Dean Johnson was surprised when the local sheriffs in the Oregon town where he lives came to his door with a somber and apologetic mood about them.
Having never had a brush with the law, Johnson was unsure what brought the officers to his door but it soon became clear that they came bearing bad news that was late in arriving. This meeting on Johnson’s door step took place about three weeks ago; the officers were there to inform the man in his 70s that his brother Eric Johnson had died in Whitehorse in late fall 2021.
Dean said the sheriffs had been sent to find him by the trustee who was seeing to the dispensation of his brother’s estate. The brothers had not spoken in years, a rift that Dean attributes to the many kilometres separating them rather than any real rupture. Dean said because of this lapse in communication he didn’t hear of his brother’s death until more than a year after it happened. He is also left with little information about Eric’s final years.
Dean is hoping to connect with those who knew Eric in the Yukon in order to learn about the years of his brother’s life that he missed. He also wants to record the stories he hears and some of his own in a book. Along with his familial attachment to his brother’s story Dean thinks others will be interested in learning about his brother’s life, describing Eric as a genius in his fields of work and an exemplary Yukoner.
Dean described the tales he heard from Eric about life in the territory and the prospecting and fur trapping he participated in. To the admittedly more settled and urban Dean, his brother was always “the personification of a mountain man” and “the last of a dying breed.”
One feature of Eric’s life that Dean knew well about, and that also featured majorly in Eric’s Yukon News obituary, was his residence on an island in Lake Laberge. Dean said Eric purchased the cabin on the island after an early strike as a prospector.
“His many books, always purchased second-hand, and the wide open sky were his silent companions and during open water season his soundscape was the constant lapping or roaring of the lake and the clamour of gulls and eagles,” the obituary reads.
Those words were penned by Brian Lendrum, the closest neighbour to Eric’s island for more than 35 years. Lendrum said Eric crossed his property to get to the island, traversing the small strait between it and the mainland by canoeing, walking a gravel bar or sometimes wading through the water.
Lendrum said that after Eric passed the government dismantled his cabin, as he had a non-transferable lease for the island. Before it was taken down, Lendrum said the cabin was a simple structure with mostly bare plywood exterior walls. Inside were rudimentary kitchen facilities and a separated bedroom, but Lendrum said among the most notable features was the vast quantity of books Eric had.
“It got so there wasn’t much room for him, that towards the end, because he was, you know, he was an inveterate collector of books,” Lendrum
Many were science textbooks and other reference materials, but Lendrum recalls Eric speaking about reading the printed accounts of adventurers’ long canoe trips and other voyages.
Lendrum said Eric received few guests at the island, especially in later years.
Regarding why Eric chose the sort of living arrangement that he did, Lendrum said the two never discussed it specifically, but he thinks Eric found satisfaction in self-sufficiency and being able to do without modern conveniences.
“It just seemed like it was where he felt at home.”
The obituary notes that Eric returned to his island even after undergoing an open heart surgery in 2016. Lendrum’s wife, Susan Ross, was listed as a contact at Eric’s doctors office and was notified about his passing. Lendrum said he felt it was important to write the obituary and he also attended a brief outdoor memorial for Eric that was attended by about a dozen people .
Dean described his brother’s life as very different from his own path but said that at one time they were “brothers in every sense of the word.”
Dean said Eric left their home in the United States for Canada to pursue an education in geology. He described his brother as a genius with immense aptitude for geology and other skills.
Eric would put this knowledge to use on hard rock claims near Jakes Corner. Records also exist of him prospecting in the rugged mountains east of Teslin in the late 1970s. The record of this mining exploration might read like a pulp magazine adventure to the uninitiated — float planes, grizzly bears and swirling mountain snow well into the summer. To men in Eric Johnson’s line of work, though, it was probably just another day at the office.
Dean recounted visiting Eric in the Yukon once alone and once with their mother who died with Eric by her side years ago. Among his tales from these visits were picking Eric up over his shoulders in the airport arrival lounge in what he called a “magical moment of brotherly love,” and staying at a cabin in Tagish looking after one of Eric’s friends’ sled dog team.
While his brother was drawn to the solitary, Dean says he’s sure Eric had close friends in the Yukon and hopes to speak with as many of them as possible. He hopes at least some of those who knew Eric will contact him by phone at 971-409-2072.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com