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Bushman stayed close to his roots

On a fateful day in 1965, Fred Hasselberg recognized all the warning signs of an impending avalanche but had no way of alerting other miners in Stewart, B.C. about the danger.

On a fateful day in 1965, Fred Hasselberg recognized all the warning signs of an impending avalanche but had no way of alerting other miners in Stewart, B.C. about the danger.

Hurrying down 6,000 feet from his post atop the Leduc glacier, he found Portal Camp covered in millions of pounds of snow, and 40 men buried alive.

He managed to save at least five of the 14 men who survived that day, and even volunteered to go back a week later to recover the last of the missing bodies despite the risk of more snow slides.

It’s just one story of heroism and selflessness about Hasselberg, a traditional Kaska Dena elder who passed away from cancer at the age of 85 on Wednesday evening.

Ernie Edzerza, who knew Hasselberg for most of his life, worked alongside him at the Granduc copper mine site near the B.C. and Alaska border.

“He was an extraordinary person who had a sixth sense when others didn’t,” he said.

“He’s the best man I ever worked with in the bush and I got most of my experience working with him.”

The year before the avalanche, as seismic testing was being carried out to determine the depth of the ice field, Hasselberg volunteered to be lowered down 80 feet into a crevasse to rescue a trapped engineer.

“If he knew something had to be done, he’d do it,” Edzerza said.

Andy Lutz owes his life to Hasselberg, too.

Lutz, a skilled bushman in his own right, would help Hasselberg either with his trap lines or prospecting for gold.

One night, they decided to set up a tent in a camp along the Liard River, when suddenly a black bear came looking for trouble. It went straight for Lutz and mauled him. Hasselberg, who was only a few feet away, grabbed a rifle. Knowing he had to be careful not to accidentally shoot Lutz in the darkness, he waved one hand around until he could feel the bear, then shot it.

Lutz was badly injured and needed medical attention, so Hasselberg carried him to his barge and took him down river to the Watson Lake Hospital.

The act of bravery earned Hasselberg a medal from Queen Elizabeth II, but as his daughter Freda Campbell tells the story, that didn’t mean much to her father.

“He didn’t want the medal because of his feelings towards the monarchy, and he wouldn’t go pick it up when they sent it to him,” she said.

“It wasn’t something he treasured.”

Born and raised on the banks of the Liard River, Hasselberg cherished the land he grew up on and was a vehement defender of aboriginal rights.

He lived in his childhood home until it burned down about five years ago. He built a new one with his own hands.

He believed in self-sustainability, tending his trap lines up and down the river for several decades, and hunting martens, ducks and beavers.

Hasselberg’s father was a Norwegian adventurer who came to the Yukon in the 1930s.

He met a Kaska woman and they settled near the river, where Hasselberg and his four siblings learned early on how to take care of themselves.

Campbell recorded the wisdom and knowledge her father wanted to share with the world, and

created a blog about it,

“He was the most amazing man I’ve ever known, he always did the right thing,” she said.

“When I first started spending time with him I was a bit confused because he always had strays at his home, he was always helping animals. Then in the spring, he’d trap them.

“It took me years to understand that, but I finally did. He had a great respect and honour for animals.”

Hasselberg was known for doing things his own way.

He once built a barge big enough to carry a small Caterpillar tractor up the river to one of his cabins.

Walter Nehring remembers people in Watson Lake being skeptical about Hasselberg succeeding.

“There was a lot of scuttlebutt in town about whether he could do it,” Nehring said.

“I chuckle because anyone who knew Fred knew that he’d already thought all this through. He’d done the math on the weight of the barge, the weight of the Cat, and the strength of the current.

“He was the most intelligent uneducated man I ever met.”

Hasselberg wanted to know how everything worked, from the simplest tool to the most complex technology such as satellite television.

“It wasn’t good enough for him to just turn a television on, he had to know how it worked,” Nehring said.

Hasselberg also piloted a bush plane without a licence, Campbell said, an old Aeronca Chief two-seater built in 1946.

He built a small runway and hangar for the aircraft, which he kept at Little Jimmy Lake for years, Campbell said.

“He needed to put an electric fence around it to keep the bears away,” she said.

A funeral service will be held on Thursday, March 26 at the Watson Lake Recreation Centre at 2 p.m.

Contact Myles Dolphin at