A Yukon Summer
“Do you think you’d like to spend the summer in the Yukon?” asked Stephen Carson.
I looked at him and smiled innocently as only a 21-year-old college student could, unaware of what I might be getting myself in for.
“Oh, yes! I’d love to go up there! Now, it won’t be too cold, will it?”
“It’ll be 60 degrees in the daytime, cooler at night. You know, the sun never goes down that time of year.”
“Wow ... that must be amazing.”
“How would you feel being the only female in camp? Would that bother you?”
“No, I’m sure I can handle it,” I replied.
My interview was taking place in B.C. Resource’s downtown Vancouver office on a beautiful spring day. Even though I was applying for the job of camp cook, Stephen had only asked one question about my culinary skills. The company’s mining exploration camp was being set up to prospect for gold that summer in a mountainous area of the Yukon, not far from the Alaska-Yukon border where they had staked a claim.
I’d never thought of working in the Yukon—or working as a cook for that matter—until I spotted an ad in the University of British Columbia student employment office. In 1975, $750 a month sounded lucrative—a lot more than I could hope to make staying in the city. Plus, I could save on rent and food as well. It was the summer before my senior year and, after long hours of sitting in classes and studying in the libraries through the spring and fall semesters, I was ready for a bit of an adventure. A job in the Yukon would certainly qualify as one. As a biology major, I didn’t have much of a sense of what I wanted to do when I graduated in a year. My previous summer jobs had included working in cafeterias, department stores, and nursing homes. The only experience I had cooking was limited to what I had learned in order to fend for myself in the three years since I had left home.
In late June, a plane to Whitehorse, a van ride on the Alaska-Canada highway to the town of Beaver Creek, Yukon (population 100), and finally, a helicopter through the mountains brought me to the campsite which would be my home for the next two months.
One of the first people I met was William, a helicopter pilot based in Beaver Creek. He moved us into camp in his four-seater Bell helicopter and was our lifeline to the outside world, bringing in supplies, mail, and visitors. Before take-off, with the single engine running and the twin propeller blades spinning, we had to walk bent over double during our approach to the chopper. The fierce air currents had to be contended with and we were acutely aware of the danger from those fast-spinning blades. Sitting in the front passenger seat and becoming airborne for the first time was thrilling yet unnerving too, with the large, frameless Plexiglas bubble providing an unobstructed view of the landscape. The town’s one-story buildings, houses, and trees quickly looked insignificant as we gained altitude and headed off to the northeast with the breathtaking expanse of the mountainous terrain below. William, tall, dark-haired, and in his mid-twenties, loved to talk and had a great sense of humor. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a daredevil when it came to flying, although no one ever questioned his skills. When he wasn’t carrying passengers, he was known to sometimes do a few aerobatics with the copter, just for fun.
“So, this is more than just a summer job for you?” I asked on that first flight out of Beaver Creek.
“Yeah, I fly all year round but this is our busiest time,” he replied as he looked at me out of the corner of his eye and winked. “I have more time in the winter to stay on the ground and have fun.”
“Why choose this as a career?”
“I love flying and the independence of this job. Can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
In one of the few Polaroid photos I have from that summer, I am sitting on a storage container just outside the door to the cook tent, a large wood-framed structure covered with a dirty yellow canvas. Scattered on the ground in front of me are an assortment of boxes, various types and sizes of containers, and, above the doorway, someone had nailed up a skull of a moose. Even though it was June, I had been rightly advised to pack for the cold. That evening I have on a sweater, long pants, boots and a winter parka with its fur-lined hood pulled up over my long brown hair. My knees are drawn up to my chest and it’s obviously chilly, despite the bright sunshine.
We had no electricity, no running water, and no windows, but the canvas let in the light 24 hours a day. Inside the cook tent was a large wooden table with benches along three sides that could accommodate ten to twelve people. A gas stove, wooden countertops with storage space underneath for pots and pans, and some large plastic basins (the “sinks” for washing up) completed the picture. Every morning I made breakfast to order, packed sandwiches for lunches, and then had some free time until I had to prepare dinner which we all sat down and ate together like a family. Cooking was simple enough as my guys were not fussy and heartily ate the basic meat-and-potato-style meals that I prepared. It was a dry camp which meant no alcohol was allowed. The gas stove had to be lit with matches and I normally didn’t have a problem with it. However, one morning as I leaned over to light the oven not knowing that the pilot light was out, I ignited the small amount of gas that had collected inside and there was an explosion right in my face. Luckily, there wasn’t enough gas escaping to really harm me and I was relieved that only my eyelashes and eyebrows got singed. After this, I was always careful to check the pilot light before striking any matches.
