Allen Kempel came to the Yukon to live off the land.
Now, he’s hunting for firewood on the clay cliffs, downtown Whitehorse.
Bundling up twigs and scraggly dead trees, the 51-year-old and his dog Bandit haul them back to a big yellow school bus parked on a side street.
On Tuesday afternoon, he’s sawing up a dwindling pile of sticks with a handsaw while Bandit paws the kindling.
Inside the bus, her seven fluffy puppies sleep soundly.
Kempel left Alberta and its bad memories behind in late June and started driving north.
His van broke down in Fort St. John.
So did the school bus he’s now living in.
Kempel met the bus’ owner in the Wal-Mart parking lot, after the bus’ brakes failed.
The men became friends and ended up continuing up the highway together.
At first, the Yukon glowed.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Kempel.
He and Bandit found a cabin out of town.
It didn’t have a woodstove or power, but the owners assured him that would change before winter set in.
He was helping them with their sawmill business and soaking up the scenery.
Social Assistance was paying his $550 rent, and the owners even agreed to give Kempel $50 back until the stove was put in.
But at the end of August, after being there only three weeks, he didn’t get that $50.
He also didn’t get paid for his sawmill work.
When Kempel asked for the money, the owners got defensive.
On August 31, he was served an eviction notice, telling him to be out by September 1.
The landlords kept the damage deposit and his September rent cheque from Social Assistance.
But Kempel’s main concern was for his very pregnant dog.
He called Mae Bachur in tears, and the humane society agreed to take her.
Then, his friend, who was renting downtown, offered him the parked school bus.
Kempel didn’t think he’d be there very long.
“But it’s next to impossible to find a place that will take dogs,” he said, sitting on a brown vinyl bench next to a frost-covered bus window.
“And there aren’t any real shacks or slums here.”
Even the Chilkoot Hotel’s rooms start at $900 a month, and it won’t take dogs, he said.
Then, Kempel found a cabin out of town where Bandit was welcome. Kempel was even going to be allowed to keep one of her pups.
Once burned, he decided to have Social Services call the landlord to seal the deal and confirm the terms he’d worked out.
During that conversation, Social Services mentioned Kempel’s last eviction.
The landlord decided to rent to someone else.
Kempel remained in the bus.
On October 16, Bandit gave birth to seven healthy pups.
And Kempel continued looking for work, to feed his growing family.
Social Services is paying him $335 a month for food.
It won’t pay rent, which Kempel was hoping to offer the bus’ owner.
It also won’t pay for wood, because Social Services does not separate “utilities from shelters.”
Social Services would only pay for Kempel’s firewood if it were also paying his rent.
And it won’t pay his rent because the bus doesn’t have an address.
“Things keep going from bad to worse,” he said.
The job search is tougher because Kempel smells like his bus – creosote, tanned leather and a little bit like puppy.
“I have nowhere to clean up,” he said.
Wal-Mart almost hired him, it even walked him through his job duties, but before he was hired on, his 20-year-old criminal record caught up with him.
Kempel and his ex had huge court battles over their children.
It ended with Kempel smashing out a window one day when his ex took off drunk with the kids.
Smashing the window got him an assault charge.
“And assault doesn’t look good,” he said.
Since then, he’s been through AA, and has worked driving truck, in sales and in the plumbing and heating business.
“I have a good resume,” he said.
“And the people at Employment Central are great.”
Now, he’s waiting to hear back from McDonalds.
But his cellphone still has an Alberta number.
And even if a potential employer did try calling him long distance, the phone is out of minutes.
“It’s been some time since I’ve been so humbled and humiliated,” he said.
There are garbage bags over some of the frosty bus windows.
The stove, which sits next to the puppies’ pen, is cold.
On the table, frozen margarine and jam sit next to a McDonald’s take-out coffee cup.
“The coffee is free this month, from the 15th to the 28th,” he said.
Kempel’s been eating lunch at the Salvation Army shelter.
“Thank God for that place,” he said.
On Tuesday, Kempel only had enough wood to make a fire for part of the night, and he was waiting until it got a little colder.
The bus was already the same temperature inside as outside.
“I can’t keep up with the wood, but I keep trying,” he said.
“I should be out looking for a place but I’m out looking for wood.”
Kempel’s friends are moving on December 15 and he’s not sure what he will do then.
“My past is a little shaky, and my future is definitely shaky,” he said.
He’s living day to day.
“I don’t think about what I don’t have, but what I do have,” he said.
“I just want to make sure these puppies find loving homes.”
If he makes it till spring, Kempel has a dream.
He wants to apply for land in the territory, clear it, and start a small farm.
He’d like to find room and board on a farm for the winter too, but so far hasn’t had any luck.
“I’m trying to stay positive,” said Kempel, grabbing his saw and heading for the cliffs in search of wood with Bandit trotting at his side.
Contact Genesee Keevil at