Jim Robb’s Colourful Five Per Cent, those aging members of society whose feats are the stuff of legends, rank among the treasures of the Yukon. Larry Schnig is one of them.
Take this adventure as an example. He once decided to walk to the nearest highway from his fishing lodge at Toobally Lakes, a distance of 120 kilometres.
He didn’t have a radio in those days and the airplane that was supposed to pick him up hadn’t arrived.
The walk took nearly 24 hours, all of it hard slogging in deep bush.
At one juncture he was passed by a cow moose in a hurry. Stopping to wonder why she rushed past him, he was suddenly felled by something hitting him behind the knees. Winded, he looked up in time to see a grizzly bear cub continuing its own speedy way.
He rolled over just in time to find the mother bear standing over him, woofing and snorting and angry. Schnig had a 22 rifle and he buried the barrel in her chest fur, knowing pulling the trigger would only hasten his certain demise. Before he could make his prayers, the cub called and with one last blowing snort in Schnig’s face, the mother went to her cub.
The remainder of the long hike was fraught with fear; Schnig sang every song he knew, while banging on trees with a stick.
Reaching the highway many weary hours later, he came across a car parked by the side of the road with a man under it. Thinking only of his good fortune in coming across a ride so quickly he hurried over to see if he could help with the vehicle. The man was dead; the transmission had fallen from the car onto his head, pushing his face into a puddle of water and causing him to drown.
It was a wet season, and floods had blocked most traffic on the road, but Schnig was finally able to catch a ride.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so beat-up tired” he says, with a grin and twinkle that seems to characterize how he approaches life—whatever happens just happens, and you deal with it in as good as spirit as you can muster.
Then there was the time at Toobally when he and his pal John were watching a moose swim in the lake.
“Bet you couldn’t ride it, Larry” was John’s challenge. Schnig figured he could, so they launched a boat and took it up alongside the moose. Schnig asked John to hang around “in case things don’t work out.”
All was well, with Schnig hanging onto the horns while astride the moose, until the animal’s feet hit the bottom of the lake, at which point he turned in a fury and went for his rider. Before diving under the water, Schnig yelled at John to distract the creature. When he surfaced, out of breath, it was to see the moose chasing the boat, with John’s seven horsepower motor barely able to keep ahead of the enraged bull.
Long interested in aviation, Schnig bought an airplane—before learning how to fly it. He tried to learn, but the instructor, just before Schnig was to solo, left town. Turns out he was not a bona fide flight instructor.
As always, Schnig was undeterred by details. He flew his airplane for a couple of years, getting a licence only after he had a little accident.
“I did stuff in those days I would never do now,” he says.
“I flew into Toobally in my Aeronca Sedan with 16 jerry cans of gas and landed on the ice—with wheels.”
He shakes his head in wonder at his own survival.
“The second time (crash), I ran out of fuel and landed in an old burn. The plane was fine and so was I, but the terrain was so rough, I had to chop out a space for the rescue helicopter to land.
All the damage to my plane happened when they got it out of there,” he remembers, with some of the old frustration. “They set it down on the prop, for chrissake, and the landing gear got all bent up, too. I’d done a pretty good job putting her down; they didn’t do so good getting her out.”
He’s had three prangs over the years, with the last one wrecking the aircraft and injuring him so badly the doctor wondered at his survival. The only remaining evidence of this (one of his many) close encounters with the Grim Reaper is a nose with a decided bend to the left.
His stories of his flying days are like all the events of his life, deeply personal. Before getting legal with his plane, he had a friend sign his logbook. This convenient arrangement went south when the friend’s girlfriend got mad at Schnig for constantly leading her man astray.
The last crash, the seriously bad one, happened after Schnig agreed to fly a friend into a construction camp on the highway to pick up his clothes. The man’s girlfriend was arriving and he wanted to be spiffy for her.
Even the ‘purchase’ of the lease of Toobally Lakes was a handshake sort of deal, with Schnig finding out after the money was handed over that the seller, his friend Jake, didn’t have a lease on the land, only an application for a lease.
“I got a bill of sale that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, and it was all written out with a ball point pen.”
Eventually, Schnig succeeded in getting a lease, and a trapline in the area.
He built the lodge and cabins and ran a fishing camp there for more than 30 years. Thirty hard years, the kind of years that these days one cannot imagine anyone surviving, let alone thriving, as Schnig did in his own inimitable way.
In the winters he would trap till just before Christmas. After celebrating the Yuletide season, he would head to Fort Nelson and drive truck till spring. He ended up buying his own truck about 10 years ago.
Springtime would see him back at Toobally, readying the camp for fishing clients.
In the fall, he guided hunting parties for two of the outfitters in the area until it was time to start trapping again.
Of all those lives, which one did he most enjoy?
“Trapping” he says, without hesitation. “You got time to think. It’s peaceful. Everything else? It’s just going like hell and going nowhere.”
Romances? He’s had a few; this is an engaging guy, a man who enjoys life and everything that goes with it, including the fair sex.
He was married once.
“Don’t know why I wanted that woman” he remembers. “She had red hair. I’d say good morning and have a fight on my hands. She was smart, though.”
He was involved with her when he first came north, to drive trucks for Cassiar Asbestos. He had to work for a year before he was granted his two weeks annual holidays, at which time he headed back to marry his sweetheart who had agreed to wait for him. He was 26 and she turned 16 on their wedding day.
“Oh, we had plans” he says. “I got a trailer and a car, all financed, and we drove back to the Cassiar townsite to begin our married life. She hated the North right away; she hated everything about it. She was gone in eight months, but the damned debt lasted for years.”
The whole endeavour wasn’t a waste according to Schnig, the man who turns every experience into a good thing. He made another sort of vow: “I swore I’d never buy another thing that I had to finance—paid cash for every thing I got, airplanes, trucks—everything. That credit business can really mess you up, and you always pay at least a third more than you have to.”
Where did he come from, this guy who seems born for the North and the early northern lifestyle?
He was born and raised on a homestead in Alberta, the youngest of the family. He came to the North in the late ‘60s, to work for the Cassiar Asbestos mine. After a couple of years there, he drove trucks in Whitehorse for the transport division. It was in 1969 that he bought his ‘lease’ from Jake and built his fish camp.
These days he can be found at his house in Watson Lake in the summer months, a retired man. For the last three years he’s wintered in Panama.
“Went to Costa Rica first, but Panama is cheaper and the scenery is just as nice,” he says.
He’s invested in land down there, and has plans for it.
Does he have a philosophy, a motto?
“Yeah, I guess I do. My dad used to say , ‘Do it or die; if you don’t do it you’re gonna die anyway.’ That covers it.”
His mother died in 2002; she was 103 years old. We can only hope Schnig lasts at least that long, that the legend will continue. By then he may not be one of the five per cent; he may be the five per cent!
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.