Note: This episode may offend. I am trying to draw an accurate picture of our Yukon job in 1961which
stood out in sharp contrast to the summer of 1960 in Ireland. My Irish readers will be amused I imagine.
This is a long read…next will be shorter. Of course some of you only look at the
Episode 675 The Great Escape — Part 2 Leaving the Yukon
nov. 4, 2022
Page from my diary and picture of Bill D in front of one of our cabin campsites.
Another campsite…less lusxurious..messy…
There was a thin skim of ice cross the Yukon swampland around Wernecke, a tiny mountain top mine town near Keno City. Hardly a City
Keno may have had a population of 50, likely less, today 20l. In its glory days it accommodated a clutch of hookers
who had arrived to exploit the sexual fantasies of the Wernecke Miners. Their presence only offended Mr Wernecke himself.
The arrival of the girls confirmed the comment I had first
heard at Elliot Lake.
“You can always tell if a mine is going to be successful.”
“If the hookers arrive.”
“No hookers now…Keno is almost a ghost town.”
“They came here when Dawson City lost its stone pockets full of gold dust.
“Yukon Lill and her clutch of similar minded girls”
“One of those girls returns every summer…rents a house in Mayo Landing.
Real nice lady who will lend a few bucks for beer or an O.P. if she likes you.”
Lots of local colour in the Yukon. We were working around Wermekle, now long abandoned. The nearby Elsa mine
was booming. Silver Ore by the ton was being blasted and sacked. The year was
1961 and Dr. Paterson had sent me to the Yukon for s summer of geophysical
exploration. Simply put, Listening to beeps on his rand new Ronka invention….a machine that could
detect conductors beneath the ground….deep down. The 1950’s and 1960’s were heady
years for mining exploration.
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This is Mayo Landing in boom times…a thousand or more sacks of silver ore waiting for the arrival of a steamboat to take the raw ore from Elsa halfway across North America to be refined. You probably did not
see the sacks of ore at first. Mayo Landing was not much of a town even in boom times. That’s Luigis greasy spoon restaurant on raw the left…attached to the Mayo Landing hotel neither of which buildings
are stunning. We spent a lot of time in that hotel as did most of the village .
The grey buidling is the Mayo Landing Hotel…..centre of town…only place to get beer
or a double OP. Or bacon and eggs at Luigi’s tiny restaurant. Spartan living.
This was our Dodge Power Wagon…looks good but that good appearance did not last when one of the boys rolled the truck off a mountain road. Rolled
like a bowling ball ending up vertical and able to claw its way back up to the road which was really a track. Hard to kill a Power Wagon.
I was just a kid really. Twenty one years old. Fresh grad from University of Toronto, History grad
although I kept that fact quiet . “Pretend you are a geologist..or a geophysicist…no one will know”
For almost a decade I spent my summers in the Canadian wilderness. Punching my way through
the immense boreal forest called Canada. Black flies, sow belly, oatmeal raw, gmn rubbers with holes
wet socks and feet boiled and pock marked from the water turned to tepid slop by my own bloodstream.
This was tough work. Doubt many of my friends would want to be Instrument Men. Most quit. The pay was
four hundred dollars a month which included room and board. Room and board! That’s a laugh. Rooms
were tents. Nondescript tents ripped and rotten from being backpacked across the wilderness. Beds were wire
strung pics of canvas that soon collapsed and were no longer. The alternative was pine boughs. Not soft, lumpy
and prickly. Food was bad most of the time. On one job we had to slice off a half inch from
a slab of the sowbelly every morning. Burned it in the fire. Why? Bsude the blow flies lay their eggs in it. Given a short
time and the sowbelly began to move on its own. Wormy. Maggots. Sowbelly? Yes, complete with the sow’s tits.
Smoked sowbelly did not spoil fast as long as kept in a slab. Just the end attracted the blow flies. At least
I liked to think that was true. I suppose a worm or two would not hurt me.
