Barb and George Millen have lived in Watson Lake for years and years: part of the backdrop of ‘oldtimers’ in the town that helped form its colourful history.
They have the stories of the boom times, the legendary parties and the characters that populated the community in those days.
What many people would not likely know is how Barb and George came to live here, and what adventures they had before settling on their property in the Belleview subdivision, building their attractive home and raising two children.
Their land is well-treed, and alive with birds and squirrels who are obviously well known to the couple and stare in through the big windows as the interview is conducted.
The house is large and sunny, with lots of wood and bright paintwork. High ceilings add to a feeling of spaciousness, and there are interesting touches in the decor, like the toy train tracks set into the floor of the large main room.
“The plan is to have the tracks go all over the house,” Barb says. “I have had the train set for years; it’s one of those retirement projects.”
George arrived first in Watson Lake, coming to visit his sister. He was born and raised in Dawson City.
“The last baby born in the old hospital before it burned down,” he says. “I guess they figured I couldn’t be improved on; they burned the place down.”
He liked Watson Lake immediately.
“It was like the Wild West back then. The town was booming and it was a crazy place, in a fun way. There was lots going on and a lot of hardworking people having a good time.”
He’d done some interesting travelling, working “both sides of both circles” as he describes his work in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and his explorations of Chile and other parts of South America. He’d done a sailing trip to French Polynesia with his sister and her husband on their 8.5-metre sailboat.
“I lost 30 pounds,” George says. “I knew I was going to be seasick, but I wanted to do it anyway. It was an adventure not to be missed.”
He worked at various jobs in Watson Lake before semi-settling in to work for DJ Drilling.
Barb arrived in Watson Lake after a childhood spent in Ontario and Africa. She spent two years in Lagos, Nigeria, as a youngster of 13; her father installed telephone exchanges in that country.
“I loved it,” Barb says, “although the war in Biafra was happening then, and food was not plentiful, I don’t remember ever being afraid. The army took over one of the playing fields of our school and I remember they slaughtered cattle there, right outside the classroom. It was an amazing cultural experience, a huge adventure.”
She returned when she was 18 and took a two-year job with the British High Commission as personal assistant to the labour adviser. She spent the next few years travelling in Europe, working in Greece at one point, satisfying a thirst for new places and faces.
It was a desire to do a trip on the Mackenzie River that led her north.
Whitehorse was her first stop and she didn’t like it, deciding she would go to Watson Lake to seek employment. The town had a hostel, assuring her of cheap accommodation while she found work.
The hostel was closed. Barb sat on the steps of the Watson Lake Hotel, wondering what to do - catch the bus back to Whitehorse that night or stay in a hotel in Watson Lake and look for a job.
“While I sat there deliberating, this guy bounded up the steps and said
‘What are you doing sitting out here? Its Bill Lilly’s birthday - come on in.’” Barb says. “I met dozens of people and was offered a job and a place to live. It was so friendly and such fun; of course I stayed.”
She, like George, did a variety of jobs, from cooking in camps to waiting tables and working on a Statistics Canada Survey. It was the latter job that led her to George.
“I though she was looking for a husband,” George says. “She kept coming back and asking questions about my income and other personal things.”
“I knew of George; we had seen each other around but we hung out in different groups. I will say that when I started going out with him, he was highly recommended by local people as a good guy.”
In 1992 they were married on the property they now occupy and settled into the years of home-building and child-rearing.
One of the things George got involved in during those times was the Canadian Lithoprobe project: a measuring of the Earth’s crust. It was something that caught his interest and used his many skills.
“Yeah,” says Barb. “And one of the things I got involved in was going to Father Guilbeault’s house and cleaning his bathroom.” She had a job as a home-care worker for the seniors’ organization in town.
These days the couple live apart for some of the time as George’s job takes him to Alberta where he does surveying and environmental work in the oil fields.
The children are grown; the daughter is attending her last years of school in Vancouver and the son works and lives on his own in Watson Lake.
Barb works at the core of the elementary school; she is called the ‘secretary’ but the job is one that calls upon her ability to multitask to an extraordinary degree and, as such, suits her well.
Their travelling days are far from over; last summer saw them exploring the California coast. Santiago, Chile is on their list of places yet to see.
They will retire in Watson Lake.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says George.
“I like that the town is small and everyone knows everyone else; I like that there are no malls,” says Barb “and I really appreciate that we have an excellent library.”
This active couple don’t plan a do-nothing retirement: they both like looking for gold, and talk of doing some mining at some time.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer
who lives in Watson Lake.