In the summer of 1972 Pierre Berton decided to recreate a trip he had taken with his mother, father and sister back in the 1930s and take his family rafting from Bennett Lake to Dawson City. Some of them had earlier hiked the Chilkoot Pass, so this was an obvious next step. They filmed some of the trip with an 8 mm camera, and I can recall seeing some of the footage spread over several episodes of the Pierre Berton Show on television.
Seeing those clips inspired Berton’s publisher, Jack McClelland, to prod Berton to write a book, to be called Drifting Home. Some reviewers would later carp that Berton, who had shown signs of being willing to write about nearly anything, had succumbed to the urge to tell the world about his summer vacation, but it was more than that.
He wrote it in two weeks in a white heat of creation, producing a marked up manuscript that only he could actually read, on an old manual typewriter. I have one letter from him, filled with strikeovers and handwritten additions, so I can testify as to how hamfisted a two–finger typist he was.
This book became a trip down three memory lanes and, much to his surprise (as recorded in his later memoir, My Times: Living with History, 1947-1995) became one of his most popular books.
There are three threads to this short volume. He tells the story of the 13 days of their trip, and each chapter is a day of that journey. But each chapter triggers memories of two other time lines. One is of the journey his father, Frank, took to the gold fields in 1898, and on through his life to its very end. The other is Pierre’s memory of growing up in the Klondike as a youngster, and of returning to work in the corporate gold fields when he was putting himself through university in the 1930s.
It is, I think, his most personal book. The two volumes of his memoirs contain more details, but seem to me to have less heart in them. The Drifting Home experience is covered in just five pages of My Times, which tends to be more of an “and then I wrote … or produced … or created” kind of narrative.
As part of this year’s Authors on Eighth event, which I wrote about here during last summer, we read an hour’s worth of Drifting Home out loud while sitting outside the Berton House one fine evening just before Discovery Days.
That prompted me to re-read the rest of it, so I took it with me in Kindle format and devoured most of it on the Air North flight from Yellowknife to Ottawa a week later.
It was even better than I recalled it, and I’ve always had a fond memory of that first reading.
I recalled the book as having a photo insert and, sure enough, my 1976 hardcover edition does have a selection of 24 colour and black and white pictures. They didn’t make it into my signed paperback copy of the book, nor did they appear in the e-book edition.
In the last chapter, one of the kids says, “I’d sure like to come back here, maybe work a couple of years.” Berton doesn’t say just which one, but I’d like to think it was Peggy-Anne, whose LinkedIn profile identifies her as a “Rock’n’Roll Raconteur, Filmmaker, Artist.” She spent a couple of years here in the 1990s.
Pierre Berton’s book Drifting Home: A Family’s Voyage of Discovery Down the Wild Yukon River is available through the Yukon Public Libraries.