Now That paints a worse possible scenario. The other extreme also occurred. Motels, hotels. prepared meals,
warm beds, Sometimes even luxurious living conditions as on the Irish job in 1960.
That’s the setting for anyone reading this recollection. Why write it? This is November, 2022. My Yukon adventure was
hte summer of 1961. A long time ago. But the memory of my escape from the Yukon is as fresh as the rain water in
a moose track in spongy moss. Swamp? Canada has miles and miles of swamps. Matched by
miles and miles of exposed rock. A lot of land that nobody wants…swamp and rock. Both have their terrors. One summer day
I was parched…saliva as dry as popcorn from slogging across rounded rock intrusions and was overjoyed to find a swamp. Flopped down on
hands and knees and sunk my lips into a patch of that water where a moose had passed by. Closed my eyes. Our bodies are 90% water.
We cannot get along without it. Delicious cool water slaked my thirst. How did I know a moose had passed by before me? I opened my eyes to discover
a moose had taken a shit in the same small pool. Pile of turds the size of shotgun shells.,,beige and grassy in a neat pile of 20 or so.
How did I know that? Because moose left these little piles as evidence of their presence.
God, the Yukon stories are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Take the assayer Gerald Preist who lived in a company
cabin with his wife and two little girls. Lovely family. True. Were it not for the fact Gerald was’ high grading’ (stealing)
tons of galena and hiding it in an abandoned part of the mine. Later he was caught. He hired trucks to haul the stollen
galena … planned to claim he had his own secret mine. He got caught when one of his truckers stopped in Elsa for
a coffee and a nosy mine executive sliced open a sack. All happening while we were there. Unknown to us. (Now a
book written by his daughter titled A ROCK FELL ON THE MOON. Should be a movie.
Gerald Priest on the right…squatting on the doorstep of a typical abandoned Yukon cabin.
Just a sample …The Yukon was more than an adventure. It was an education.
I loved the job. Even when conditions were terrible there was the exultation … the sense of victory over nature.
Victory over the worst human nature could pitch. Survival; Hard to describe this feeling unless personally experienced.
Sadly there was not much for people to do in the Yukon…normal social life absent. What to do on those long winter
nights in the land of the summer midnight sun and winter darkness? Drink booze…alcohol was available not matter what the season.
Acceptance of rampant alcoholism in the Land of the Midnight sun. Acceptance that there was nothing much I could do to mend the broken
lives of those with whom I worked. Joy shared by men who found small joy in a case of beer or larger joy in a glass of over proofed rum.
Overproof rum? The is rum the contains more that 50% alcohol. Some over 60% Common in Yukon in 1960’s and in gold rush days.
Dr. Aho, one of our contractors Dr. Aho’s loved treating newcomers to ‘double OP’s’ in the Mayo Landing bar. A good joke…falling down
drunk on one drink. Just enough to make the world topsy turvy fast. Little wonder that so many half ton trucks were bashed up.
We bought a GMC power wagon that had been rolled more than an eight pin bowling ball. We lost a man one day and had to backtrack down a stream bed
since there was no tracks to our camp other than the rock strewn river. We found him and the GMC Power Wagon stranded mid stream
where he had run out of gas. He was falling down drunk…sleeping it off in the sure knowledge we would find him and there would be
no consequences other than a good story shared by miners in the bar at Mayo Landing. I cannot mention his name because his kin
still live in Mayo. Dr. Aho baptized me with a double OP and I was glad there was a wall to hand on to. One was enough. Well, maybe
two just to prove I was one of the gang. Best to fit in.
No body died on the job. Being drunk was a kind of twisted badge of courage. Like Taking a leak wherever convenient, alcohol was de rigour.
We only had one death on that job. Our pilot’s wife, Yvonne, committed suicide. She had two delightful
little girls who took a shine to me whenever I arrived in Mayo. Her death saddened me when I heard about it. Yvonne did not drink.
