The reopening of the refurbished Caribou Hotel in Carcross this summer brought the names of two Yukon legends back to mind, Johnnie Johns and Polly the Parrot, both of whom frequently entertained in the Caribou.
Your humble correspondent never had the pleasure of meeting the foul-mouthed bird, but spent many hours in Whitehorse listening to Johnnie Johns’ tell stories in Cal Miller’s Capital Hotel in the 70s and early 80s. While I chose not to believe his yarn about killing a charging grizzly with a .22 by shooting it through the eye socket, I did believe his epic story about becoming trapped inside a dead moose and nearly freezing to death. I consider it his best tale, certainly my favourite. In a nutshell (for reasons of editorial space), here is the story Johns told to a table of cheechakos in the early 70s. Cal was also in the audience but had already heard it many times.
He said his cow moose call was so sexy, it could make the bulls stampede.
He was tracking a young bull moose he had attracted with his famous moose call imitating a cow in heat, which he said was “so sexy I could make the bulls stampede.” It was late autumn, near Halloween, but had been mild so he was tracking the bull in a light jacket and failed to notice the dropping temperature and departing daylight just as he made his killing heart shot and quickly gutted the foolish moose. With no cabins nearby for shelter, he decided to camp inside the ribcage of the nice, warm moose and do the butchering in the morning in the daylight. As he slept comfortably, the thermometer continued to plunge and, by daylight, the moose was hard-frozen solid and he was trapped inside.
This is where the tale got interesting as Johns assumed a sad look on his face while he was contemplating his predicament and hoping a pack of wolves or a bear would come by soon to chew him out of there. His captive audience, including your narrator, were silent as Johns continued in his soft-spoken voice, which we’ll paraphrase now as no notes were taken that fateful day.
“Now a man tends to get reflective about his life while he’s waiting to freeze to death inside a moose,” Johns lamented. “I found myself thinking about all the times in my life I had spoken harshly to someone who didn’t deserve it, the wrongs I had done to people who were guilty of no offense other than loving me, the things I would do differently if I had another chance to live my life over.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah said the Beatles: Obviously you didn’t die, old man, so how the hell did you get out of there?
“Slow down, youngster. Don’t rush me. I’m coming to that part. So I’ll tell you now. After half a day of lying in there thinking about all the rotten and mean things I had done in my long life, I felt so small, I stood up, brushed myself off and walked right out that moose’s asshole.”
His standard reply when people asked him where he was born was “under a spruce tree.” He is justifiably famous and revered for many things other than his hunting and guiding skills, including trailblazing the route of the Alaska Highway on horseback in 1942-43 from Teslin to Carcross. For that he was paid $26 a day and $2 a day for each of his eight horses. His hunters in the 50s, 60s and 70s came from all over the world and paid him $100 a day. At one time, his clients held the world records for Dall Sheep, moose and caribou. He also bought and owned the Caribou Hotel for a while because he spent all his time there anyway and didn’t want it to close down. He was never out of money between the ages of 19 and 90, or so they say.
And he was also never out of Yukon stories to tell.
This one is just a personal favourite because it still cracks me up 50 years after I first heard it. It’s a good campfire yarn during hunting season.
Keep your powder dry.