When I was 21 years old, I worked as a guide for an outfitter up the Stewart River. It was my fourth year of guiding, having started with Louie Brown when I was 18. The year was 1968.
In early July, it was time to trail out the horses for the start of the hunting season in August. Gary Sam, Stanley Simon, Alec Johnny, and I were guides, and we trailed about 16 horses out the road from Mayo to Mayo Lake with the outfitter, one dog, and with some help from his girlfriend and her daughters as far as the lake.
We were headed for our hunting area along the upper Stewart River east of Mount Ortell, a distance of over 160 km. Once we left Mayo Lake, there were no clear trails. We navigated by landmarks and followed more open areas and game trails through the trees where the travelling was best. As we travelled along, we’d always look back along the trail so that we’d remember how it looked when it came time for the return trip. The weather was good and we ran into no rain on the trail in.
The first stage of the trip of the trip, from Mayo Lake to Lansing, took us 3-4 days. We followed along the north shore of Mayo Lake, up Keystone Creek and Pass, and then east along Granite and Roop creeks to Tiny Island Lake. The only trouble we had along the way was that one of the horses got stuck in the mud in a small lake near where we were camped. We had to pull it out with another horse. Our dog, a German shepherd, also developed cut-up paws and had difficulty walking. So we cut a hole in one of the horse’s pack panels and loaded the dog aboard for the trip. Travel along the north shore of Tiny Island Lake was rather precarious because of the lake’s steep drop-off. From there, the terrain flattened out more and we continued east to Penape Lake, where we spent the night, and then on to Lansing.
We rode the horses across the wide Stewart River just upriver of Lansing. This was a safe place to cross but the water was still deep enough that the horses were swimming in places, and their hooves bounced along the river bottom at other spots. We stayed at Lansing Post among the old trapping cabins for an extra day to dry out the horse blankets.
The last leg of the trip, from Lansing to our hunting camp, took us three days. We followed along the north bank of the Lansing River all the way up to its headwaters in the Teslin Range. We set up our hunting camp at a small lake east of the Teslin Range and Mount Ortell.
Starting at the beginning of August, we spent the next six weeks guiding hunts around the area. A cook was flown in and the hunters would fly in, two to four at a time, for two week hunts. We hunted sheep in the Teslin Range and moose in the valleys, and we moved back and forth between our camp on the lake to one on the upper Stewart River. During the hunting season we’d also see a few caribou in the mountains as we hunted. One day that I remember well was when, while hunting along the Stewart River, Gary suddenly jumped off his horse and ran into the bush, leaving us wondering what the heck he was doing. Soon came the cry of “I got it,” and gary emerged triumphantly holding a goose. We ate well that night!
The hunting season ended in the middle of September The outfitter and cook flew out, leaving us four guides to trail out the horses. We packed up and trailed down the north bank of the Lansing River towards Lansing Post. Two of the horses carried our food and personal gear. Along the way, several of the horses got lost and Stanley and Alec had to go back along the trail to find them. We never did find one of them. We got to Lansing Post and stayed there for several nights, probably too long. We started getting a bit short on food, so we found some old traps and set them for beaver. We caught one and ate it the very first night.
We left Lansing Post and crossed back over the Stewart River. From there we intended to retrace our steps from July and head to Penape Lake and then on to Tiny Island and Mayo lakes. However, we somehow got turned around before we reached Penape Lake and travelled too far north. We camped for the night and I woke up with a wet back in the morning, having unintentionally slept in a small hollow. Alec climbed a tree to see if he could spot Penape Lake but he couldn’t see anything. Based on what he saw, he thought we should keep heading north but I didn’t think this was right and eventually we found Penape Lake and spent the night there.
The next day, we continued on towards Tiny Island Lake, but the going wasn’t easy. The horses, Alberta-bred and not used to the Yukon bush life, were weak and we started losing them. We also didn’t have enough food with us and our supplies of flour, sugar and tea ran out after Tiny Island Lake. By the time we got to the Roop Lakes just east of Mayo Lake, we started running into snow and as we got into the mountains, it was knee deep. We travelled on the frozen Roop Lakes to find easier walking but by then we were down to only two horses with us, both Yukon horses.
Travel though the mountains north of Mayo Lake, the final leg of our trip, was very tough. The snow was deep, we had nothing to eat and we only had rain gear and shoe packs rather than proper winter gear. We dug out snow with a frying pan to make our camp, doubled up sleeping to keep warm, and had to put on frozen boots in the morning. In the daytime we just kept walking to try to get through it. At one point, Gary told everyone that if he fell over, he just wanted them to shoot him.
We made it through though. By the time we started hiking down Keystone Creek, the snow had disappeared. We ate cranberries and i shot the head off a spruce grouse with my 30-30. We boiled the grouse in our teapot and ate it and drank the broth. It had been two days since we’d eaten, so our stomachs hurt with the new food. We got to the west end of Mayo Lake and, even though there were 5-6 bags of oats that had been left there, the horses decided they’d had enough and headed on down the road towards Mayo.
We walked down to a cabin where we met Cliff from Stewart Crossing. The outfitter then came by and was full of smiles to see us safe. He had thought that we must have gotten lost further to the north and they had been looking for us with a helicopter from Elsa. Alec and I went back to pack everything up and we went back to Mayo for a big dinner at the Silver Inn. We got paid the next day and that was the end of a very memorable hunting season.
Note: This story is written in memory of David Johnny’s hunting companion Gary Sam from Carmacks, who passed away November 10, 2016. May he rest in peace. Some names were changed or omitted from this story.