She was a wonderful mother…gregarious and warm hearted…French Canadian. I suppose it happened this way. She was
Surrounded in the darkness of the Yukon winter by men and a few
women who were quite content to spend the star studded blackness of the winter months boozing it up using the Northern Lights
as street lamps to their cars and trucks. Or, more likely, living in the Spartan rooms in the Mayo Landing Hotel. Upstairs from the bar.
Tragic. Yvonne’s death puts too much of a shadow on my Yukon days. there were so many good times that summer.
Good times as defined by a 21 year old quasi adolescent male making his way in an
world filled with unusual adults. Like Pete who had memorized the Holy Bible just so he could argue with religious people
who likely had never opened the holy book. Funny guy. Must have been over 60 years old…really too old for bush
work but he had no other choice.
The job ended early that September. Cold and rain…even ice and snow began to blanket the Yukon. No more work to do other
than crate up the equipment and ship it to Toronto by truck in the sure and certain belief it would arrive. Not so sure, really. My company, Hunting
Technical and Exploration Services, expected me to fly home about the same time. I had no plan to do so. I had a planned escape of
my own. So I cashed in my flight ticket then plotted my escape from the Yukon.
Mammoth tooth…this kind was found in Dublin Gulch
Caribou Antleers, wind scoured logs of Yukon Spruce…better than any sculptor could do…done by fire and wind.,
Three Mayo kids playing in an ancient truck. Beside them is the Stewart River. Moses Lord eating his lunch from
a can of peaches gave me the idea of a diet of cold pork and beans.
The things I shipped home by cartage company were a joke in camp. Three wind scoured trees hollowed out after
a forest fire swept through years ago. Pretty to me. And a large set of caribou antlers that a local aboriginal said I could have
if I wanted them. And a large tooth of an ancient hairy mammoth washed outl by an hydraulic hose in Dublin Gulch.
Could have bought some gold nuggets at $35 an ounce but didn’t want to waste my escape money. Gold? I had already sent
Marjorie sprinklings of gold dust stuck on black electrical tape. Gold dust gleaned from abandoned barrels of concentrate panned
in evenings with Bill D. (best to not give his full name, he may be alive … may be a priest or Sunday school teacher and would not
like to be reminded of his past)
Bill D. Let me tell you a bit about him. He was about my age and became a good friend in spite of his misdemeanours. We each had women
in our lives. Marjorie sent me big boxes of home made cookies…
crumbs by the time they reached Mayo Landing post office. And lots of love letters. Bill did not get letters or cookies. For good reason. No love letters.
“She does not even know where I am….and I bet she does not give a sweet goddamn anyway. Can’t say as I blame her.”
This is his story which could be true even though it sounds fabricated. He came from Peterborough, Ontario, arriving in the Yukon in early June, 1961.
About the same time I arrived. Similar? Not at all.
“The night before my wedding, my friends got me really drunk and drove me to Toronto … booked me
on a flight to Edmonton on my wedding day”
“What about your wedding?”
“Don’t know…never checked.”
“Left her at the altar?”
“She’s better off without me.”
The story is a little hard to believe. Perhaps Bill just left the poor girl at the altar…bad enough.
Bill D. and Alan Skeoch doing a little rafting
Was this true? Sounds fictional. Who booked and paid for the flight to Edmonton…then on
to Whitehorse? An expensive and insensitive practical joke. Perhaps exaggerated with
a kernel of truth. Over the summer Bill got into a lot of trouble. He took the drinking culture
seriously and sometimes did not show up for work. That was hard to take but Bill was not
alone; If men were sent to town, i.e Mayo, I was never sure they would get back. But Bill aways came
back. He was a joy to have around. Lots of stories. Outlandish. For instance he got in serious difficulty
with a local Mayo girl.
“It was dark in their house but we still managed to roll around on the floor. Mind you the term
Roll around on the floor is just a figure of speech.”
“I get it.”
