Some people find their way to the Yukon with a homing instinct; it is as though they were born to live in the wild, finding none of the hardships daunting, only interesting and exciting.
Rose and Gordon Toole are such a couple, and they have made a marvelous life for themselves, taking on every challenge with enthusiasm and energy.
Gordon arrived first, a teacher’s son from Saskatchewan who as a boy chose the outdoors as his place of learning, going off on long hikes to explore the countryside.
He was a weather service officer in charge when he applied in 1943 to go to Snag, in the Yukon, where emergency landing strips were being built as part of the war effort.
He arrived in a howling snowstorm. The driver of the US ration truck followed the white posts on the left side of the newly built Alaska Highway to deliver him to Snag. The accommodations on offer were canvas tents with cots and two army blankets. This was in late November and to ensure no one froze to death one man’s appointed job was to patrol the tents regularly and replenish the wood stoves.
Gordon was the man who recorded the temperature of minus 81.6
Fahrenheit, a record that endures to this day.
Typically, men stationed here applied for and were given a transfer after one year. Four years later, when Gordon had still not requested one, the doctor in charge of personnel in Edmonton began to worry, thinking he may have become ‘bushed.’
What had happened was that Gordon had found his place - he’d gotten a trapline and a team of dogs and he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
The doctor persuaded him he ought to have a break and Gordon had reason to be grateful for the medical man’s insistence because it was during that year that a friend of his introduced him to his sister, Rose. Gordon says he knew immediately this was the woman of his dreams.
Of course, he brought her north to Watson Lake. Rose says the first time she saw her new home she wanted to “get on the airplane and go back to the city.”
Their first home was in the single men’s barracks at the airport. Shortly afterwards they were moved to more appropriate quarters for a married couple - a renovated storage shed.
A year later they were living in an apartment at the airport and there they started a family. Six children were born and raised in the Yukon. They shared the adventurous life of their parents at the fishing lodge, the hunting camp, the farm and the trapline.
“We did worry that in raising them here they were not getting all the educational advantages they would have had in a larger place,” Rose says. “But all six of them have done fine, so I guess it was OK. If I were doing it again, though, I would not have my kids in school here.”
They lived in airport housing until 1961 when they staked land and built their log home on the shore of Watson Lake. They live there still, the house and the property reflecting the rewards of the years spent landscaping and carefully maintaining a classically lovely Yukon home.
But before that, in ‘55, they created Thunderbird Fishing Camp at Stewart Lake, building a lodge and cabins to accommodate guests.
“I had an Aeronca Sedan airplane,” Gordon says. “I could get Rose and the kids out to the camp in one trip and then I could easily take two fishermen on another.”
When the fishing lodge was sold, they were granted a hunting concession and Yukon Hunting Unlimited was born. They ran that business until 1982.
“I can’t imagine now how we did so much,” Rose says. “I had six kids, did all the paperwork and bookings for the hunts and we farmed.”
They also carved out a hay farm and a market garden from the bush, growing hay for the horses used on the hunting trips, as well as vegetables for sale.
“And chickens,” Rose reminds herself. “I had 1,200 chickens and was getting about 800 eggs a day. I supplied Cantung and Cassiar mines with eggs, the local grocery store, and friends and neighbours.”
Gordon went back to trapping in 1978, accompanied by their youngest child, Jamie, and in 1985 it was Rose who went with him.
“The kids were grown and gone,” Gordon says. “We would farm and then trap, and every year we took three months to go skiing.”
The farm was sold in 1992 and a few years later the couple began to spend three of the winter months in the Bahamas. “We don’t golf or snorkel; we just take long walks and enjoy the sun,” he says.
A few years ago Gordon developed a medical problem that made life on the trapline entirely too risky an endeavour, even for a couple who made a lifestyle of risk and adventure. The trapline was sold in 2008 and is still mourned.
They agree that those trapline years were the best of all the good years.
“It was the happiest of times together,” Gordon says. “And that is in lots of years of happy and good times. We were lucky to do what we wanted to do - hard as it was, it just doesn’t feel like work when you love what you do.”
In 2004, Rose began to write, using her trapline journals to document those happy years for their children. It took two years and three books to record, for posterity, a time of peace and comfort.
“One of the best things about that lifestyle is that you talk to one another,” Rose says. “We didn’t have TV or a computer; we would talk. In all our years together, this was when we had the best conversations with one another.”
They may not be living on a trapline, but nothing seems to really slow them down. Touring the extensive flower gardens, terraced down the back of the property, Rose talks of plans to extend them next year.
There are carrots, tomatoes and potatoes growing as well, and an enormous, very tall, raspberry patch. The latter yielded 11 ice cream buckets of berries last year, Rose reports with a justifiable pride.
In their 80s, this couple present a good argument for a life spent outdoors; they are both fit, and look years younger than their ages, with a spirit and energy that are delightful to be around.
How could they be otherwise? A lifetime of daring and resourcefulness doing exactly what one wants to be doing, in partnership with the person with whom one is sharing an enduring romance - we should all be so lucky.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.