The greatest living history in the North

I was walking through downtown Edmonton, the other day, when an old-timer in curled-up cowboy boots saddled up to me and bummed six bits off of me for a glass of draught. I was so happy to hear that particular vernacular that I almost gave him a hug. I grew up in Inuvik, N.W.T., where commerce was discussed in bucks and bits. I miss hearing that language, so I offered to buy my new-found friend a cold glass myself.

We slid into the nearest watering hole, where he must have been a regular ’cause he slid right into his favourite chair like it was choreographed. I flipped him two bits and nodded towards the jukebox. He paid the piper and, without even looking, punched in B17, “Bartender’s Blues” by the late great George Jones. I ordered my friend a draught, and a coke for myself. The barmaid sounded like she’d just smoked a bale of tobacco when she called me “Sugar.” This is my kinda joint, I said to myself.

I told my friend nothing’s for free and that he’d have to tell me his story. He took a good pull on the cold draught, which must have loosened up his esophagus because he began to ramble. As a writer, I’m always looking for material and I find the best material in people who’ve been through the wringer a time or two. It don’t do me no good to talk to cheechakos, so I steer clear away from them.

Turns out Henry (not his real name—to protect the innocent) got burned out of his trapline up in Anzac, a few years ago, and has never been able to get back on his feet. He sold what gear he had left, and thumbed a ride to the city where the bright lights blindsided him. He figured he’d get work as a skinner for Ken Belcourt Furs, but Ken closed up shop after all them Greenpeace hippies blew out the price of fur. So he roams from here to there looking for something to take the edge off his days. I had my own battle with the liquor, so I had a general sense of the urgency to get something cold down the hatch.

His resume read like a Louis L’Amour novel. He’d wrangled wild horses for Reg Kesler, back in the 60s, the same Kesler that Corb Lund sings about in “Buckin’ Horse Rider.” Then he’d thumbed north and got a job as a deckhand on the tugs, with the Streeper Brothers in Fort Nelson, running up and down the Liard River. He’d also roughnecked on the drilling rigs in the High Arctic. He polished off his beer and he was still in the mid 70s. So, naturally, I ordered him another draught and he me took on a journey from the rodeo shoots of Montana, through the badlands of Alberta and clean up into the Mackenzie River Basin. I sat with Henry a good part of two hours before I had to mosey on. I left him with a ten-spot and wished him well.

You may have noticed from my earlier rambling that I’ve got a penchant for the past. Some people accuse me of avoiding the present because I’m always talking about the “good old days.” But you gotta take into consideration that I grew up when a guy could buy a Pep Chew for a nickel and a can of pop for 15 cents. I also had the great privilege of being apprenticed by some of the greatest storytellers to come out of the North—my father, Victor; and my uncle, Abe Okpik—legendary raconteurs in their own right.

You may also notice I’ve got a hard-on for cheechakos. FYI, a cheechako is a smart-aleck greenhorn. (Ed note: Cheechako in the Yukon now usually refers to a newcomer who has not yet spent a full winter in the territory.) You see them walking around town with five-hundred-dollar boots and perfect nails. They wouldn’t know the business end of an axe if you introduced them. I like hard-working people who can hold their own, especially up here where the cold and isolation can drive a man to drink. Speaking of drinking … I never fault a guy for carrying a mickey of rum. You can thaw out a carburetor with a splash of rum if your carb ever freezes up in the winter. You can also close up a wound on your wheel dog’s paw with cold rum.

I don’t mean to pick on anybody, but it just gets my gullet when a good man gets ignored in this fast world we’re living in. These guys got stories by the boatload; yet people just walk on by, stand on the corner and ignore some of the greatest living history in the North. With so much information flying through the air with the internet, you think a guy would gain a bit of sense from it all. But that ain’t the truth. Cause you gotta live it to tell it. And you gotta tell it to keep it alive, even if it’s just a memory.

From Yukon longjohns to Alberta Dungarees

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