“When I woke up the whole family were sleeping in the room…scared the bejabbers out of me.
They must have been there all night while we were rolling around “
“Serious affair, Bill?”
“Not by me but she thought so. Took a knife to me in the truck one night.”
“Hard to believe.”
“True. We had been drinking and for some goddamn reason she hauled out a knife
and tried to cut me up. Too drunk to do any serious damage.”
“What happened after that?”
“I got the hell away … not going back.”
So many Yukon stories, they have bounced around my brain for more than 60 years.
Never will be able to get them out of my head. Never want to.
But this is a story about my escape from the Yukon. Not the Yukon job which is the subject of
other episodes l I made detailed plans of my escape all that summer.
I would not leave the Yukon by air as Huntech and Dr. Paterson expected. When the job was
over I would make my exit slowly. There were places I wanted to see.I had a bit of cash stashed
but most of my escape money would come from cashing in my return air fair. No one would
get upset. The job was over and the money was mine. I figured no one really cared whether
I got back to the Huntech office on a Monday or a Thursday, Job was over.
I would be alone. Travelling alone is not pleasant. Goddamn lonely…and sometimes frightening
when the sun goes down. I do not recommend lonely travel. Sometimes though it is the best
way to meet people. And the fastest way to get to places.
A LITTLE MORE MONEY WAS WELCOME
“Alan, you might need some extra cash. Your escape will cost more than that air ticket.”. said Bob Gilroy, one night in the hotel bar.
“I know that. Figure to save money by not eating much…few cans of cold pork and beans.”
“How will you cook them up?”
“I won’t . Cold cans of pork snd beans have already been cooked. So all I need is a can opener
and a fork. No dishes. No costs.”
‘How would you like to spend a couple of days tagging climate…give you some extra cash.”
“Never staked claims before.”
“No staking involved…just put fresh tags on the old claims….easy.”
“Count me in.”
Tsgging claims was not as easy as it sounds. First it was necessary to find the old claim posts
by blazes barely visible… made years ago.. Not easy to do. And if the blazes were not found then the
claims posts would not be found and I would spend my last two days circling and circling. Lost getting in…worse, lost
getting out. And I was alone.
Our earth is so heavily populated today that most people have never
got lost in a boreal forest. Never had that sinking feeling of being absolutely alone.
A thin layer of ice covered the swampy land. Not enough to hold my weight so that each step the ice shattered like
window glass and the shards marked my pathway in and might help me get back out.
. After three months of trekking back and forth in our surveys my gum
rubbers were worn thin. No longer waterproof so the cold water got sucked into my boots whereupon my bl00d
and friction heated my wet socks ‘… a dirty soup. My feet were boiled every day with the result that they looked
like London after a Hitlerian bomber raid. Pock marked, blanched and pealing. I should never have taken this
extra job. Needed a man with good boots and dry socks. A better man than me.
Then there is the creeping fear when alone in the bush. Hard to tell where you are unless the blazes line up correctly.
The sure and certain presence of bears had to be considered. Hopefully the pebbles in the tin can around my
waiste would alert wild creatures of my my presence. Peter, the Bible reader, shot a grizzly bear near this very swamp… a pointless
act of violence.
Let me conclude this long but of memory with three pictures
1) All our gang of six for seven men took a two day week end holiday and drove in a
half ton ruck to Dawson City….a long haul from Mayo. “Bunch of the boys were hooping
it jus” as RpovertService said . Remember sleeping in a bathtub in a two bit hotel.
We had fun….juvenile fun with new found friends. There of us had to like in
raw back of the truck.
2) Panning for gold dust in the evenings when we discovered several 45 gallon drums
of concentrates abandoned in the bush. Gold pans had to be burned to incinerate any grease.
3) And then there were the flies. Billions of them. Summer along the Stewart River is not
pleasant unless a strong wind blows. I gave lots of blood that summer. Enough for a Red
Cross blood bank.
Enough! See pis below.