Special to the News
I met Dick Person on my first trip to the North in 1994. I was as green as green could be. I hadn’t even been camping since I was a kid, but here I was, setting off for a summer in the bush.
The first time I saw Dick, he was standing on the other side of the ferry deck as we passed from Haines to Skagway. I was busy fretting over gear. He was just looking into the wind. Then something caught his eye and he waved me over to his side of the boat. After a few lurching steps, I managed to put my hands on the rails and Dick pointed out a mama brown bear with two cubs on a grey-scrabble beach.
I’d never seen a bear in the wild before. I kept looking back and forth from Dick to the shore, riveted by the beauty of the scene. After the ferry had gained too much distance to make much of them, Dick said matter-of-factly, “Ain’t that something?”
I said, “It sure is.”
After that we settled down on a bench and he asked where I was going. I told him that my first leg of my trip was hiking the Chilkoot, and after that, we’d see. If you know the trail, you know the story of why I was doing it. It’s the same for most everybody. A few months earlier, I’d been sitting around a campfire when an old codger recited a poem by Robert Service. Then the conversation turned to the Klondike, the ton of goods, Dawson City. Then, before I knew what happened, my gear had been sorted and a trip north booked.
Dick smiled and told me that it had been the same for him, a long time before.
I asked him where he was going, and he said he was on his way back to his “teepee on the Teslin.”
I said, “Your … teepee on the Teslin?”
He said, “Yep.”
I said, “Ain’t that something?”
We both laughed.
As it happens, he’d lived for the previous 15 years, year-round, in a teepee along the Teslin River and he was heading home.
I was fascinated. This guy was the real deal, and there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance about him, just honesty and straightforward kindness. He looked like a tough guy, and I figured he’d be dangerous if provoked, but here, on the ferry, he was just happy being part of it all. Not unlike those bears, I suppose.
Dick could tell I was nervous about hiking in bear country and he asked if I’d been given safety tips. I told him I could use a refresher, and he gave me one, and then some. In particular, I remember him saying, “Well, if it’s a brown bear, it’s probably just gonna bat you around a bit. Roll up and cover your head. But if it’s a black bear and he makes contact, he’s there to eat you. Punch him in the nose if you can. It probably won’t work, but what the hell.”
“Ain’t that something?” I said.
“It sure is,” he chuckled.
Over the next hour or so Dick and I had a blast. He drew outlines of bear shoulders in a fruitless attempt to give me some sense of what might be in my vicinity, since fur colour could be deceptive. I told him about teaching in New York and we both held forth on Sam McGee and the Spell of the Yukon.
We didn’t know one another long, but we got on famously. So well, that he invited me to his place on the Teslin the next spring. When the time came around, I wrote him a letter in which I laid out a plan for the summer. He said it would be great to see me and asked if I could haul out some supplies. Sadly, it turned out that my vacation didn’t match his schedule and we never met again, but he’s always been there in the outback of my mind, thriving.
That all seems like a lifetime ago, but one recent evening, after talking to some young ramblers about the North, Dick came to mind and I just flat-out missed him. I searched through some old boxes, looking for his address, but came up blank, so I turned to the computer and figured I’d give it a shot. I plugged his name and “Teslin River,” thinking that I’d write him a letter. Maybe I’d head up to see him this summer. Though we only knew one another for a few hours, I trusted he’d remember me fine.
Sadly, the first search result was a story in the Yukon News from 2006. Turns out Dick passed from cancer 10 years ago.
I hadn’t even remotely considered the possibility.
When I was a boy, I worried about those who had been dead so long that they’d been forgotten. The priests and nuns told me to pray for those in purgatory, because our prayers alone reach God’s ears. There’s nothing else, I was taught, that can beseech Him to bring our loved ones home.
So I did. When my grandparents passed, I prayed hard, long. Not so much because I thought that my prayers would get them into heaven that day, but because I was banking the embers, trying to get ahead of the game, for that dark long night, when there is no one left to remember.
I don’t believe that stuff anymore. Still, even now, there is a peace that resonates deeply in me when I think, perhaps, I’ve done something good today by recalling Dick’s name to the world.
He made my life better, richer and more fulfilled in the blink of an eye, and when I think on him, it feels as if I’m looking deeply into a tannin-rich lake, green and brown and half made of earth. Far below the surface, I see a face looking back at me. It is not an image of fear or nightmares, but rather that of a man, pleased at having been stirred from where his ashes have settled, where he’s been made one with the world he loved.
He looks as I first saw him, gesturing across the deck to come and see something remarkable, something beautiful, something more permanent than ourselves.
Michael Tallon is a writer and publisher from the United States, currently living in Antigua, Guatemala. To read more of his work, visit www.lacuadramagazine.com.