The golden years of retirement can take many forms.
Freed from the burdens of employment some actively pursue leisure sports such as golf or sailing. Others may spend their pensions travelling the globe — seeing the world through the windshield of an RV.
For Captain Dick Stevenson, renowned creator of Dawson City’s famous SourToe Cocktail, and his wife Anne Newall, retirement has provided an excellent opportunity to commune with the feral gophers of the Yukon wilderness.
Every summer day without fail, for the last three years, the couple pack up their lawn chairs and voyage to the woods around Christ the King Elementary School, where, armed with a bounty of gopher snacks, they bask in loving communion with legions of the large rodents.
“We’re in an apartment where we can’t have pets, and we’ve got just a small porch, so we figured, let’s find somewhere nice to sit — and this seemed a lot nicer than the porch,” said Newall.
The ground, pockmarked with gopher holes, closely resembled a miniature shell-scarred First World War battlefield.
Strewn between the many craters lay thousands of splintered peanut shells — the remnants of three summers of nut feasts.
The creators of this forest of holes are nowhere to be seen, yet Stevenson and Newell stand by, peanuts and blueberry bagels at the ready.
At Stevenson’s side lies an exquisitely carved wooden cane, not for walking support — but to smack large dogs who stray into gopher territory.
“We had one dog practically run us over,” said Newall.
Suddenly, a rough-looking gopher head inches his way out of hole behind the lawn chairs.
The couple named him “Big Friendly.”
Newall called gently to the gopher — entering into a near chant of the gopher’s name: “Big Friendly, come on Big Friendly, come on Big Friendly, come on Big Friendly…”
The gopher crawls out, closely hugging the ground. His eyes flit nervously from side to side, and he spastically inches forward, hesitating to take a de-shelled peanut gingerly held out by Stevenson.
“It’s a peanut goddamit,” said Stevenson, thrusting it at Big Friendly.
An ear-bursting squeal echoed from the other side of the gopher commune, announcing the appearance of Chiz.
“We call him Chiz because he makes the loudest noise,” said Newall.
Chiz stood defiantly looking at the couple, his head seeming to split open momentarily as his mouth widened impossibly for another hearty chirp.
Fierce competition exists among the many gophers of Christ the King school. Just across the soccer field lay a rival clan — constantly vying for the peanut treasures of the Chiz and Big Friendly clan.
Halfway through eating a peanut, Big Friendly snapped to attention, eyeing a rapidly advancing gopher coming from the hated far side of the soccer field.
Dropping his peanut in concentration, Big Friendly allowed him to come only a little bit closer before breaking into top-speed pursuit of the potential invader.
Chiz raced up and grabbed another peanut from Stevenson, quickly chiseling it down into swallow-able bits.
The gopher distracted, Stevenson grabbed it by the midsection and hoisted it onto his lap. A panicked moment later, it had leapt back to the safety of a nearby hole.
Typically, in the absence of a photographer and reporter, the gophers are only too happy to scale the laps, shoulders and heads of Stevenson and Newall, they said.
Communions with wild rodents is, surprisingly, old hat for the couple.
“I’d never been near rodents until I was married to Dick,” said Newall.
When the couple lived in a log cabin at Mile 932 of the Alaska Highway, chipmunks used to swarm happily through a hole in the wall to feed on a bowl of sunflower seeds kept on the kitchen counter.
“The chipmunks got so cheeky that if the bowl ever ran out, they would jump up on my knee and ask me to fill it up,” said Newell.
Despite their happy-go-lucky chirpy existence, the Christ the King gophers are a population under siege. Within the last year, their numbers have plummeted by a full two thirds.
“Just about everything round about is their enemy, trying to kill them or eat them or something,” said Newall.
Dogs, snares and pellet-gun wielding no-good-nicks have all taken their toll of the gophers — taking down six since the previous winter.
Recently, the couple showed up to see two of the young gophers lying dead close to their holes — felled by pellet gun fire.
Another time, Newall and Stevenson spied a nearby vehicle filled with suspected gopher killers. After Stevenson took down the licence plate, they were never seen again.
The couple’s daily ritual has made them near-experts in the field of gopherology — becoming finely attuned to the bizarre and brutal family rituals of the clan.
Among mothers and children, gophers can often be seen engaging in hug-like embraces. However, when children get to certain age, they are viciously chased away by their parents — sometimes out of the area permanently.
When the two primary parents of the clan were killed, the younger ones banded together to chase the remaining adult out.
“I guess this is what you could call ‘the wild,’” said Newall.
Contact Tristin Hopper at firstname.lastname@example.org