We had a site manager, John, as well as a Caterpillar tractor driver, Frenchy, who was an old-timer in the prospecting business. Short, bearded, and heavyset, this French-Canadian did one thing well: he excavated large areas with the tractor’s shovel after the prospectors pointed out spots where they felt a gold vein might be present. Frenchy was also good for a laugh—he was loud and always had a joke for anyone ready to listen. Four other college students like me were young men had been hired to be prospectors--a summer job that got them out hiking all day in search of gold.
The men thrived on the meat (pork, chicken, and steak) that was flown in fresh weekly and kept in our permafrost “freezer”, a large hole that had been dug out of the frozen ground a short distance away from the tents. Covered with heavy tarps, the pit was cold but it wasn’t quite as good as modern refrigeration. I learned to tell the difference between meat that was discolored (turning a little green) but still edible when cooked well-done and that which was too far gone (darker shades of green and brown) and had to be discarded. Better than any gym workout, my forearms got really strong that summer from carrying water in five-gallon pails back to the tent from a mountain stream a few hundred yards away.
Most of the sleeping tents were shared, although Frenchy had one of his own as did I, a small white canvas one that allowed me to stand up only in the middle. It held a cot and sleeping bag, my backpack, books and quilting supplies, a wood stove, and little else. The stove generated some welcome heat which was also used to warm up water for my “sponge bath” each morning. One other item in the tent was a Yukon camp version of a “chamber pot.” I used it in the mornings, discreetly emptying it in the bushes before the others were awake. At other times of the day, the bushes on the perimeter of our camp were our “toilet” areas.
Within the first month, things settled down into a routine. It was beautiful and peaceful in the mountains and working seven days a week helped prevent boredom from setting in. I hiked, read, wrote letters, and quilted in my free time. So isolated that we couldn’t even get a radio signal and rarely saw a newspaper, our only contact with the outside world was through walkie-talkie radios which were used to communicate with the company bosses or with William in Beaver Creek. We were up high in the Yukon mountains and the ground was covered with rocks, small bushes, and a handful of spruce trees, the tallest of them being only three or four feet high.
The guys and I would sit around and chat in the evenings after dinner.
“Why are you all smoking?” I asked them one day. “Don’t you have to stay in good shape to go out prospecting?”
“I need to stop for cigarette to celebrate each time I think I’ve found a gold vein,” explained Henry, the most athletic of all the prospectors. “If I don’t smoke, what else can I do?”
He had a point. There was so little to do up in the mountains that simple pleasures such as a cigarette break needed to be savored.
As for wildlife such as wolves, bears, moose, and caribou, there simply wasn’t any; however, that summer, the mosquitoes were relentless. They were large, plentiful, and out for blood, so it was good that we were usually covered up from head to toe because of the cool temperatures. Henry devised a game whereby we would expose the skin on one of our forearms to entice mosquitoes to land; it took less than a minute for these insects to be attracted to the bait.
“Now take a swat at your arm with your other hand and try to kill as many mosquitoes as you can,” instructed Henry. “So far the record is 15 at one go.”
The trick here was to get them before they bit you. Sadly, no matter how many mosquitoes died that way, there were always more to take their place.
In early August, Stephen Carson offered me a break from the everyday routine. “Would you like to go to the Northwest Territories to register a claim for us?”
“Yes! What do I have to do?”
As I got ready to go the next morning, Frenchy walked into the cook tent and burst out laughing when he saw me eating a banana.
“You’re leaving us? I see you are getting ready for some R & R!”
I turned bright red and was at a loss for words--even more so when I had to hear his joke repeated over and over as the others came in for breakfast.
The trip involved a helicopter ride to Beaver Creek, a plane to Yellowknife which included flying over the magnificent Great Slave Lake (the second largest lake in the Territories) and a short stay in this territorial capital which had mainly one-story buildings and no paved roads. One of the most memorable parts of this trip was the first shower I got to take in over a month. My small motel room with its very basic facilities provided me with the luxury of all the hot water that I wanted and the chance to sleep in a real bed. I hadn’t spent any money in over a month and, as I unrolled a wad of bills and started to pay for a meal, the restaurant cashier protested.
