Colourful, ‘cantankerous’ Yukon writer passes on

Jane Gaffin wasn't one for sitting in an office. Through a long career spent writing about Yukon’s mining industry and the characters that shaped it, Gaffin found her stories...

Jane Gaffin wasn’t one for sitting in an office. Through a long career spent writing about Yukon’s mining industry and the characters that shaped it, Gaffin found her stories at local bars and on street corners, chatting with friends and prospectors. She knew everyone, and everyone knew her.

“If you wanted to see Jane, you just had to go down Main Street,” said Delores Smith, a long-time friend. “Her social scene was out in the community.”

Gaffin, a well-known writer and columnist, died of lung cancer last Wednesday at the Whitehorse General Hospital. She was 73.

Gaffin arrived in Whitehorse from Kentucky in 1966. She was headed to Alaska, “looking for the freedom of the great frontier,” according to Mike Power, president of the Yukon Prospectors Association.

But she ended up staying in Whitehorse and landing a job as a columnist and advertising manager for the Whitehorse Star. Pat Ellis, who worked for the Star at the time, said Gaffin just showed up one day and asked for a job.

Bob Erlam, the publisher at the time, hired her on the spot.

“He would hire people just by looking at them,” said Ellis. “She looked honest, she looked bright.”

Gaffin stayed with the Star for three years, before moving to Anchorage to work for a newspaper there. There, she learned of the disappearance of an ex-boyfriend, Edward Hadgkiss, after a plane crash off the B.C. coast. Gaffin became obsessed with the case, Ellis said, and it inspired one of her later books, Missing in Life.

But by 1974, Gaffin was back in Whitehorse and carving out a new position for herself as a freelance writer. Over the years, she wrote stories about mining and prospecting, chronicling the lives and events behind that era’s mining boom for the Star and, at times, for the Yukon News.

She put together a lengthy supplement for the Star about mining history, called the LodeSTAR edition. And in 1980, she published Cashing In, a collection of short stories about the territory’s mining industry.

Smith said Cashing In was one of Gaffin’s greatest contributions to the place she called home.

“It gets what Whitehorse was like in the 60s,” she said. “Everybody should read it.”

Smith said Gaffin was attracted to mining stories because of the colourful characters she met during her research.

“I think she liked the trade after, and the people first,” she said.

But it may have been more than that.

Murray Lundberg, a local historian and an old friend of Gaffin’s, said she liked the miners because she could relate to them – their independence and their way of calling things as they saw them.

“She always said exactly what she thought,” he said. “Jane never did politically correct well.”

Gaffin was something of a pioneer in the Yukon mining industry. She toured underground mines when, 10 or 20 years earlier, women would never have been allowed underground.

She later became the first woman on the executive of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, and is on the Yukon Prospectors Association’s honour roll.

“She was fiercely independent and very opinionated,” said Smith. “When she was onto a subject, she wouldn’t let it go. She was very much a free spirit.”

Gaffin never married or had a family – she didn’t want the two-car garage lifestyle, Smith said.

“Domestic life eluded her whether by design or not, but she wasn’t unhappy.”

Gaffin’s passion was her work. Smith said she used to memorize passages of whatever she was working on and recite them to herself while walking down the street.

“It helped her research her stories,” Smith said. “If she can’t believe herself, how’s she going to convince anyone else that it’s true?”

Lundberg said when he used to run into Gaffin on the street, they’d often end up talking for an hour and a half, until they were looking for parking meters to lean on. She could talk about anything, and she never forgot a thing.

“She was cantankerous and opinionated,” said Smith. “She was a joy to talk to.”

But Whitehorse started to change as Gaffin grew older. It became bigger, more urban, and more regulated than it had been during the heyday of the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps for that reason, Gaffin became increasingly concerned with what she saw as government infringements on people’s individual freedoms.

In 2000, she took up the case of Allen Carlos, a prospector charged with improper storage of firearms. She wrote about the case extensively, and Carlos says she was partly responsible for his acquittal.

“She brought the story out to the public,” he said. “She’s a woman who had principles. She was a fighter for freedom.”

Gaffin never stopped writing, though Ellis said her later writing lost some of its earlier humour. In recent years, she even started a blog.

Many of those who knew her said Gaffin’s death is another sign that an era of Whitehorse’s history is over. Lundberg said she was one of the “colourful five per cent” that is now slowly dwindling.

“It was a vibrant time,” said Ellis. “It was an historic time, and she was there stirring things up.”

A celebration of Gaffin’s life will be held in the General Store of the Gold Rush Inn on Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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