Trappers salute their oldest patron

Alex Van Bibber was the Yukon's first public relations officer. In 1965, then-US senator Robert Kennedy came north to climb Mount Kennedy, named in honour of his deceased brother.

Alex Van Bibber was the Yukon’s first public relations officer.

In 1965, then-US senator Robert Kennedy came north to climb Mount Kennedy, named in honour of his deceased brother.

As with any great photo op, Kennedy dragged with him a gang of city slicker reporters. Van Bibber, recognized as one of the Yukon’s most prolific and experienced outdoorsmen, was put in charge.

“My part of the job was to go to base camp and take care of the newspaper people,” says Van Bibber, who is now 94.

Time Magazine, the Edmonton Journal and the Whitehorse Star spent two days at a base camp near Mount Kennedy, nestled in the St. Elias Mountains deep within Kluane National Park, while Kennedy climbed. The late Bob Erlam, a reporter at the Star, knew the Yukon cold could cause hell on a whim.

“Bob wanted a bush person there in case the weather came in and they couldn’t fly out for a week or so,” said Van Bibber.

But it only took Kennedy a day and a half before he returned from the summit with three other climbers, he said.

“I melted snow for Bobby Kennedy’s party,” he said. “They appreciated that when they came down the mountain in the night.”

“Then we got a warning to get out right away because a storm was coming.”

Van Bibber is a frontiersman through and through. Last week, the Yukon Fish and Game Association honoured him for five decades of membership, including 22 years as an instructor at the association’s camp for young people.

“I appreciate this as much as I did when I got the Order of Canada,” he said, hoisting a belt buckle engraved with the words “Life Member Number One.”

Later, as campgoers cleaned their bowls and glasses in the kitchen wall tent at the association’s Vista Outdoor Learning Centre, Van Bibber recounted his earliest memories with his family on the Pelly River.

“We trapped right up to school age and even during school, we’d go,” he said.

“Most of our young childhood days were spent in the bush trapping in the winter time, in trapping season.”

The family would grow a big garden in the summer. They would also chop wood for the endless demand downstream in Dawson City.

“At that time, Dawson City burned strictly wood,” he said. The hotels, the schools and the homes burned wood all winter long.”

Van Bibber’s family would load 60 cords on a raft at a time and send them down the Yukon River.

“Imagine how big that was,” he said.

Later, he worked on a gold dredge in Dawson City until he moved to Whitehorse in 1942.

His prowess at packing horses soon earned him a spot on the Yukon’s biggest project that never was. The US Army had plans for a railroad from Hazelton, BC, to Fairbanks, Alaska.

“They had hundreds of survey parties along that route,” he said. Van Bibber was packing and working the horses for the surveyors.

“They put that survey for a standard railway in three months,” he exclaimed.

The railroad would have come right through Whitehorse, with a crossing at Five Finger Rapids.

“But that fell through,” said Van Bibber. “They called that the Japanese Scare.”

The US Army wasn’t done asking Van Bibber for help.

A survey was being planned between Johnson’s Crossing and Norman Wells, Northwest Territories for an eventual oil pipeline to Whitehorse.

Once again, Van Bibber was their man.

“The American army had seven or eight horses,” he said. “They wanted somebody to work them and pack with the first party leaving Johnson’s Crossing for Norman Wells.”

Van Bibber was doing head reconnaissance for the engineers behind him. It wasn’t long before the trek into the Mackenzie Mountains grew treacherous.

“When the snow got too deep and the horse feed was scarce, they sent in five dog teams to take my place,” he said. “And they had ordered to shoot off those horses to feed the dogs.

“I shot them all but my saddle horse. I didn’t have the guts to shoot my saddle horse.”

Progress was slow. The army decided to send Van Bibber back to Mayo. He would then try a ground route to Fort Norman, Northwest Territories, now Tulita, in case the first path would be impossible.

“That’s 560 miles over the Mackenzie Mountains,” he said.

The army had earlier tried to fly in caches along the way, but the weather was fierce and prevented any drop-offs.

“The Mackenzie Mountains are awful in the winter time,” he said.

So for 42 days, Van Bibber and his team lived off the land. That’s six men and 18 dogs living off anything they could hunt.

“We’d just eat meat, straight meat,” he said.

They were traveling about 15 miles a day.

“For 300 miles of that route, there was not a human track. Just deep snow.”

Van Bibber later had better luck on the Norman Wells route, and the army went with it.

From 1948 to 1968, Van Bibber and his wife ran an outfitting business. They also traded in horses, and owned 75 of them at one point.

Later, Van Bibber would devote time to the Fish and Game Association to pass on his knowledge. He helped set up the first camp for young people in Silver City in 1988.

The camp takes around 15 kids at a time. In their mid-teens, the kids learn how to pack horses, how to fish and trap and any other survival tool they need in the wild.

“They got a little bit of everything,” said Van Bibber.

This year, he’s given lessons on how to make traps and snares.

“I taught humane trapping for the association for 37 years,” he said, adding that he only does it for the camp nowadays.

Humane trapping involves either sudden-killing devices or holding devices which inflict minimal pain on animals.

“Some of them don’t break any bones or flesh, like a foot snare and padded traps,” he said.

Fiercely proud of his life on the land, Van Bibber is happy to promote outdoor skills, such as trapping, among the rest of society.

“Trapping isn’t a cruel industry,” he said.

“The first industry in North America was trapping – taught from the First Nations people.”

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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