Lower Post (pop. 160) at Mile 620 on the Alaska Highway, is British Columbia's most northerly settlement.
It is just a couple of miles south of the Yukon boundary, though three times that by road. When you reach that border, the bus driver will warn you, "Set your watches back one hour. You are now in the Pacific Time Zone."
The next settlement, Watson Lake, YT, fifteen miles away, is social centre for Lower Post. Folks run over to the Watson Lake airport for a dance, or to the Army camp for a movie. Lower Post has no theatre - they have to go to Yukon to enjoy the flicks.
Lower Post doesn't go in much for organized entertainment. Maybe on a Friday night, the native Casca Indians may get together at an impromptu dance in "Moccasin Square Gardens," as the log hall on the highway is flippantly known. Occasionally white residents go to the square dancing there, where the orchestra (guitar, fiddle and mouth-organ) sits perched on the staircase.
For the rest, apart from the excellent hunting and fishing, Lower Post gets along quite nicely with the interesting life that passes its front door on the Alaska Highway.
Or would you call it the back door?
For Lower Post originally faced the Liard River, which was its shining highway back into the hinterland, and downstream over rapids and falls to the world Outside. Before the Alaska Highway was pushed through the wilderness, the town turned toward the river, where travellers came and went; where supplies were unloaded for trading posts; where bales of furs were freighted for shipment to the markets of the world.
In those days, fur was its only reason for existence. Many were the fur trading posts up and down the country, both those of the Hudson's Bay Company and vival free traders.
The site at the junction of the Dease and Liard was established as a trading post by an American named Robert Sylvester in 1872, and was later taken over by the Hudson's Bay Company. Mrs. Sylvester, a Coast Indian, brought with her in 1882 a knowledge of witchcraft, something unknown in those parts previously.
Two Company men had a few grim moments at Lower Post in 1888. They were all set to trade with the Caseca Indians that spring, and perhaps a few Tahltans. But suddenly all their customers took to the woods. Word had arrived of an attack by the Taku Indians.
Sure enough they arrived, 200 strong. The two men defended the trading post in the manner of Beau Geste - rushing from one gun to another, to give the impression of a lot of defenders. And the ruse worked the trick. The Taku Indians withdrew silently.
Lower Post got its name merely because it happened to be further down the Liard River than another HBC post.
Until the Alaska Highway was put through, Lower Post was reached only by water. It meant a tedious trip down the Mackenzie River from Fort Simpson, then up the rock-strewn Liard. Almost as roundabout was the one which became the main route, up the Stikine River from the Pacific Ocean, from Telegraph Creek over the precipitous 30-mile Divide, across Dease Lake and down the Dease River to its junction with the Liard. Transportation was costly.
"Dog feed that cost us $5 when we lived at Clinton, totalled $17.95 per sack by the time it reached here," said J. W. Stewart, the Game Guardian.
Today the town has to do a right-about-face to watch the world go by. For years (and still, to some extent) it was khaki-coated men in dun-colored jeeps and trucks, both Canadian and American.
Today, it is largely buses and trucks hurtling through, or halting for the night. Tourists on the fly asking endless questions. Maintenance crews shuffling between posts, grading and repairing the road. Hopefuls who have sold out everything in the States, and looking for a fresh start in Alaska. The occasional Sunday School van. One Model T Ford had a small trailer attached behind. It paused, in front of the trading post. Out of the trailer stepped a large pale-brown quadruped, and a smaller edition of the same thing.
"That is a cow," explained "Jock" Stewart, genial manager of the Hudson's Bay store, where the trailer had halted. "A Jersey cow, and this is its calf. We get milk from cows."
The Indians stared in unbelief. They studied the strange creature beside the gravelled dusty road. At length an old Indian shook his head, and sniffed. "Uh-uh. Me get my milk from can."
If Lower Post is a cowless village, it is also horseless. (Moth-less, too, housewives added.)
To date no land has been cleared for farming, but there are many excellent kitchen gardens which prove that vegetables do very well.
The Hudson's Bay store remains the chief store of the village, but it has competition in Christy's. J. H. Christy stands ready to serve out gas and oil and repairs on your car, sell you a loaf of bread and butter to go with it, dish out snacks or full-course meals, and even bed you down for the night. Liard Lodge and post office, operated for the British Yukon Navigation Company bus line by Herb and Vi Johnson is a neat white-and-red lodge with indoor plumbing. Showers, no less!
Trapping is the main industry of the village, there being 11 white trappers and some 22 Indians, according to J, W. Stewart. Mr. Stewart meets the touring public in his capacity of guardian of wild life, sealing guns, passing out hunting and trapping licenses.
One colorful old trapper is Fred Allen, a raconteur in the old style, who has been in the country at least 35 years, They've named Allen's Lookout in his honor.
Fred Herbert, another trapper, is a nephew of Victor Herbert. He can quote Longfellow or Wordsworth at the drop of a hat. Not merely the first couple of lines either, but for five minutes at a stretch.
Johnny Dahl composes his own poetry in the style made popular by Robert Service. And the Macdonald clan is here represented by seven of the name - including Big Malcolm. Anyone who has read Alaska Challenge, by Bill and Ruth Albee, will feel acquainted with Big Malcolm.
And anyone who reads the papers should feel acquainted with J. C. F. Dalzell, famous bushflier, who knows the fabulous Nahanni (Headless) Valley better than any man alive. At the steep banks of the Liard, he recently built steps and a chute to his airplane dock.
John Blanchard makes his light, serviceable packboards of cowhide on the road at the top of the bank, traditionally Known as "Riverside Drive." There too, stand cabins of miners away working at the Moccasin Gold Mines on McDame's Creek. Farther along a new school and teacherage have been built at a cost of $12,000.
The new school accommodates 22 pupils, a generous space for present needs. But Lower Post has grown considerably with the impetus of the highway, and has become a central point for the many Indians of the Dease and Pelly River areas. The school superseded the day school operated by the Oblate Fathers for Indian children in summer. Holy Family Mission Church has for years doubled as a classroom throughout the summer weekdays. Doors drawn across the sanctuary concealed the altar and the unusual mural behind it.
On a square of moosehide, one of the Fathers painted the Crucifixion scene. But the familiar Palestine setting has become that of the north country, with white tents, little squared trappers' cabins, spruce trees and a swift northern river flowing between high banks.
Father Pierre Poullet has spent 12 of his 36 years at Lower Post, serving faithfully white and native alike. He came to a field "barren of any religious services," he explained in English that still halts. "With the help of the Indians, we built rectory and log church." Now with Father Touraine to assist him, he instructs the Indian youngsters in their religious duties.
I thought of the change that had come in the course of a few years, and wondered what the village's future was likely to be.
"Mining,” said Game Warden Stewart in prompt answer to my question. “Mining is probably the only thing that would develop Lower Post into a city. There's not much else to expect from this country, and you don't need anything else. The country is rich in many kinds of minerals - lead, silver, gold. As for coal, it's all through this country."