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A Visit to the Yukon Territory in 1937

Northern History

Victoria Daily Times, Saturday, August 21, 1937


    How would you like to live in a log cabin on the banks of the Yukon? The cabin would be small and compact; the roof Would be covered with earth and there would be weeds and flowers growing out of it. There would not be a great deal to do and you would have lots of time to fill. There would be eight months of winter, when you would not see the sun for about three months. There would be snow and ice and 50 below weather; there would also be the Northern Lights and the world's brightest moons. In the summer there would be daylight for 24 hours a day; there would be mosquitoes and black flies and deer flies.

    You would not like it? That's what they all say until they have had a year of so in the Yukon. Then they don't want to leave. It definitely gets you. There's freedom and there's air so fresh it gives you a new lease on life. There's interest galore and there are characters up there that can tell you stories that make your hair stand on end. There's good fellowship and an outlook on life that people in the crowded centres never know. To sum up all these things, there seems to be complete happiness.


    Even in a week's trip up and down the Yukon as far as Dawson, I met dozens of characters and from them heard of dozens more whose names have become famous in the north country. There is more color in Alaska and the Yukon than in any other section of the North American continent. Millions of words have been written about the Yukon and the characters there, but mostly they have been poor. Some well-known writer should go into the north and do the country and its people full justice.

The steamer Yukon pushing a barge down the Yukon River in 1937

    We left Whitehorse, at the head of Yukon navigation, one night in early June. We were aboard the new sternwheeler Klondike, making her maiden voyage. Everyone in Whitehorse was on the dock as we pulled out. They were killing mosquitoes by the hundreds, but that didn't seem to worry them. They all cheered as we sped downstream, after making the turn just above the town.

    Through dense banks of smoke from forest fires the Klondike dashed down with the current until Lake Le Barge, famous in annals of the north, was reached. On a calm evening reflections in Le Barge are worth going half way around the world to see. And then through lower Le Barge and into the Thirty Mile, where the Yukon, crystal clear and sky blue, and iceberg green, rushes through its narrow, winding banks, at more than eight knots.

    Five Finger Rapids are famous for their thrills. They gave the gold seekers of '98 lots of thrills, and heart-breaks, too. Today they give the tourists just a series of thrills. Then come the Rink Rapids, another thrilling sight, and then Hell's Gate. In fact, the Yukon is full of thrills.

    And these thrills bring to mind the part that Capt. Charlie Coughlan and Pilot "Bill" Bromley of Victoria play in them.

Capt. Charlie Coughlan, master of the steamer Klondike, 1937     Capt. Charlie is master of the fine new Klondike and a typical river steamboatman if ever there was one. He has a midriff section that rolls as he roars with laughter. He is big and ruddy and he wears a tiny cap when on official duty. He is known all along the river. He ought to be, for he has been there 40 years. He has done all sorts of jobs. In the old days he drove a dog team in the winter along the river banks, crossing the ice and going into the hills. He has lead the isolated life of the wood chopper. He loves the Yukon. To him it's life. And he knows the Yukon. He can read it like a book.


    To see Capt. Charlie at the wheel as he guides his big craft through the Fingers or the Rink is to see a master craftsman at his job. He leans out the window. He gets his bearings. He slows Klondike up, a few feet from the entrance to the Five Fingers. He holds her, jockeys her into position and then lets her go. Everyone aboard, except Capt. Charlie, holds his breath. There is no time to wonder what would happen if the boat crashed. In two or three minutes it's all over. Capt. Charlie's face relaxes. Once again he's gone through the most thrilling stretch of the river. A master of his art is Capt. Charlie - for navigation on the Yukon is truly an art of the highest degree.

Bill Bromley, pilot on the steamer Klondike, 1937     "Bill" Bromley lives in Victoria all winter. When March comes he heads north, as he has been doing for the last 15 years. He used to winter in the north, but since there is now a Mrs. Bromley and a youngster on Finlayson Avenue he likes to come and have Christmas with them.

    But Bill is a sourdough now and is accepted by the Yukoners. Like his chief, Capt. Charlie, whom he looks up to and admires as few men admire their chief, "Bill" can read the waters of the Yukon like a book. He sees certain signs in the river that to landlubbers are just eddies or ripples. But to "Bill" Bromley they are danger signs, or otherwise, as the case may be.


    There's a brilliant future for "Bill" Bromley in the north, everyone along the river banks say. He's a young chap yet, and as the older skippers retire he will take their places. There's a good 30 years or more in front of Bromley, and it's safe to bet he will never leave the river that to him, also, has become life.

    There are lots of Victoria boys along the banks of the Yukon and working on the picturesque sternwheelers. There's Darryl Bissell, who is purser on the Whitehorse. Kenny Briggs, who comes outside every second winter, is purser of the Klondike and Bill Forde is purser of the Aksala, plying the Stewart River, between Mayo and Stewart. They all love the life there and in turn everyone in the north likes them. You have to be well liked to get along in the north. If you have many enemies you may as well leave.

    Rev. Robert Ward is a Victoria boy. He used to carry papers for the Times. Then he went to university and last year was accepted by the Anglican Church as a missionary. He went to the Yukon and was appointed to Selkirk, where I saw him in June. There he has a neat little church; a tiny schoolhouse, where he teaches the Indians, a cozy home and a blooming garden. He has learned to master the big huskies that pull the sleighs in the winter time - he knows all about rifles and how to fish. He can ride for miles over the ice in a toboggan.

Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory, 1937

    And he loves the life. He had been there a year when I saw him. He had become a sourdough. He had seen the ice form in the fall and go out again in the spring, rushing and tumbling down the river to its mouth 2,000 miles away. He saw the Northern Lights and he experienced the dark days of winter, when the sun became visible only for a few minutes at noon each day.

    On Coronation Day "Bob" climbed to the top of a nearby mountain and did his "Boy Scout deed." He lit a big bonfire, one of the farthest-north bonfires in any part of the British Commonwealth.


    And now let me tell you about the Horsfall girls. Perhaps I can tell the story as it was told me. I was completely fascinated.

The Horsfall girls at the cabin they built, 1937     They are the daughters of old Tom Horsfall and his Indian wife. Tom went there many years ago. He had seven daughters, all of whom are living. They are now scattered to various parts of the Yukon. Two of them are outside. Anna and Marion are the youngest. I saw them twice when I was in the territory. Once they were dressed in conventional form with white shoes and coats. They then looked extremely pretty and quite as smart as the tourists on the Klondike. The next time I glimpsed them they were standing outside a cabin which they had made themselves. They were in overalls that time and they looked as capable as people said they were.

    Anna and Marion have never been out of the Yukon. They have no desire to ever go out. They love their lives there too well. They are completely happy. They are suspicious of the outside world. They have built themselves a cabin just about Five Finger Rapids. There last winter they cut wood and hauled it to the river banks for the use of the steamers in the summer. These two girls, pretty and feminine, despite their outdoor capabilities, know how to trap and hunt and fish. They can drive dog teams over the ice in the winters. They help their ageing father with his mail contracts. They are unafraid, if caught alone in a raging blizzard, with the tentperature 60 below, on a trap line. They just make a camp in the lee of some tree, pitch their tent, light a fire and sleep out the storm. They have been caught for days at a time in the snow-locked hills.


    If they want a trip down to Dawson the girls just build themselves a raft and float down. At Dawson they sell the wood, for wood is scarce in Dawson. Then they return up-stream aboard a steamer. They think nothing of a hike of 50 or 60 miles. In fact, there is nothing in the Yukon that worries them. They have mastered the country completely.

Wood camp along the Yukon River, 1937     Bill Schofield, who operates a trading store at Selkirk came out with us. He's a great hand at story-telling. An adventuresome young Englishman at the time of the rush, he and another chap bought a little sailing ship in Seattle and sailed north to Skagway. They rushed in over the trail, built themselves a raft at Lake Bennett and floated all the way down to Dawson. Mr. Schofield remembers "Soapy" Smith and other famous characters of the north.

    Like everyone else in the Yukon, Mr. Schofield loves the territory. He has to come outside on business each summer, but he is always glad to return. He is part and parcel of the Yukon, just as something of the country has crept into him. He could not live without the Yukon and the Yukon would be at a loss without him. It's that way with most people up there. They seemed to have absorbed something of the eternai youthfulness, the frankness and the freshness of the mountains and the hills and the vast stretches where no one dwells.

    Going north on the Princess Louise were members of a well-known Dawson family. They all came out last winter to make their home in Victoria, where all in the Yukon say they will one day come, but never do. However, last autumn this particular family pulled their roots out of Dawson, or thought they had. Some of them, middle-aged men and women, had never before been outside. They had children of their own who had never been out.

    They bought property near Colquitz and there settled down. But they were never so homesick, cold and miserable in their lives. When spring came they started the trek back to Dawson. Never again, probably, will they be outside. They tasted of it and that was enough. The Yukon had put a spell over them that they could not resist.


Wood camp along the Yukon River, 1937     Then there was Sven, the young Finnish lad, who proudly boasted that Finland was the only country who had paid her war debts. He was going into the Yukon in search of his fortune. Just where he would find it he did not know. He could face any hardship.

    Francois was a young French-Canadian lad who traveled up the coast on the Princess Louise. He was desperately studying English. He went all the way down to Dawson. Half an hour after the boat docked I saw him sitting on the wharf, dressed in his old clothes, awaiting a job. That evening he was jubilant. He had found work that would last two weeks.

    Pioneering is still going on in the Yukon. There were two or three young mothers on the boat, each with babes in arms. They had never been into the north before, But they were frankly excited and looking forward to the future.

    "We've got to follow the bread-winners and that's all there is to it," they said.


J. P. Forde, 1937     No story of a trip on the Yukon River would be complete without reference to J. P. Forde, tall, slim, bronzed, who knows as much about the Far North as the residents, although he have never lived there.

    I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Forde on my trip. He traveled all the way to Dawson and back on the same ships and trains, That was a break for me. "J.P." is a perfect mine of information about the Yukon. He knows everything and everyone. He has met the old-timers and is as good as any of them at telling a story. He entertains the tourists by the hour. Sometimes they feel a little doubtful of his stories, but after listening to the general run of stories in the Yukon they believe anything.

    And he knows the mighty Yukon almost as well as the navigators. It is his job to keep the river open for navigation. That is why he must visit there each summer. He usually goes up at the opening of navigation and makes his inspection trip as far as Dawson. He loves the Yukon, and although he will retire next year, he intends to make his annual pilgrimage there. Yukoners will be glad, for they look forward to meeting him each summer with the same pleasure as they anticipate the break-up of the ice.

    A trip to the Yukon is one of the most delightful of travel experiences. A week on the Yukon River is something to always remember. There is interest, there is rest, there is beauty. You sit for hours on a sun-splashed deck, listen to stories of the gold rush or of the grand people who are under the Yukon's spell. Even in a week there, you get to understand a little of what holds hundreds of people in the Yukon and never lets them g.