Survival cabins in government sights

The Yukon government wants to dig up dirt on remote cabins across the territory. But one man, who helped build at least half a dozen, doesn't want to spill the beans.

The Yukon government wants to dig up dirt on remote cabins across the territory.

But one man, who helped build at least half a dozen, doesn’t want to spill the beans.

“If I tell them where they are, they’ll probably go and burn them,” said Sam Holloway.

Holloway, who is turning 65 this year and now lives in Ross River, first came to the Yukon in 1968. He returned for good in 1974.

“The Yukon used to be a pretty free place,” said the former electrician and writer. “Then we started getting big government in the ‘80s. When the government workers started outnumbering everyone else, that’s when all the control issues started happening.”

These days, “there are far fewer people out on the land than there were even back then, so I don’t know what they’re worried about.”

It was back in those “freer” days that Holloway and his friend Bob Russell took it upon themselves to build multiple survival cabins all over the territory.

The small, six-by-eight cabins only took a few hours to put up, said Holloway.

But they are enough for anyone who might need them, he said.

“We always left a little wood stove in ‘em, and sometimes some kindling, sometimes not” said Holloway. “If somebody was hiking, or stuck, or their snowmobile broke down, they might be able to find that cabin and stay in it for the night. We never had them locked up.”

The territory says no matter what the cabins’ purposes, if there is no proof of a lease or tenure, they are illegal.

“Crown land is the public’s land,” said Colin McDowell, director of the land management branch. “There have been all kinds of cases in the past where we’ve had small, unauthorized or untenured occupations that have gotten bigger and bigger over time and they become very difficult to manage after because there’s really no right to the site.

“I would encourage this person to respond and we would be willing to work with a user group to work out some form of legitimate tenure.

“But honestly, as nice as it is to go out on Crown land and put infrastructure up for individuals, it’s just not allowed, and the vast majority of the Yukon public doesn’t want to see that happen.”

Local Yukon artist Jim Robb disagrees.

“People in general don’t want them burned down,” he said. “I don’t think they should be, legally, burned down. Some of these cabins are historical cabins and our heritage department should be looking into this.”

Robb, who has made a career of depicting these haphazard cabins in his signature style, can’t fathom the government’s reasoning for trying to crack down on the number of cabins in very remote parts of the territory.

“I think, if they’re a certain age, no matter what shape they’re in, they should be left alone,” he said. “And if they’re still standing they could be used in the case of people in the bush who, if they didn’t come across this cabin, they could have been done for.”

The government will consider assigning heritage-site status to any buildings over 50 years old, said McDowell.

But right now, they just need more information, he said.

Officials have found 14 buildings they know next to nothing about, including some that are in pretty bad shape, he said, noting an old ATCO trailer and a few wall tents.

And while there is no set plan just yet, without leases or tenures, any of the structures could eventually be destroyed, he said.

All First Nations, known hunters, trappers and renewable resource councils were contacted before this new campaign for cabins began, said McDowell.

And when people do come forward with information, the government is willing to work out appropriate arrangements to help salvage what people have built, he said, noting the annual lease or tenure fees are nominal.

“We’re not, certainly, trying to destroy a lifestyle,” said McDowell. “But you know, if I have to pay my mortgage, you have to pay yours too.”

Holloway sympathizes with the concern that people are setting up permanent residences without permission, but surely the government can tell the difference between that and a minimalist, survival cabin with no locks, he said.

“It’s very infuriating,” he said, adding that there must be hundreds of little cabins all over the Yukon’s wilderness. “(The government’s) come up with the idea that they own all that – that all of the Yukon belongs to them, and that we have to ask their permission to go anywhere and do anything.

“Why should I have to go see some guy sitting behind a desk about some cabin I built over 30 years ago? They should just leave it alone.”

This winter, Holloway already has plans with a friend to travel up around Dawson City on snowmobiles and stake some claims, he said.

“I have two survival cabins up there that Bob and Jim White and I built,” he said. “And we’re hoping to use those when we get there. But, if we get there at night and our cabins are burnt down, we’ll probably freeze to death.

“It’s just crazy what they’re doing.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at