In the attractive log house on Pingpong Alley, Dawson , Yukon Territory ,
my new china and silver glistened. The bread was rising on the back of the
wood stove where the dog meal was bubbling for Queenie's puppies. It was three
o'clock on a March afternoon, but the sun was already back of the Moosehide
Hills, and the only light was the reflection of the moon on the sugary snow.
As I plumped a beaded moose skin cushion and glanced through the frosted cottage
windows, I could catch a glimpse of the uneven chunks of ice on the frozen
Yukon River . Closer to the house, our huskies—Nuts, Soup, Coffee, and Spud—were
straining on their tethers outside their shelters, and only Queenie's nose
could be seen at the door to her house where she was caring for puppies.
I saw a flash of the red of my husband's coat as he dashed across the road
from the R.C.M.P. barracks and burst into the room, his dark eyes gleaming
“Sweetheart, we are to be sent to the Ross River Outpost—the O.C. signed the
order of transfer this morning. We are to go with ‘The Thistle' on her Pelly
River trip when navigation opens in June.”
I was wild with excitement, too. Ross River ! It was our dream, our chance
for an adventurous life of our own, free from the artificial demands of the
too highly-organized social life in the semi “ghost town” of Dawson .
My thoughts flew to all the incredible things I had heard about Ross River
. Claude had once been stationed as a single policeman in this most isolated
outpost of the whole Yukon Territory . It is the nucleus of hundreds of miles
of wild trapping country with irregular boundaries which include the valleys
of the Ross and Pelly Rivers . But now I was to try to transform the small
log cabin, which had served as a bachelor police barracks, into homelike married
quarters for two and to give the natives their first sight of a white woman!
The entire area has a population of less than a hundred people, all of them
native Indians, except for a half dozen white men. They are all trappers—nomads—and
so widely scattered that many of them come into the Post but once a year to
sell their furs, report their game, and purchase their supplies. Roy Buttle,
the manager of the trading post at Ross, would with ourselves form the entire
There were no schools in the community—no nurses, no churches—no doctors!
The natives never left the country, never saw a white community, and never
lived in houses. They were back in the dark ages as far as beliefs and customs
The next few months were filled with careful preparations and the making of
endless lists. Since the supply boat could make but one trip before the river
closed for another year, we had to calculate all that we might need for the
After seeing a picture of the cabin, I made plans to dispose of all heavy
furniture, excepting the piano and anything even remotely resembling an electric
By June first all was ready, including Christmas boxes from home to be kept
until next December.
Our outfit was on the paddle-wheeled Yukon River boat, en route from Dawson
to the mouth of the Pelly where we would meet the supply boat for the interior.
It looked a strange outfit indeed. Apart from the ordinary furnishings and
innumerable boxes of supplies, there were—laundry tubs, a water barrel, a portable
bathtub, an ironing board, window shades, gasoline mantel lamps, stacks of
books, bales of dried salmon for the dogs, guns, ammunition, skis, skates,
snowshoes, tents, eiderdown sleeping bags, dog sled and harness, a toboggan,
medical supplies, a typewriter, mosquito bars, cameras and tripods, a poling
boat, a saxophone, a trombone, a piano, a canary, and last but not least, our
seven husky dogs! Our Dawson dogs were left behind except for Queenie whose
puppies were now ready to break into harness and would make a fresh intelligent
team for the unbroken trails in the Pelly River country.
Our sendoff from Dawson was a bright one. Our friends showed some concern
for me, but I had none for myself. We were in the best of spirits, and who
wouldn't be—chugging up the Yukon River in June with all the splendor of the
sky and its reflections, a beauty such as only the midnight sun can produce.
In a few days we arrived at Selkirk, at the mouth of the Pelly River , where
the clumsy old “Thistle” was waiting to take us the two hundred and fifty miles
upstream to Ross River . She was too big for the river, as the Pelly 's channels,
excepting in high water, were too shallow for a boat of her size. Her barge
was loaded to the hilt as it carried the trader's supplies for the whole Pelly
country as well as our own.
At last we were off—at 2 a.m. and broad daylight! From the deck I could see
Malt, Hops, Yeast, Ross, Pelly , Queenie, and Jack chained disconsolately to
the barge. From the stern I could see the little line of people on the river
bank waving us off as we pushed forward.
