Tough travellers on the Wind River
“After a day of cold rain, this campfire alongside the Wind River casts a welcome circle of warmth. While we huddle around the flames, Neil Colin roasts strips of dried duck, part of his stash of country food from home. Neil is a Tetl’it Gwich’in elder from Fort McPherson, NWT, a small community perched on the banks of the Peel River, surrounded by the stunted spruce and wetlands of the Peel plateau.
Those lowlands seem a world away from the rugged country through which we travel now. Across the river, the imposing profile of Royal Mountain occasionally breaks through the mist, dominating the ranks of mountains lining the river. All his life Neil has heard stories of this landmark and the traditional homeland surrounding it. It is where his ancestors once hunted caribou in the mountain valleys and stalked snowy white Dall sheep among the limestone peaks.
Goldrushers named Royal Mountain. They struggled up this route on their way to the Klondike, and some spent a winter further downstream in a bleak encampment dubbed Wind City. The Gwich’in helped them survive. They also guided the Royal Northwest Mounted Police on winter patrols by dog team through this country. The Tetl’it Gwich’in live more settled lives now, but ties to the land are still strong, as Neil makes clear while carving off chunks of roasted duck:
“You live in Fort McPherson and it’s nothing there. Only RCMP, missionary. The only place you live good is up in the hills. Everybody made dried fish all summer, shoot ducks, shoot geese. We used to go way up to Timber Creek to get caribou; pack all of our meat with dogs down to the boat and back home! It’s the only way you live good. Out there on the land is where you live good.” – as told by Sarah Locke, 2008
The bishop who ate his boots
One of the North’s most renowned missionaries, Bishop Isaac Stringer, was almost at death’s door when he stumbled into a Gwich’in camp on the Peel River at the end of a 51-day ordeal. In September, 1909, he and a companion had started up the Rat River with two native guides, headed for the Yukon River and Dawson City. They let their guides go once they crossed the mountains, but ended up abandoning their canoe on the Bell River as it froze early that year.
They tried to return to Fort McPherson, but lost their way in the mountains, ran out of ammunition, and were reduced to boiling the soles of the Bishop’s sealskin boots for sustenance. When they finally found help, they were close to the spot where the bodies of the Lost Patrol were found just over a year later.
In 1910, Sergeant Francis J. Fitzgerald of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police was selected to lead the annual winter dogsled patrol between Fort McPherson and Dawson. It was the first and last time that the patrols, which usually started in Dawson, were run in this direction.
Fitzgerald had travelled the 760-kilometre route once, but in the opposite direction and over a slightly different route. His four-member patrol set out from Fort McPherson on December 21, 1910, with a minimum of supplies. Fitzgerald made his second mistake on New Year’s Day, when he dismissed a Gwich’in man who had guided them for five days over the long overland section of the route. Fitzgerald was relying on another patrol member to find the route.
They struggled back towards Fort McPherson, eating their dogs as they went, and encountering severe weather; in Fort McPherson thermometers recorded temperatures as low as -60 Celsius. Still Fitzgerald clung to faint hope:
February 3: Men and dogs very thin and weak and cannot travel far. We have traveled about 200 miles on dog meat, and have still about 100 miles to go, but I think we will make it all right, but will have only three or four dogs left.
He made his last entry two days later. When the patrol did not arrive in Dawson, Corporal W.D. Dempster was sent to find them. He found the first two bodies 35 kilometres from Fort McPherson; both were emaciated, one had committed suicide. Fitzgerald and Carter made it another 10 kilometres before dying. The patrol members never learned that they had been selected to attend the coronation of George V in London the following year.
The Mad Trapper
Albert Johnson arrived in Fort McPherson in 1931, purchased a boat-load of supplies, and then headed for the Rat River where he built a small fortified cabin. After a Gwich’in complaint that he had been interfering with traps, the RCMP went to investigate, and the Mad Trapper of Rat River began to earn his name.
When two officers arrived at his cabin, Johnson refused to talk, so they returned with reinforcements and a search warrant. Johnson shot and wounded one of the four men. Even when the police returned with a larger group, they were unable to flush Johnson out of his cabin; finally they blew it up with dynamite. Johnson survived, and held them off for another day from a tunnel underneath his demolished cabin.
When the authorities retreated again to regroup, Johnson escaped, triggering one of the longest man hunts in RCMP history. The police pursued him by dog team for 48 days, crossing the Richardson Mountains in blizzards with temperatures dropping to -40 C. When they cornered him in a canyon, Johnson shot and killed an officer before climbing a cliff at night to escape again.
“The Arctic Circle War,” as it was known, had people across the continent glued to their radios. To catch Johnson, the RCMP enlisted the aid of famed pilot “Wop” May to track down the killer and resupply the pursuers. This was a first for the RCMP, as was their use of two-way radios in the field. They caught up with the fugitive along the Eagle River, where Johnson wounded another officer before he was shot to death.
Excerpts from Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, 2008.