After 15 years of ferrying tourists from Minto to Fort Selkirk, Heinz Sauer of Big River Enterprises is calling it quits.
“It’s just time to move on,” said Sauer, relaxing in a lawn chair behind his office, watching the Yukon River flow quickly by.
“I was going to go into long-distance trips anyway.”
Sauer will now be piloting his boat to Pelly Crossing and, from there, do some subcontracting work for Great River Journeys, ferrying travellers to Dawson.
Monday morning, Sauer loaded passengers into his aluminum boat and pushed off, floating with the current.
This trip would be one of the last. His business officially closes August 1.
Sauer stood behind the wheel with a confident, serious look on his face.
“River navigation is a dying art,” said the seasoned guide, while keeping a constant eye on the river.
Travellers, be they on Sauer’s boat or canoeists, often don’t know how treacherous the Yukon River can be.
It’s often not as deep as it appears. Sometimes, the only way for a boat to cross a section of the river is to find narrow channels through the shallows.
“There are rules for how to find the deep sections and then there’s the exceptions to those rules. The river’s a living thing. There aren’t too many people around today who can read it.”
Finding deep water was easier on Monday as the river was high, the highest Sauer has seen in 20 years on the Yukon.
He grew up in Munich, arriving in Canada when he was 21 to work various jobs across the country.
In ’78 he arrived in the Yukon. He worked at the Faro lead-zinc-silver mine.
“I was fascinated with the country and soon decided that I wanted to live in the bush.”
He bought a trapline and for half a season learned bushcraft from another trapper.
Then he set out after lynx, martin, wolverine, fox, beaver and wolf.
When asked about his trapping days, he shrugged his broad shoulders and said, “I’ve never been one for stories.”
He saw some interesting things, and some rare things, but for Sauer it was the feeling of self-sufficiency that affected him the most.
“It was intoxicating! It felt like being in a little cocoon, totally detached from the rest of the world.”
To get to his cabin, downriver from Minto, Sauer built a boat out of plywood and fiberglass and began his river education.
Encouraged by friends, he later decided to use this boat to transport people to Fort Selkirk — after all, no one else was offering the service.
Over the years he’s gone through a number of boats, but has recently upgraded to a sleek Yukon-built aluminum vessel.
“I didn’t have great ambitions; I was just looking to make enough money to get me through the year,” he said.
“It was easier then; anyone could start up a small business without being crushed by regulations.”
Today, Yukon regulations have caught up with the rest of the world. So, despite increased investment in his business, Sauer collects the same profit as he did when he began the venture.
“Fifteen years ago you didn’t need insurance, wilderness tour licences and gas prices weren’t nearly as high.
“Now it’s a lot harder to start something up, especially without a lot of money.”
Because of this, Sauer doubts anyone will step up to provide the service once he makes his last trip at the end of July.
Most people get to Fort Selkirk by canoe, but Sauer’s niche market of older tourists and those without the time to continue downriver to Dawson will no longer be able to see the historic site.
He has mixed feelings about those losing the opportunity to visit Fort Selkirk.
“It truly is an authentic place. It’s special and everyone should try to experience it.
“But to see hordes of people tramping around the place kind of hurts, you know?”
On the way down the river, Sauer would slow the boat to point out animals and remnants of the sternwheeler era.
“I love being on the river,” he said.
“There’s something amazing around every corner; it never gets boring.”
Throughout the boat trip, between sentences, Sauer fell quiet. The silence would often drag on for minutes.
It was as if he was meditating on the river.
His boat was named Vasudeva, after the ferryboat captain in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
In the book, the enlightened old man claimed to be able to converse with the river, and would leave each of his passengers with a pearl of wisdom.
“It’s the subtleties that matter the most,” said Sauer, still watching the river.
“Whether you’re trapping, navigating the river or anything in life, for that matter, it’s the subtleties that keep it interesting. And seeing those subtitles is what makes a person good at what they do.
“It just takes time and patience to be able to see them.”