I grew up in the traditional way in and around Pelly Crossing, learning to hunt, fish and trap from my relatives and Elders. It wasn’t until I was 16 years old, though, in 1963, that I had my first real long hunting trip.

During the summer, I had taken one shorter trip that gave me a taste of what I was in for. I went with Alex Joe, Charlie Joe and Stanley Johnson, and a bunch of dogs, out to Grayling Lakes, about 30 kilometres northwest of Pelly.

We first made a raft in Pelly and floated down the Pelly River to McGinty Island. From there, we struck north on foot, to cover the 15 kilometres to Grayling Lakes, camping one night along the way. We shot two moose there and spent three days cutting up and drying the meat. Grayling Lakes is well-named. There were so many fish surfacing that it looked like it was raining. Once the meat was dry, we packed up and spent about 13 hours walking out, first following the creek towards the river, to a foot trail, and then following the trail and sidehills up the river, across Willow Creek and back to Pelly.

September came and I really did not want to go back to Yukon Hall school. They were so strict there. I heard that Alex Joe, George Joe and Danny Edwards—all young men in their early 20s—were going up the river on a hunting trip. I went to see Alex and asked if I could go. He told me it was OK but that I should ask my mother first. She wasn’t home, so I took that as a yes and packed up to go. I got together all I thought I’d need of the things I had—my 30.06 with 11 shells, two pair of moccasins, a needle and some sinew for repairs, and food for me and three dogs—flour, baking powder, tea, sugar, rolled oats, rice, macaroni, soup mix and dried fish. I packed up the dogs and we were off with my three guides and seven other dogs. The men and dogs were all packing food and gear, which included a small wall tent.

We started out hiking along the south side of the Pelly River and camped across from the high bank near where Roger Alfred’s fish camp is now, about 13K up the river as the crow flies. The weather was sunny and warm during the day and cool at night. On the second day, we continued up the Pelly River to Needlerock Creek, covering about 15 kilometres each day, and spent the second night at a small lake, Godelin Lake, south of the Pelly River. Each night, we’d set up the wall tent and sleep in our bedrolls for warmth, but the weather stayed good.

On the fifth day, we headed north to the river at Winter Crossing, and one of the dogs got lost (along with the gear he was carrying). There was a high cache, at this spot, and we found a can of salt there that we took along on our trip. We built a raft out of some 16- to 18-foot dry trees there that was just good enough to get us across the river. We took the packs off the dogs and they had to swim across.

For the next two days, we hiked up the north side of the Pelly River to a spot a couple of bends below the Tummel River. We decided to have a look at George Fairclough’s old trading post there, so we tied up the dogs, hiked up the river a few kilometres and built ourselves another raft. We floated down to the old trading post and pulled in. Everything was still standing and, although all the store goods were gone, the shelving and cupboards were all still intact. We pushed off again and floated back down to our campsite from the night before, dismantled our raft so we could keep the ropes and spent another night there.

The next day, we started our hike north towards the MacMillan River. This was a rough go because the dogs kept running away, probably chasing moose, and most came back with no packs. Along with the packs went our stash of food, so now we had to start hunting for our livelihoods. For the rest of the trip, all we had to eat was meat and the berries that we found along the way. Alex shot a beaver and we ate that for dinner, on what was then our ninth night out on the trip. The next day, we walked up the MacMillan River, just above Lone Mountain, arriving very hungry, and set up camp. We went hunting that night and shot a moose just before dark at a small lake called Horseshoe Lake. We boiled up the ribs for dinner, for us and the nine remaining dogs, before settling in for the night. Fortunately, we still had our tent and a few blankets, so we were able to stay warm enough, and the weather stayed dry.

We hiked up to the moose kill in the morning and spent the next three days drying the meat. From there, we walked about another 10 kilometres up the MacMillan River to a dry slough above Moose River. We made a raft there and floated down to the old trading post just downriver of the Moose River. It was long since abandoned but all still standing—there was the old trading post, complete with cash register, a high cache, sleeping quarters and about nine other cabins in various states of repair.

