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 part of a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.
Atlin, 1980s — Yeah, there’s that old argument about wide tires on trucks. Some stand by those fat, oversize galoshes that make your half ton look like a four legged duck waddling up the road, believing that more contact with the road means better traction. Others simply think that a narrower tire cuts through the surface sludge quicker, making contact with the ground that much faster, and real traction more secure. Who knows. I guess it depends on what’s covering the road – mud, gravel, sand or snow.
One thing I do know, is that it’s handy to have tread on your tires, and tread on my current vehicle was in short supply. The little bucket of bolts did, however, have front wheel drive; which helped.
In the North, a truck can be the most useful vehicle you own. Its advantages are obvious. In an environment where hauling wood and water, picking up building supplies and quarters of moose meat, shoveling gravel for your road, and carrying musical equipment to the gig, it is your best pal. If you have four wheel drive that is.
It can also be the most useless mode of transportation ever designed. If you own a simple two wheel, rear wheel drive tub, you can find yourself in worse situations than you ever would driving your dad’s old Pontiac. Without weight in the back, a snowy road is just a playground for those rear tires. They can spin, sashay from side to side, and party on down while you struggle with the steering in an attempt to stay out of the ditch.
One of the peculiar solutions to this problem is to fill the bed with firewood to get some weight over the back wheels. Not a bad idea, unless you are interested in gas mileage or, God forbid, you want to use your vehicle as a truck. As it turned out, I didn’t have to deal with any of these scenarios, as my vehicle of necessity for this winter trip was my lightly treaded Mazda station wagon.
Now it’s a long trot to Dawson City – an eight hour drive that gives a guy time to think about all kinds of stuff – stuff like:
‘Why am I burning through so much wood this winter? It’s not that cold. Maybe the mice have nested in the roof again and re-arranged the insulation’, or:
‘Brother, when was the last time they plowed this road? I’d be better off on a skidoo’ …
… a thought that immediately reminded me of a pickle I got myself into a few weeks before – one requiring a little Northern style help from my friends.
It was a crisp, calm winter’s morning in Atlin, and I’d taken it into my head to grab my pack and a guitar, stick on my skis, and head across the lake for a couple of days.
My first destination was a friend’s cabin on the Atlin River – six miles or so of grunting and wheezing after all’s said and done. The conditions were beautiful. The temperature was -15 celsius, the sky was blue, there was no wind, and the snow was nicely packed on the lake.
This area is magic. In the old days, long before the road, paddle wheelers and screw driven boats plied the Southern Lakes, supplying the local towns and transporting passengers, and the Atlin River (the span between Tagish and Atlin Lake) had to be portaged somehow.
The solution was a 2 1/4 mile narrow gauge railway consisting of a tiny steam engine (the Duchess), and several cars that climbed a bare few feet over the rise, then fell just as abruptly down the other side to a dock where the Tarahne (our local lake boat, still alive and well) waited for its payload.
Ahh, to have seen that train in the day! I was born a couple of generations too late. Still, here I was, skiing down the old road bed of the little railway, and marveling at the skill and ingenuity of my forebears.
The cabin sits on the bank above the Atlin River. It’s a log affair, much like my own, but a tad more complicated. I was settling down for a late lunch on the rustic wooden porch facing out over the water. The sun had a tiny bit of warmth in it and a light breeze was rustling my tee shirt hanging over the rail, (skiing is a sweaty business). I had no sooner unwrapped my sandwich when I heard it – the sound of a skidoo in the distance.
“Hmmph,” I muttered, “Oh well, he’ll be gone soon enough. It’s a big lake”.
But it wasn’t to be. The machine was coming closer, and it sounded like it might be headed for the train track. Sure enough, down the road bed it came, approaching ever closer, and now it was making its way down the path to the cabin. It pulled up, the driver gave the throttle one last twist, but left the motor running.
“Damn”, I grunted as I stalked around the side of the cabin, ”Who could be …” and ran right into Derek Strong – our local cop.
“There you are!” He sounded relieved. “You know you’ve got a gig in Whitehorse tonight, right? What are you doing way out here?”
“Uh, I …”. Sheesh, what an idiot! I had forgotten all about it.
“Well, I’m glad I found you. There’s a bunch of folks headed into town expecting to hear music.”
He stamped his pack boots to rid them of the snow, turned to look at me then, beaming mischievously, said …
“You wouldn’t want to further tarnish the reputation of musicians around the world by not showing up for the gig would ya?”
… a line he evidently found hilarious, because it initiated a series of belly laughs and an exuberant round of thigh slapping. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘everyone’s a comic, even the local cop.’
“I’m thrilled I could inject a little humour into your day Derek.”
“Well, he panted,” out of breath now, “no time to dilly dally. Grab your stuff and hop on, we gotta keep movin’.
I made that gig as it turned out … but just barely.
Small towns. I love ‘em. Everybody knows way too much about your business, but when you need a hand, the help comes with bells on. Just like the time Peggy Milius took that little yellow Datsun of hers out on the ice a tad too early in the year, and the town watched from the bar as it humped over an ice berm and plowed nose down into overflow between the shore and first island.
All of a sudden, without a word, everybody ups and storms out the front door to yard the thing out with whatever tools were available; then, job done, they simply picked up where they left off without further ado.
These are the folks I want around me when everything goes south.
On the last leg to Dawson City, the road meanders through several miles of tailings – huge piles that stretch out along the Klondike River like thousands of gopher mounds. Oddly enough, these old gold rush remains, rather than being considered eyesores, have become landmarks over the years, the locals having embraced their mining history by building houses down in the tailings, often beside tiny, beautiful, crystalline lakes in the basins formed between mounds. It’s a sight to see.
I pulled into town and headed for the Downtown Hotel. This was gonna be fun. A winter gig in Dawson City. It was going to be all locals. One of the locals I wanted to see this trip was John Steins, guitar player, artist and long time resident. Another multi-faceted man of the North, John was even the town mayor for a spell. Evidently, according to northern logic, the first thing you do if you need a mayor is to go looking for the nearest guitar player. Welcome to the Yukon.