects, or anyone who knows Van Bibber for any length of time can tell you, his story has a way of drawing people into its web.

While there is no shortage of fascinating stories in Yukon territory, Van Bibber has earned this special attention for several reasons.

For one, his life links a time of dogsleds and log rafts with highways and heavy machinery.

Of mixed heritage, it also bridges disparate cultures and politics.

But, perhaps most importantly, Van Bibber remembers every part of it.

And no less important, he has the photos to prove this.

Since he was 13, Van Bibber has carried a camera with him for much of his life afield, photographing both the ordinary and the extraordinary while trapping, booming logs, building highways, mining, prospecting, and hunting.

His wife Clara added to their collection, both with her own photos dating back to the late 1930s, and with the 8mm video camera she purchased in the early 1960s.

“We never thought of photography work or nothing,” says Van Bibber. “We just liked pictures and we took pictures.”

For years, the photos sat scattered in boxes and among family members.

Then, in 2003, Van Bibber approached the Tr’ondek Hwech’in heritage department with a shoebox of black-and-white photos. With his wife Clara terminally ill, Van Bibber sensed a new immediacy and wanted the photos preserved.

Sue Parsons, collections manager at Tr’ondek Hwech’in, immediately recognized the historical significance of these pictures of boat building, dog sledding and life on the land.

She initiated research that resulted in the Van Bibber and Clara Van Bibber Collection.

Today, it features more than 1,235 digitized images (with hundreds more still being processed), 46 8mm films, five beaded artifacts and an associated archive containing dozens of oral history transcripts.

In 2005, a selection of these photos went on display at the Danoja Zho cultural centre in Dawson.

The exhibit, Trapped Memories: Illuminations, marked the first public presentation of Van Bibber’s photographs and stories.

Illuminated in light-boxes, the images showed Van Bibber and his brothers at the peak of their trapping career.

In one season alone, the brothers trapped hundreds of marten and beaver, explored new ground in the Ogilvie Mountains, gunned down a monstrous grizzly and piloted a moose-skin boat down the Miner River.

Today, as more people come to know such remarkable stories, Van Bibber has added yet another job to add to his already long resume.

He’s fast becoming a professional storyteller.

During the summer, Van Bibber can often be found telling his stories at the Tombstones Territorial Park visitor centre.

Visitors sipping Labrador tea can catch a glimpse of what life in the mountains around them was like more than 60 years ago, when Van Bibber trapped just west of the park.

The new building stands just a short distance from a pond where, 65 years earlier, Van Bibber trapped three beaver.

For the first time since he stopped trapping in the late 1940s, Van Bibber has picked up a tin harmonica and started to play again.

A budding showman, he likes to begin his stories with his theme song, When I Grow too Old to Dream.

The tales are rich with details, from the smell of a dead body rising from a cabin floor to the tinkling sound of ice on a bear’s fur in March.

But while such details might seem like pure theatrics, there is more hard fact behind them than most visitors would likely believe.

“It’s no good to start making up stories,” he says. “Pretty soon you can’t keep track of your own lies, and then no one believes you.”

Van Bibber hardly needs to invent his details.

When presented with a photo of himself at five years old, he still immediately recalls why he was glowering: “Helen stole my moccasins!” he exclaims.

“She hid them and I had to have my picture taken with bare feet.

“I was mad at her all day.”

Show him a map and he can trace the exact route he took on any trapping season, though he never used a map himself.

He’ll even show you exactly where you might yet find the skull of the monstrous grizzly the brothers killed above the Blackstone River.

But such treasures will soon be lost.

The Van Bibbers are well known for their longevity (Van Bibber’s brother Alex still runs a trap line at 94), but this last birthday was no small milestone for Van Bibber.

At his family celebration on Labour Day weekend, Van Bibber was less lively than usual.

Suffering from varicose veins, chronic infections, deteriorating eyesight, stiffening joints, and the effects of a life of hard living, he’s candid about the situation:

“I’m not gonna be around much longer,” he says.

“You’d better get all you can from me now.”

It will take much more than a book or a documentary film to really live up to this challenge.

But at least it’s a start.

Niall Fink is an University of Alberta student who came to Dawson City this summer to work on the oral history of labour changes for men in the territory. He is now involved

in putting a book together about

J.J. Van Bibber.