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Yukon's mastodon man passes on

Earl Bennett was a true Renaissance man. He was a gold miner and a successful businessman. He collected art, and books, and fossils. He collected art, and books, and fossils. He was fascinated by history and paleontology.

Earl Bennett was a true Renaissance man.

He was a gold miner and a successful businessman. He collected art, and books, and fossils. He was fascinated by history and paleontology.

But above all that, he is remembered by friends as someone who cared deeply for the people around him and who loved the Yukon.

Bennett passed away this week in Whitehorse. He was 87.

Originally from Alberta, Bennett moved to the territory in 1946 to work for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation. He worked first as an underground miner, and later on the gold dredges, big machines that churned up rocks and gravel and sifted out gold dust. It was during those years that he started to collect old bones dug up by the dredges. It wasn’t uncommon to come across mammoth bones in that line of work.

In the 1970s, Bennett began buying old motels and other businesses to fix them up and resell them. That was when Jim Williams met him. At the time, Williams was a young man, working part-time at Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse. Bennett hired him to restore part of an old log building he’d bought to use as an office.

“There was two peculiar things about that,” Williams recalled. The first was that Bennett kept a safe in the basement of the building, filled with works of art he’d bought from a local Yukon artist. The second was that Bennett would sleep on the upper level, in a sleeping bag on the floor.

“He was a paradox,” said Williams. “He was not a man of creature comforts.”

Williams moved to Dawson City in 1979, where Bennett hired him again to build historic facades for the houses that had to be rebuilt after that year’s devastating flood. Williams said he didn’t really know what he was doing, but that never seemed to bother Bennett.

“He dumped off a whole pile of materials and said ‘Do something with it,’” Williams recalled. He told him the price was no object. “Whatever you think is fair,” Bennett was fond of saying.

Bennett was a savvy businessman, but it was his trust in people, in their ability to learn by doing, that made him so well-loved.

One of Bennett’s many businesses was Dawson City’s Klondike Nugget & Ivory Shop, which he bought in 1975. In 1988, he turned over the business to Uta Reilly, a long-time Dawson City resident.

Reilly said she didn’t know much about running a business before taking the reins at the Klondike Nugget. But Bennett simply told her to follow her gut.

“He was really somebody very generous,” she said. “He helped a lot of people. He also let you make your own mistakes and learn from them.”

Over the years, Bennett helped many businesses take root in Whitehorse and Dawson City. But he never sought recognition for the work he did. Though he loved to talk to people and learn about them, Reilly said, he was also very private.

“He didn’t want a lot of fanfare around himself,” she said.

Grant Zazula, a government paleontologist, remembers Bennett as a quiet, unassuming man. He was first introduced to Bennett at Baked Cafe in Whitehorse in 2008, shortly after he’d started working in his current job. Bennett came up to him and told him that he had a mastodon skeleton to give him.

Zazula tried to tell Bennett it was probably a mammoth, since mastodons are very rare in the Yukon. But Bennett knew the difference.

“He corrected me rather quickly with kind of a grin on his face,” Zazula recalled. The next day, Bennett showed up at Zazula’s office.

“He drove the truck around back, and lo and behold, there was a partial skeleton of an American mastodon,” Zazula said. “It was spectacular. I actually couldn’t believe it.”

Bennett had kept the skeleton in his garage for 40 years. He told Zazula one of his coworkers had found the bones during his mining days, and wanted to sell it to a buyer outside the territory. Bennett told the man he would buy the skeleton from him, at any cost.

“He made it really clear that he wanted it to stay here,” Zazula said. “He was one of these real champions of the Yukon.”

Bennett was awarded the Beringia Research Award in 2011 for his contribution to paleontology in the Yukon. Zazula also dedicated a recent scientific paper on American mastodons to Bennett.

“He’s one of these people who bridged the old world and modern times,” Zazula said. “There’s not too many people like that who are from the old ways but who are willing to embrace modernity.”

He will be remembered by many as a friend, colleague, and mentor. He is survived by his wife, Amy.

Contact Maura Forrest at