A hundred years ago, George Black, our member of parliament, was compelled to travel in challenging conditions. Here he and his wife are preparing to cross an icy river by canoe. (Martha Louise Black fonds/Yukon Archives)

History Hunter: Travel has been a challenge for Yukon MPs

Getting from Yukon to Ottawa was a trek

Travel to Ottawa for the member of Parliament from Canada’s most distant constituency is a challenge. It is now, and always has been. And while Larry Bagnell, our current member of Parliament maintains a punishing schedule flying weekly between Ottawa and the Yukon, the trip is now completed in comfort in a few hours by air. A hundred years ago, this trip could take our member of Parliament up to a week, and sometimes two.

Traveling to Ottawa from the Yukon’s former capital, which was then Dawson City, was never easy. Take for example the 1922 journey taken by rookie MP, George Black, whose career representing the Yukon in the House of Commons eventually spanned three decades. Black was first elected in the fall of 1921 as the Yukon MP, after an arduous campaign that covered hundreds of kilometres by boat, by train, by canoe, snowshoes, and dogsled.

Black’s first trip to Ottawa soon followed. En route, the automobile he was traveling in left the road and rolled over onto the Yukon’s fledgling MP. He was held up while recuperating from his injuries at Duncan Creek, a mining camp near Mayo. After a week’s rest, and still recovering, he was strapped into a dogsled and transported by dog team to Fort Selkirk by Bob Miller and his dog team. From there he took the winter stage to Whitehorse, the train from Whitehorse to Skagway, and from there, a steamer down the Pacific Coast to join his wife, Martha, in Vancouver. A cross-country train ride followed.

Black settled into a routine over the following years that included attending sessions of parliament in the spring and again in the fall, visiting his Yukon constituency, and attending to his law practice in Vancouver in between. The Blacks became footloose vagabonds, perpetually traveling between these three locations.

But the most difficult leg of their journeys was always the segment between Dawson City and Whitehorse, which could take up to eight days to complete. Take the fall of 1925, for example, Black was called to Parliament on short notice. Overnight, he and Martha quickly wrapped up their affairs in Dawson City and left town the next day. They traveled over the icy winter trail from Dawson in a Ford model automobile until they caught up with the horse-drawn Whitehorse stage.

Martha Black described their progress in the open-air sled in which they traveled: “Dressed in woolies, enveloped in coon skin coats we were well prepared for the journey. … Along the way, we reached the first road house about three in the morning. By seven we had breakfasted, the four horses were hitched. Impatient to be off, our driver called ‘all aboard’ and we were away again. The morning was dark; we were both fearfully sleepy; the trail had only been cut out in the fall and the sleigh lurched and twisted as it bumped over the rough track.”

From the Pelly River to Yukon Crossing, they were drawn slowly across the landscape in a sleigh towed behind a caterpillar tractor. The trail was rough and the lurching and jolting of the cat made it necessary to change drivers every two hours. It was easier to nap in the sleigh, Martha Black reported, as “shakedowns” were prepared for the MP and his wife to rest on during the two-day journey over this section of the trail.

Each river crossing posed challenges: at the Stewart River, the ice was thick enough that they were able to walk across the river, though the ice cracked beneath their feet as they did so. The Pelly they navigated in a canoe, and they reached Yukon Crossing in the dark of night. “The water looked like a ribbon of ink running thick with ice,” reported Martha Black in an article she wrote for Maclean’s Magazine. The male passengers, including her husband, hauled their heavily laden canoe a kilometer upstream before they pushed off into the strong current which carried them downstream as they crossed. Mrs. Black reported that, “The men got in and rowed and paddled across the river with only the light from a lantern in front of the roadhouse on the opposite shore to guide us.”

The cakes of ice grated against the hull of the canoe until they reached the opposite shore safely. From there, they were conveyed forward in another Ford model automobile to the Takhini River, where again they crossed the ice-encrusted river in a canoe.

The food at the roadhouses was ample and included many locally obtained products: Caribou, sheep, fish and moose, home-grown potatoes, barley soup and cranberry jelly. The roadhouses varied in quality. One consisted of a single large room within which a chamber with a double bed was curtained off for the Blacks. The roadhouse at Stewart River was, she reported, “…two stories, built of logs, clean and neat as a pin.”

When the eight-day journey to Whitehorse was over, the travel by train to Skagway and then by steamer down the coast allowed them to continue in relative comfort.

By 1932, air travel had reached the north. That September, the Blacks flew from Dawson to Whitehorse, via a stormy Mayo Lake, but on arriving in Whitehorse, they discovered that the train had already left, so they flew on to Bennett at the head of Bennett Lake to intercept the train. Fortunately, they made it in time.

The resolute Mrs. Black wasn’t fazed by this new form of travel. She had taken her first airplane ride while in England, more than a decade earlier during World War I.

From Vancouver, they loaded their large trunks of belongings on the transcontinental train and for several days, often stopping over along the way, they rattled along the rails to the nation’s capital. The travel was not without its lighter moments. The Blacks arrived in Vancouver after one cross-country train ride, to discover that a can of maple syrup they had purchased for Yukon friends before leaving Ottawa, had leaked into their possessions, leaving everything drenched and sticky.

By 1939, the cross-country trip was taking hours, instead of days. While serving as member of Parliament in place of her husband, Mrs. Black flew from Ottawa to Vancouver, and then back to Ottawa a few days later. She departed from Vancouver on the return flight at 5:30 p.m., and was expected to arrive in the capital by lunch the following day.

The Blacks continued this Gypsy existence traveling back and forth across the country for nearly three decades. By the end of this period, Mrs. Black, at least, was yearning to plant her feet in her beloved Yukon and give up the perennial wanderings for good.

History Hunter