Danny Nowlan arrived in the Yukon in the late 1940s as a lean, scrappy, headstrong and handsome young forest ranger who loved to work and play hard.
He fit perfectly into a rugged, remote land of legends, true and untrue.
Barely out of his teens, he had already cheated death by surviving a long freefall and crash-landing into spruce trees after a borrowed parachute failed to open during a smoke-jumper training flight. He was 15 at that time – having lied about his age to enrol.
Nowlan had become a man at age nine, after his mother and six siblings fled in a fit of evangelical fervour from their bush cabin in far north Saskatchewan. By all accounts, the place was God-forsaken – but he stayed behind to take care of his blind, illiterate father.
Formal schooling was as relevant – and odious – to Nowlan as it was to Huckleberry Finn a century earlier.
In winters, he trapped, skinned and sold beaver, muskrat, marten and wolverine pelts. In summer, he made moonshine for other trappers, prospectors and local teenagers. When the RCMP came prowling for the source, he brazenly persuaded them to hire him as their local lookout for 25 cents a month. He did not turn himself in.
After arriving in Whitehorse, he took turns being a camp foreman during the completion of the Alaska Highway, owner of the White River lodge, and a part-time prospector who thought nothing of a four-month, 2,000-kilometre solo trek through some of the toughest terrain on the continent.
But his heart finally found a permanent home after spotting a 283-hectare Eden north of Whitehorse. It was the perfect setting for his dream: a sanctuary for species like musk ox, elk, rocky mountain goats, Dall sheep, and mule deer. It was for sale. He bought it, determined to build not a zoo, but a showcase for northern species in their natural habitat.
During the next decade, fences went up, houses and sheds were built, and a menagerie was assembled. At one point, Nowlan purchased a miniature locomotive and four miles of ancient track from a defunct Klondike gold mine outfit. The plan was to recycle these into a tourist train at his enclave. Build it, he believed, and they will come.
But in a typically hilarious misadventure, the brakes soon burned out on the small, flat-bed truck he used to haul the locomotive south. So snowbanks were side-swiped to slow down descents. After the springs collapsed, and a blizzard set in, the truck left a tell-tale trail of weaving tracks for 200 miles. Then the RCMP showed up at a highway cafe, looking vainly for the drunkest driver they had never seen. Perfectly sober, Nowlan and his pal cackled with laughter when the officer left – only to find their truck engine permanently seized.
Another episode took place outside a forest ranger camp at Watson Lake. While several of his crew mates consorted with prostitutes in a bush trailer, Nowlan and an accomplice sneaked up at night and placed dynamite sticks in an oil drum filled with creosote. Retreating, they carefully lit a long fuse.
But they miscalculated the charge. The explosion toppled the trailer on its side, and blew the windows and door in. Creosote rained down on it, the tops of spruce trees, and pooled on the ground. Buck naked bodies flew out of the trailer, Nowlan recalls, first with howls of terror, then shouts of joy, as the victims concluded that somehow an oil gusher had just erupted.
Once, while fishing in a canoe on Braeburn Lake, his ancient rod snapped under the weight of what proved to be a 15-pound lake trout. That left the reel disabled. To Nowlan, a fishing net was a nicety only sourdoughs needed. There wasn’t one. So he hauled the thrashing trout into his lap with a gaffe, knocked it out with a flashlight, took a slug of whiskey, then grinned and lit a cigarette while his two soaked passengers gaped and steadied the still rocking canoe.
There were many such escapades. Urged on by countless cronies, and far-flung visitors (including the late CBC Radio host Peter Gzowski), Nowlan delighted in recounting hilarious stories with the aid of a steady supply of hand-rolled cigarettes, coffee laced with whiskey, and enthralled laughter while his beloved dog lay draped across his lap.