Jack, who was chained near the edge of the barge, in his excitement at barking
farewell to the dogs on shore, fell overboard. He was rescued after being dragged
several yards, and never fell off again. We had added a black cat to our freight
at Selkirk (an order from the trader at Ross) and his tail was thick most of
the time. The poor canary's feathers were often ruffled too.
Our adventures had begun. We toiled up the river for eleven days and nights.
(I think that was the number)—we lost count once because of the continuous
daylight. Every six or eight hours the crew and passengers went ashore to chop
trees for fuel. We burned wood and could not carry it with all the heavy freight.
The business of sawing and carrying in the wood took about four hours each
time and should have been a welcome break except that when we were tied up
the swarms of mosquitoes in the brush nearly drove us mad.
As it was so hot during the day, we were concerned about the cases of fresh
eggs—a rare treat at Ross. As there was no refrigeration, the fresh meat did
not keep and the crew had to take time off to go hunting for moose and mountain
No rains came. The river dropped lower and lower and we stuck on sandbars,
had to unload the heavy freight, and then portage the freight to the boat after
we had pulled off. This happened many times and I was always afraid that the
heavy piano would have to be left behind. We went through swirling rapids,
and once a felled tree trunk, under water, struck and broke our propeller.
It took twenty-four hours to repair it. No wonder it took us eleven days to
make a trip that should have taken five!
There were good moments too. In the cool of the evening the wide open silent
country was indescribably beautiful. We had an occasional glimpse of moose,
caribou, bear, or coyote and once a great bald eagle soared across the sky.
It gave us a sense of freedom and peace that was almost intoxication.
At noon on the eleventh day, they told us that “Ross” was just around the
bend. From the pilot house, Claude and I viewed it for the first time together.
A few log cabins irregularly dotting a bar along the river bank, skirted at
some distance by a long low bluff—a wide sweep of the river where the Ross
flows into the Pelly—a handful of white men grouped together on a log bench—a
string of shy, curious natives, their immobile faces showing nothing of the
excitement this one event of the year surely must have meant to them—that was
all—excepting the Union Jack which fluttered from a tall pole before a little
log cabin with the letters R.C.M.P. painted above the door.
The business of unloading and sorting the freight was soon accomplished. The
outfit for the trading at Pelly Banks was separated and piled by the river
to be taken by scow later, the seventy-five miles of the upper Pelly waters,
through gorges and canyons impossible for the Thistle.
It was with intense interest that I met the little company assembled there,
knowing they were the only human beings I would see for a very long time to
come. The natives particularly interested me. These childlike people, unspoiled
by white man's influence were very shy at first with the only white woman they
had ever seen.
They called Claude “The Government” (which indeed he was) and later they came
to call me “Government Wife” and sometimes “Gatanya Gaza” which means “little
woman,” the latter probably because I was so very thin. The Indian women are
rather rotund because of the large amount of suet in their diet, perhaps.
Only the children, and a very few of the younger men and women, could speak
very broken English. The women carried their babies on their backs in gorgeously-beaded
baby straps and their moose skin moccasins gaily decorated with coloured braid
and beads were works of art.
After two days the boat left and with it went the only contact with the outside
world we would have until the next June.
I was eager to see everything. My first look at the cabin did not discourage
me in spite of the fact that our dashing young predecessor had papered the
walls with pictures of beautiful young ladies. I could see the infinite possibilities
and visualized bright paint on the walls and shelves, gay chintzes at the windows,
and even a frieze of stenciled blue birds around the living room. Claude had
more practical thoughts of a corrugated tin roof instead of the mudded log
one, and even of building an addition to the cabin to make more room for our
furnishings and books.
Roy had a huge vegetable garden with enough carrots, peas, and lettuce to
feed us all until the frosts came. The long hours of daylight produced wonderful
vegetables in the northern summer and I was pleased to find them in this remote
spot. We had brought seeds and would start them in boxes indoors and hoped
for our own garden next summer.
Several days after our arrival, a timid wrap brought me to the door to find
about a dozen native women and children—my first Ross River callers! They filed
in and the place was filled. I asked them to be seated and they ignored the
chairs and sat on the floor in true “Indian fashion”. I tried to talk to them,
I passed oranges, and I played with the children but got no response. They
sat and smiled and looked. Hours passed. Finally, in desperation, I used the
one Indian word I know. It was magic when I said “Cola”, they got up at once
and still in smiling good humor, filed out. “Cola” means enough.
