This autumn, during my recent six-month transition from a retired oilpatch catskinner to a born-again Yukon cheechako, I did a pretty good job keeping my yap shut about the astounding changes, attitudes and people I was encountering after an absence of almost exactly 30 years.
From my perspective, everything that took place in the Yukon Territory from 1984 to 2014 had to be observed, analyzed, categorized, pasteurized and sympathized in those six short months spent alternating between playing with my three grandchildren in Whitehorse and travelling all over the territory and Alaska in my pickup and travel trailer to get intimately reacquainted with my old stomping grounds where I “hurled my youth into a grave,” as the bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, so accurately described it over 100 years ago.
Oh, it was a thoughtful summer of observation, nostalgia and education as I revisited all the old places and slowly made the transition. I changed my mailing address immediately upon arrival, had to wait 90 days to get on Yukon medical and completed the osmosis near the autumn equinox by finally dumping my B.C. plates and insurance for the symbolic one-plate freedom of “The Man With the Pan” and some free-enterprise insurance.
Everything went fine at the motor vehicles branch until the very end of the ordeal when the nice young lady asked my occupation, not for anything to do with vehicle registration but for statistical analysis by the Yukon government which, I suppose, likes to keep track of new arrivals.
Now, this question has always stumped me because I have forever been half-catskinner/half-writer and there are no such categories as “literary catskinner” or “dirt-pushing writer.” So I just said catskinner when she asked because I did very little writing for publication during my decade in the oilpatch and a whole lot of catskinning, mostly building roads and leases for those kind, gentle giants of the lubrication industry who work so diligently and selflessly to keep your gas-guzzling SUV moving effortlessly from mall to school or work and back home again. I didn’t mention writing as there seemed no reason to.
However, when she handed me the questionnaire for signature, I wished I had, because I learned the population of the Yukon had just swelled with the addition of one more “semi-skilled labourer.”
My first reaction was a combination of mirth and astonishment and I said something like this to the young lady who was laminating my shiny new driver’s licence: “The Yukon has changed so much that the operation of massive, million-dollar bulldozers is now considered semi-skilled labour?” She answered with a confused look and I walked out the door laughing with the pan-man in my han’, because the only “semi-skilled” catskinners I have ever encountered are the dead ones, the ones who died young because they weren’t smart enough, or lucky enough, or skilled enough to become old catskinners.
The Yukon Territory was the birthplace of Canadian catskinning and the greatest catskinners in the history of human endeavour on the planet Earth were the old Yukon cable-Cat-gear-jammers who pioneered the profession in the last century, and I’m not talking about the Yanks who showed up to build the Alaska Highway.
The road to the top of the Midnight Dome above Dawson City was built in one day by a Yukon catskinner in 1927, and I’ve heard stories the dredging companies were using dozers as early as 1921 right about the time they were invented.
As a matter of fact, every road, parking lot, building site, airport, ball field, golf course, dam, ditch and dump in the Yukon was built by a Yukon catskinner, none of whom were semi-skilled.
You want names? I’ve got plenty because many of them were still alive when I got here as a young man and these are just the ones who pop into my mind as I’m ticked off: Bobby Caley, Kenny Mullins, Ole Medby, Hector Lang, Gordon Yardley, Can’t Cut ‘Er Kelly, Guy Moon, Billy Krotty, Mike Braga, Art Fry, Basil Bryant, Les Hakonson, Eddie Overshoes, Benny Warnsby, Mike Stutter, Roy Smith, senior and junior, Sean McMahon, Patty Kane, Al LeBlanc, Frenchy Lavoie and so many more it’s like a parade of legendary all-stars, not one of whom was semi-skilled.
Do they actually think a semi-skilled person could drive a D-7G across White Pass and Yukon train trestles when the Cat pads were wider then the railroad ties and a mistake of even two inches could result in a thousand foot plunge onto rocks and river far below? I did that one myself for a winter and, the first time, it was scarier than anything I did in Vietnam.
Yukon catskinners are artistes, earth-sculptors, mountain Mozarts and there isn’t a tougher climate on the planet or a tougher material than Yukon permafrost, which is so hard we used to wear out a ripper tooth every shift building the Dempster where running a D-8H was like riding a Brahman bull for 10 hours.
No, young lady, the only difference between Michelangelo and a Yukon catskinner was the quality of pizza after work, except in Keno City, of course.
Then again, maybe they’re right. In my travels this summer, I read every signboard and tourist info display I saw in Alaska and the Yukon and never found a single one which mentioned the men and women who actually built the North. Not a peep anywhere.
I used to tell my co-workers down in the oilpatch, who I called “Peace Country clay-pushers,” that I was lucky to learn my bulldozing from the greatest catskinners who ever lived. Then I came back to discover they are largely forgotten and lumped in with semi-skilled labourers, as if they spent their long, hard-working lives cleaning chicken coops. That’s not right.
Somebody should build a solid gold monument to the memory of all Yukon catskinners and erect it somewhere prominent downtown, where all the semi-skilled government employees can gaze at it on their coffee breaks.
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.