For the local kids, who adored him and his miniature animal kingdom, however, he was unfailingly gentle and generous. Abetted by his two young daughters, all manner of orphaned animals found a refuge at the Nowlan ranch. They included a baby moose raised on bottle-fed milk and kibble; a tiny mink that shared bubble baths with his two girls; a beloved pair of wolverines; bear cubs; and a squirrel that routinely perched in Nowlan’s flannel shirt pocket while he bulldozed tree stumps and crude bush trails.
Having stubbornly trained a goshawk to fly to his fist as a boy, he graduated to eagles when he moved to the Yukon. Nowlan would appear with his trained eagles at firefighter picnics, or at schools, to amaze and educate. Soon, injured, orphaned or buck-shot eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls were being dropped off by game branch staff and bird lovers. Some were healed and released to the wild, others remained permanent guests.
By the mid-1980s Nowlan was one of the continent’s premier falconers. With his second wife Uli, he built state-of-the-art falcon breeding pens, and an avian hospital. It was stocked with injured or legally acquired wild peregrine and gyrfalcon parents. Some of the offspring were to be sold to other falconers to pay for rising ranch bills; some were to be placed in the wild to restore populations devastated by pesticides.
Then calamity came calling. Nowlan, Uli, and others were arrested and charged with criminally conspiring to steal wild falcons from nests, “launder” them through the ranch aviaries, then sell them via ruthless bird brokers to rich Arab royalty for as much as $75,000 per falcon. All the falcons on Nowlan’s ranch were seized under court order.
The charges led to the then longest, most expensive trial in Yukon history. It took three years for the “Operation Falcon” trial to disclose that the charges had little basis in fact or science, but instead had been motivated by headline-hunting prosecutors and woefully incompetent government wildlife investigators. All were acquitted on all charges.
That left Nowlan and Uli vindicated, but broke. The trial cost them a reported $100,000 in legal fees, during which their impounded falcons could not be sold. It took 12 years to fully recover financially, after a deal was struck to have the preserve become a fixture on a major tour bus route.
Eventually, the magnificent enterprise was sold to the Yukon government, and a non-profit group has since transformed the wildlife preserve, animal hospital and education centre into an accredited showcase for elk, musk ox, mountain goats and mule deer, which 10,000 visited last year.
Nowlan was no saint. He had infinite tenderness for animals and children, but could be ferocious with enemies real or perceived. His home was akin to a bus depot for friends far and wide, but he could shun a neighbour for decades for swearing in front of his children. He could be charming or curt, refined or raunchy – and not always in the right place and time. His world was divided into fast friends and sworn enemies.
Perhaps many of these traits could be traced to his hardscrabble beginnings as a “moose-meat-and-bannock kid” from the north Saskatchewan bush. Life fought him early on, and he fought back. It was a place where survival depended on instinct, not emotional subtlety. And no one taught him such skills.
Lying in a Whitehorse hospital bed weeks before he died, his battered body certainly showed many scars from that era, and seven subsequent decades. Yet despite mounting pain that drugs could barely mask, Nowlan’s grey wolf eyes still flashed with delight when one of many hospital visitors arrived with a large double-double and sugar-coated timbits. He recounted old stories with relish and riveting detail. A deep belly laugh followed a salty joke told. Even at death’s door, he showed courtly manners and no trace of self-pity.
Tellingly, one of his final meal requests was for moose meat and bannock.
In a quiet moment, he listened to a current inventory of animals at the Yukon kingdom he created. He wants to know what pasture the musk ox are in. How many Dall sheep are breeding. How the offspring of a famed old elk named Elmer are doing. Do mountain goats still climb the cliffs?
They are thriving. That’s all he needs to know. His eyes close, and a soft, sweet smile steals across his grizzled face. Such is Danny Nowlan’s reward, and legacy. Both were fully earned.
Danny Nowlan’s friends and family can post and view stories, photos, and tributes at www.dannynowlan.com
Paul McKay is a past Pierre Berton writer-in-residence, and author of an acclaimed book about the Operation Falcon case.