“These bills are wet!”
“Yes, but it’s still money...”
Of course the money was wet—my wallet had been sitting in a tent for the past month. Our campsite was cold and damp and there wasn’t ever enough heat to allow most things to dry out.
After completing the simple task of registering the claim at the government office, I wandered around town but didn’t talk to many people. Yellowknife, population 7,500, felt busy compared to our remote mountaintop site and I wasn’t used to being around so many people. How was I going to react being back in Vancouver again?
Returning to camp, summer was winding down and the end of August was in sight.
One morning the helicopter arrived, as usual, with the supplies and mail. As William and I had gotten to know each other better over the summer, he had begun to flirt with me in a light-hearted way that neither of us took seriously.
“So are you going to meet me for a drink next time you come to Beaver Creek? You snuck out of there too fast the last time.”
“What would your girlfriend think about that drink?”
“She doesn’t have to know—come on—it’s ok to party a little.”
It was flattering to have the attention of a handsome guy like William, but I was not going to encourage him, given the fact that I was leaving soon and also knew he lived with his girlfriend in Beaver Creek.
That day he stayed to have coffee and then took off alone over the hills heading for the neighboring camp belonging to a rival company, Bluestar Gold Corporation, which was also prospecting that summer. We could visit them with a trek over a steep hill to the east so our crews had some limited contact, perhaps once a week at the most.
A half an hour after William left, one of Bluestar’s people, Bob, came running down the hill.
“There’s been an accident!” he yelled.
Alarmed, John and I rushed over to Bob to find out what had happened. As William was approaching their camp, his helicopter hit a cable that had been strung between two tall poles. Crash-landing, the chopper came to rest at an angle, remaining upright with the blades still rotating. With any type of accident like this, one worry is that the fuel will catch on fire so, instinctively, you want to quickly get as far away from the crash site as you can. Inside the chopper, William appeared to be uninjured but, because of the way he had landed, it was unsafe to get out due to the angle of the spinning blades. People were desperately signaling him to stay inside but, obviously shaken up, this experienced pilot didn’t comprehend what they were trying to tell him. After jumping out of his seat and onto the ground, William bent over and started running. Struck in the head by the blades, he died instantly.
The news was devastating to us all. John, as the senior person in charge at our camp, went over to the Bluestar camp to help out, but the rest of us stayed behind. All we could do at that point was try to absorb what had happened. I, for one, had no desire to get any closer to view what must have been a gruesome crash site.
I ran off into the brush to be alone and cry, unable to make sense out of such a freak accident. How could a young man, so full of life, suddenly be gone? It was a shock to everyone in our camp but, as the days passed, we talked less and less about William and the accident. I felt sad and numb: my grief found a place to settle inside me while life and work had to go on.
It was soon time to dismantle camp and head back to Whitehorse. In the two-month period, prospectors had found a few small gold veins but nothing that amounted to much. Most of the guys I worked with were either going back to school or moving on to other jobs. Henry was off to Europe to train for a sport he loved, cycling, while John couldn’t wait to get back to his family in Whitehorse. Frenchy spent his winters in Alaska, not working much and exhausting a good part of his summer salary at the bars there.
Before I knew it, I was on a plane heading back to Vancouver and my final year of college. It was wonderful to return and be reunited with friends and family.
“I worried about the bears the whole summer you were up there,” my 75-year-old grandmother told me as I sat down for dinner in the small dining room of the apartment she shared with my grandfather in the heart of the city.
“I never saw even one bear,” I assured her. “The only living creatures besides us were mosquitoes.”
Needless to say, I didn’t tell my grandmother about the all the helicopter rides I took in and out of camp and how those could have been more of a threat to my safety than all the wild animals she imagined were up there.
As school started, I found I was not very inspired by my studies. I could not be sure how time in the wilderness, the isolation, and the accident had affected me, but they clearly had. I was also trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. William had certainly known what he wanted to do with his. He had loved the North and flying but didn’t get a chance to do it for very long.
After that Yukon summer, my culinary skills were put to much more limited use, and always within the confines of a kitchen with electricity, modern appliances, and running water. I never again lived in a place as remote as the Yukon and the last time I was close to a helicopter was when I visited the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near Washington D.C. Looking up at those small Bell helicopters suspended from the ceiling of the aviation hangar took me back to that time more than 35 years ago when I first got to fly in one with William out of Beaver Creek.