It was the Christmas season in 2005 in Whitehorse and my two great-grandsons, Dakota and his younger brother Garrison, were visiting us during their Vancouver school break. Because my late partner, John, and I had a trip planned to travel down the Alaska Highway in the New Year, the boys didn’t have to take the plane back to Vancouver. We had a really good visit with them and of course, the days flew by quickly.
We didn’t leave as early as we should have, a couple of days into the New Year, but it was alright because John and I could share the driving. It was a beautiful sunny day as we left Whitehorse going south on the Alaska Highway.
Jake’s Corner, the next pit stop, is about half-way to Teslin. When we got closer to this stop, I told the boys that I would show them the “mountain elephants” my brother Joe had pointed out to me about 10 years earlier. Of course, they were curious. So I told them I would stop at a pullout near the spot to show them where they could see these elephants. However, I told them that they would have to really look for them on the mountains but also that once they saw one, the rest were easy to find.
Elephant heads, trunks, and backs are etched in the face of the mountains at this junction. Sometimes you see them from the front of their bodies and they look like they are charging at you, and other times, you can see the back of their heads going another way or one side of their bodies. I suggested they keep looking because the elephant images always change, too. I also told them to let their imagination run free as they look for more elephants — it never fails me.
After supper in Teslin we proceeded to Watson Lake where we made another pit stop. It was quite dark outside when I took over the driving. I prefer driving in the dark, late at night, because I can see much better, including in the ditches, by the highway.
All along the highway, John regaled us with stories. Sometimes these would be about how he started working, at a young age and then, how he had the opportunity to work on oil rigs overseas (he was always emphasizing the importance of employment to any young person). We heard stories about the many countries he either visited or worked in. He didn’t tell the boys about the couple of countries he got kicked out of though.
And, I won’t say…
Whatever sparked John’s memory reminded him of a story about his Alaska Highway truck driving days. He would then tell a story about the particular event that happened during his many trips trucking on this highway. He would also tell us what we could see around almost every turn, what lake, river, or creek would be coming up, and about what settlements we would be at next. He also knew where we would see certain animals along the highway.
As I was driving when we left Watson Lake, I asked John not to forget to remind me (as if he would) when and where we would be in buffalo country. He said, “Watch for their eyes, you’ll see them first.”
So he continued his stories, which he never ran out of material for. I was watching the road and ditches for any animals, but especially for the buffalo. The boys were asleep now and I was John’s captive audience. All of a sudden, I saw, what seemed like hundreds of small lights and said “John, what are those, fireflies?"
In the middle of a story, he replied, “No, those are buffalo eyes.”
I laughed as I slowed right down. There they were, those buffalo eyes.
He laughed at me thinking these were fireflies.
Winnifred Peterson wrote this story in memory of John Cletheroe.