Alex found a good length of half-inch cable and packed this onto the raft. We floated back down that night to our campsite where we’d first reached the MacMillan. We strung the cable between two sturdy trees and hung all of our dry meat there, about 15 feet above the ground, to keep it out of reach of bears and other would-be thieves.

We again loaded ourselves onto our raft, in the morning, crossed the MacMillan River and hiked up along its north shore to the Moose River, where we spent our fifteenth night out. We hiked up the Moose River, over the next two days, to a spot about two-thirds of the way to Moose Lake. With our diet of just meat and berries, it seemed like we were hungry all the time. We shot two more moose and settled into our camp for three days to cut up and dry all the meat. Then it was time to start thinking about getting all this meat home.

It took us three trips to pack all the meat, and what was left out of our gear, down to the MacMillan River. The Moose River cut through high banks here, so we had to cut down two trees so that we and the dogs could cross. One of the moose was very large and Danny and George wanted the antlers, so they packed them as well.

We finally got all the meat down to Dry Slough on the MacMillan River. It was the first time I’d even been there and the first time I’d seen trees so big. There were some spruce trees so huge that three men couldn’t reach around them. George was cutting wood later that day and the sound of his cutting attracted another bull moose. George came racing back to camp and right into a bee nest, so he was really hopping around by the time he reached us. We shot that moose, too, and spent the night there.

On Day 21, we hung up all our meat and hiked up the MacMillan River—to a place in a burn where Alex knew we could get some good wood to build a raft, to get us and all our meat and dogs home. He had packed a Swede saw and big spikes and we had our raft of solid 24-foot logs. We shot another moose on a sandbar across the river, finished building our raft and went across the river to skin it out. We then floated back to Dry Slough, with the fresh meat, and spent another night there.

Finally, we were ready to start on our way home. We loaded everything up on our raft and started down the river. We came around a bend and ran into a drift pile. Alex had lots of experience on the river and yelled to turn the raft sideways before we reached it; so, rather than getting sucked under the drift, we went on top of it. We threw the dogs off into the river so they could swim to shore. We were able to cut two of the logs and free the raft, but we broke the supports for our paddle in the process. We drifted slowly down the river and were finally able to pull off in a deep slough where the dogs, running along the shore, caught up with us. We stayed the night there and fixed the paddle supports. During the night, one of my dogs had a litter of pups … so we had some new passengers.

We continued on our way the next day, stopping to pick up the dry meat we’d left hanging from the cable at our first MacMillan River campsite. Hanging from a cable had worked great; the meat hadn’t been touched at all. From there, it took us five more days to get to the Pelly River. The heavily loaded raft would get stuck on gravel bars and we’d have to get it loose, but we made steady progress. We got one more moose along the way, and we loaded that meat on fresh.

When we reached the top of the Needlerock Canyon, we had to stop for the night because the sun was in our eyes and we couldn’t see the water well enough to safely pass through. We were sitting on the bank of the river and heard the sound of a motor coming … it was Bob Curry and Bob Thorpe in a motorboat, the first we’d ever seen on the river. They waved and continued up the river.

The next morning, we passed through the canyon, hitting one rock just under the fast-flowing water, but, again, Alex’s expertise with the raft ensured that we safely passed over it with no damage. We were back in Pelly by the evening.

Our trip had taken us 29 days, during which we walked over 150 kilometres, packed heavy gear, built four rafts, shot six moose and lived only on meat and berries and the gear we carried on our backs. That’s so different from the way people hunt now. Six moose killed in one trip may seem excessive by today’s standards, but this was food for the winter, for several families, and we didn’t depend on grocery stores in those days.

I’ve hunted and guided all my life, and this trip taught me lessons I’ve used every day since then. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers to pass on our traditional ways and get me started right.

David Johnny has been a guide in the Yukon for many years. He lives in Pelly Crossing.

Hunting For Wildlife: Darcy Laliberty