Their response to the strange miracles we brought was delightful. A jig tune
on the piano set their moccasins in motion until the beads on them fairly twinkled.
When we set up a first aid tent with the medical supplies the Indian department
had given me, they were overcome with curiosity and every native in the lot
soon found some reason to be treated. “Me finger sick,” “Me need pink pills.” The
pink pills were sugar-coated confection to them and very popular because of
the sweet taste.
As soon as the trappers had their outfits packed, they left by boat or on
foot with pack dogs. The tents disappeared one by one and in a week the place
was silent and deserted.
There was so much to do! There was our home to be fixed, and there was all
outdoors to be explored. The trails were a delight with a profusion of wild
flowers and the brush was lively with birds of all descriptions. When we explored
the river with our poling boat, we surprised the wild creatures on the banks.
We hunted only with camera and field glasses. The gun was carried for protection.
The appearance of fresh snow on the mountains and the sharp frosts of early
August sent us hurrying to begin preparations for the long winter. The weak
places in the logs of the house had to be chinked up with moss. Trees were
chopped for firewood, to be hauled in by dog team when the snows came. There
was dog harness to be repaired and freezable supplies to be brought indoors.
Early in October, slush ice formed on the river. The current slowed down and
in a week or so it stopped. The freeze up had come. We were locked in for the
winter! The days were shorter and shorter. The snow had come to stay. The mercury
dropped to below freezing and then to below zero and then there it would remain
for many months to come. The long arctic winter had begun, but instead of locking
us in, it really set us free. We could cross lakes and rivers at will and go
anywhere the dogs would take us, which was everywhere.
The trapping season had begun and we loved to read the tracks in the snow.
We knew them all—the weasel, the moose, the rabbit, and sometimes wolf tracks,
not to be confused with dogs because of the sharpness of the claw marks. The
tracks drove the dogs wild. At the scent of the smallest weasel they would
leave the trail and tear off across country, sometimes upsetting the sled and
ending in a snarl of harness and a terrific fight. All of the dog trips were
not for pleasure. It was Claude's duty to check on the lonely white trappers
in their cabins if there was too long an absence from the post. There are sometimes
terrible tragedies in this country; however, this first year at Ross there
were no major ones.
Christmas meant nothing to the natives but a few of them happened in at the
time and we had a celebration. We brought in a tree by dog team, trimmed it
with beads, painted egg shells and bits of cotton. We had brought a few ornaments
from Dawson and there was enough tinsel to make it glitter. When the first
Indian saw it, he clasped his hands before him and with an indrawn breath said, “Oh---,
all same star!”
During the winter I made huge batches of bread, pies, and cakes and put them
outdoors together with the meat and fish to keep in the world's largest freezer.
In the cold days of January, we stayed indoors and enjoyed our books. Richard,
the canary, was happy and cheerful company for us. Poor Richard—one day when
it was 60 below outside, he lost his little life from too much heat as he hung
in his cage above a wood-burning heater which suddenly rose to red-hot temperatures.
By the end of February we were ready for the required Police patrol to Whitehorse
, the nearest headquarters. It meant three hundred miles by dog team as the
crow flies across wild, uninhabited country and unbroken trails. We decided
that I should go too, as it was more hazardous, probably, for me to stay alone.
What preparations we made—the very lightest load on this trip might be too
heavy. We counted our rations for every single meal, allowing for an extra
two days in case of mishap. After weighing our rations, dog feed, camp equipment
and clothing, gun, snowshoes and repair kit, we found it necessary to still
cut down and decided to leave our tent and camp stove. This meant brush camps
in the snow, cooking by open fires in true Indian style.
It took us fifteen days. Fifteen days of glorious adventure and then seeing
people—white women—tea in a living room instead of outdoors by an open fire
tasting of spruce needles and campfire smoke—and best of all—mail! I was almost
afraid to open it. So much can happen in eight months! I opened the very latest
letters first and then settled down happily to all the rest. World news meant
so much too. I was glad to know who was President of the U.S.A. as it was an
The return trip from Whitehorse was ever so much quicker and easier, for now
we had a trail. When we pulled up to our little cabin door, Claude said, “Who
lives in this nice little house?” Our cabin had really become a home.
The early spring days in April, before the snow begins to go, are the very
best. The bright sun shining on the sparkling whiteness, relieved by exquisite
shadows, transforms the whole world into fairyland. We must remember, however,
to wear dark glasses in this dazzling beauty to protect us from snow blindness.