“I was born under a tree (on September 6, 1920), way up the MacMillan River, at Russell Creek,” J.J. Van Bibber told the Klondike Sun back in 2009.
“Whenever a baby was ready to be born, mom (Eliza) just holed up for a week, and then put us on her back, and just keep going.”
That said, it is fitting that the book about J.J.’s life, which was released to the public at the Klondike Placer Miners’ annual BBQ & Dance in Dawson City on Friday, August 17, is called I Was Born Under a Spruce Tree.
The book is J.J.’s story, told in his voice, and compiled by a young anthropology student from Alberta, Niall Fink, who spent many hours with J.J. as he recounted his memories.
It also features a cover and illustrations by his grandson, Shane Van Bibber.
It is a first-person account of J.J.’s life, from his youth at Mica Creek near Pelly Crossing; his numerous adventures and many vocations; his courtship and marriage to his life-long love, Clara; and, of course, the treasured time spent with family—Clara, his many brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren.
The writing and layout of the book were nearly complete when J.J. passed away on January 10. The introduction, (written by his niece Shannon Van Bibber), along with two chapters from the book, were read at the reception that followed his funeral.
J.J. was known as a prolific photographer, having become a shutterbug at the age of 13 with a Jiffy Kodak 616 camera that he bought at a shop in Dawson City.
He donated a vast store of photographs to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in 2003, and 2005 saw some of them mounted as the summer display in the Gathering Room at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre. That display is now part of a binder that is available for viewing at the centre.
The book is illustrated from these images accumulated over several decades, recalling an era when sternwheelers still plied the rivers and dog sleds were essential to supporting a hunting and trapping lifestyle.
While he lived the latter part of his life in Dawson, J.J. grew up in Pelly Crossing and also lived in Mayo and Whitehorse during his long life of 91 years.
His wife of 62 years, Clara, was a Dawson girl and was how he ended up spending his last couple of decades here. He was a registered member of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.
The Van Bibber family did live on the land in his early days and J.J. spent many years trapping with his brothers. It was nothing for them to walk to Fort McPherson and back.
Besides trapping, J.J. had a store in the MacMillan area, ran heavy equipment, hauled trailers into mining camps, and took up placer mining in a serious way in the 1960s, when he was in his 40s.
J.J.’s interest in preserving and passing on his life’s story as well as showing his personal collection of photos to the world, began to grow after Clara’s death in 2004. Over the next eight years he became known as a storyteller at the cultural centre.
Dawson filmmaker Lulu Keating worked with J.J. to produce a seven-minute film, JJ Van Bibber: Tell the Children. This film, intended as a teaser to help raise interest in making a larger documentary project, was shown at the reception and has been aired at the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.
Shortly after J.J.’s death the family began an effort to raise the money necessary to produce 1,000 copies of his book.
Shannon Van Bibber explained the project in the April 2012 edition of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department Update newsletter.
“Grandpa J.J.’s book is close to becoming a reality. But for this book to come to life, we need to raise $30,000 for layout, design, editing, printing, and distributing …
“It’s an amazing book that Grandpa J.J. worked very hard in producing, and he is very proud of it. It has many of his beautiful photos, wonderful stories and pictures drawn by grandson Shane Van Bibber.”
$5,000 came in quite quickly from family and friends, and another $5,000 from Kaminak Gold Corp., but the family wanted to finish the job as soon as possible.
“We had to borrow to get it done or else it would have been a long time coming,” said Shannon last week.
“One of the things that Grandpa really wanted was to have this book, even if he wasn’t here, so that Uncle Pat and Uncle Alex could enjoy it, and his family, while they’re still here, ’cause they’re pretty old.
“After seeing it together like this it’s a wonderful gift that Grandpa has given to his children and his grandchildren.
“The stories are just as great as the photos and when you read the book you just feel like you’re sitting with him in his house, having tea, and he’s telling you a story. Niall Fink has done a wonderful job in capturing his voice in the stories.”