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Guitarist in the North: Encounters with steel in the dead of night

Paul Lucas recounts stories from many years of musicianship in the North
(Illustration by Lynn Johnston)

Paul Lucas

Special to the News

Editor’s Note: This column is an excerpt from Paul Lucas’ new book, A Guitar Player on the Yukon Border. Lucas has lived in Atlin since 1979 and his book focuses on the work, the people, and the adventures of the North. This chapter is the first in a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.

My old man once said to me, “Son, if you can invent something simple and necessary like the paper clip, you’re set for life.”

Well, Mr. Bailey’s dad must have said something similar to him, because the Bailey bridge was one of the best, functional ideas to come along in an era of good ideas. It changed the face of the North and, just like the paper clip, it made you wonder how you managed to get along without it.

The Bailey bridge was designed for the British army in 1940 to be a light, strong, portable and easily constructed, single lane bridge for use in wartime. These characteristics made it perfect for the North, the state of the roads being, more often than not, reminiscent of travel in the hedgerow country during the allied invasion of Normandy.

Bailey bridges were used by the Army Corps of Engineers when they built the Atlin road in 1950. We know it was the army, because the streams they crossed were named Tarfu Creek and Snafu Creek. They had a way with words, the army did. One of these very bridges spanned Pine Creek, the body of water that flows past my cabin, and I had driven over it hundreds of times. On the night before a Hallowe’en gig one year, though, I got to know it a little too intimately.

Atlin, October 30, 1986.

The washboard was the culprit. That, and the first dusting of winter. Coming into the turn approaching the bridge late one night (or early one morning depending on your perspective), the little vehicle decided to dance a quick jig on the corner, and plow headlong into the gridwork. The law of momentum being what it is, my face followed — slamming my head forward into the steering wheel and knocking me out for the count.

Fortunately, my pal Howard (a man you will come to know better in time), was fast asleep just a few hundred yards away in what had become known as Elvis’ trailer — a garish pink single-wide that had been floating around town for a while. But rousing him wasn’t easy.

Bang, Bang … Silence … “Yoo Hoo!” … Bang, Bang, Bang … Then, finally, the sound of feet shuffling across that worn 50’s parkay floor, and the door opening.

“Morning Howie!” I grunted, “I think it qualifies as morning at least.”

Those are the words I mouthed anyway. Who knows what came out.

He blinked and rubbed his eyes. As I came into focus, his jaw dropped.

“Oh my Gawd” he croaked as he ushered me inside, “you look like you’ve been run over by a truck. What happened? Did you hit the bridge?”

“Let’s nip that rumour in the bud right off the bat Howie,” I said, “I did no such thing, and we can prove it if we head out there right now and haul the carcass back here to the lot.”

“Well … Okay,” Howard replied, reaching for his parka and boots, “but as soon as we get back, we’re going down to the Red Cross to get you stitched up.”


Dawn was creeping through the windows of the Red Cross outpost. The small clapboard building stood a little forlorn in the grayish light.

Lying with my head on the headrest of the medical chair, I tried to relax as Donna patiently stitched up the damage to my face. Daughter of Jessie James, local nurse and saviour of life and limb of Atlinites since the dawn of time, Donna Hall was our current RN.

Donna’s a laugher. Which is a good thing. A sense of humour goes a long way in the blood and guts business. In any event, she kept having to tell me to keep still while she worked because I couldn’t stop larking about. Howard was in on the act, and he was following the proceedings closely, standing on tiptoe and looking over her shoulder as she sewed up my lower lip. Then suddenly he disappeared, and his body hit the floor hard enough to rock the little building.

Donna jumped up.

“No Howard, not now,” she groaned, handing me the needle and walking back to where he had landed.

Gingerly, I let the needle hang from its thread, swung out of the chair, and lowered myself to where Howard lay.

“I understand someone being squeamish about the sight of blood, and I understand someone passing out, but there’s something wrong about being able to turn it into a good night’s sleep,” I squawked, trying to prevent the laughter from pulling out the stitches she had already managed to place.

“Let’s just prop him in the chair and finish this up,” she sighed.

Atlin Inn, Hallowe’en.

I smiled, winced, and a shudder rippled around the table beside the stage like the wave at a Canuck’s game. Diplomatic folks these. They knew by now of course … likely knew the following morning; not all of the sordid details, but enough to flesh out a passable account around the table at the cafe.

I had played two sets and not a word had been said. Hallowe’en night at the Inn and I was the only one not requiring a costume. I wasn’t doing too badly considering; a little difficulty pronouncing a few words here and there, but on the whole I was making it through the night with as much grace as a man with busted teeth and Frankenstein stitching could expect.

The general opinion was that the Pine Creek bridge had simply claimed another victim — one long overdue according to some, as if the thing needed a sacrifice every now and then to prevent it working its way loose from its moorings and floating down the creek to the lake.


“Yeah, I remember that Hallowe’en,” pal and multi-talented mechanic, Lloyd Brown said many years later. “You got me to tow the car into Whitehorse the next day. It was a write-off from what I recall. What a mess. And when I went to strap down the steering, I saw those teeth - stuck like little tombstones in the steering wheel. Boy you must have hit that bridge hard.”

Yes I did … I surely did.

October 2021

My new front teeth looked up at me from the bathroom counter — a temporary partial that was currently causing me nothing but grief. “Don’t forget us this morning pal. You don’t want to go out looking like an enforcer for the Philadelphia Flyers like you did yesterday.” The dental work required as a result of my encounter with the Pine Creek bridge was extensive, all of it taken on with unparalleled skill by our local dentist, Bob Dalgleish — skill that allowed the bridge he installed, with only a few repairs, to last damn near forty years. Inevitably though, the whole thing gave out, and it recently became clear that I needed implants.

Now, if you’ve ever experienced the joy of implants, you will have discovered two things: First, they are monumentally expensive, often requiring a second job working the midnight shift at the 7-Eleven. Second, they have to be screwed in and left to heal for six months, allowing you the pleasure of wearing a partial denture that makes you feel like Dobbin chomping on a new bit.

They say the best way to develop compassion is to ‘walk in another man’s shoes.’ Well, by God, I have developed some serious compassion over the last six months for all those souls forced to wear dentures on this planet. The whole business is humbling. Apart from the manifold issues related to food, the average denture can create any number of social crises; my favourite being the one where, in the middle of an excitable rant, the thing, never all that stable to begin with, flies straight out of your mouth and across the table to hit Mabel square in the forehead. Its a real show stopper. The ensuing silence is deafening. And it doesn’t matter whether you were in the middle of discussing the weather, or announcing your independent discovery of the God particle, you can be sure of one thing - the flying teeth dropping into Mabel’s bouillabaisse will be the only thing you are remembered for.

Still, in a week or so, I will have brand new front teeth - teeth screwed right into my jawbone; and I will be a new man, swearing and spitting with the best of them. I can’t wait.