The wild beauty of the Yukon is the décor of our daily lives. But when famous types make a special trip to the Yukon, it’s a reminder that this is a special place. We will soon have a Kennedy in our midst, and it’ll be the second visit from the Kennedy family in nearly 50 years.
This month Robert Kennedy Jr. will be here rafting with his family.
An environmental lawyer and co-founder of the non-profit conservation group Waterkeepers Alliance, Robert Jr. will also give a talk.
On Aug. 7 he’ll present “Our Environmental Destiny” at the Yukon Arts Centre.
He is arriving 48 years after his father made headlines for his trip to the Yukon.
Robert Sr. arrived in 1965 on a mission to ascend Mount Kennedy.
The Canadian government named the peak in Kluane National Park after John F. Kennedy, following his assassination in 1963. At that time no one had reached the summit, and Robert Sr. wanted to be the first.
Robert Sr. was a regular senator, unskilled in the ways of mountaineering. However, flanked by veterans of Mount Everest climbs, Robert Sr. made it to the top, and aerial photos of the summit are the proof.
An article in the April 5, 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated calls the expedition “the biggest story in Yukon Territory since the cremation of Sam McGee.”
Whitehorse resident Monty Alford and Champagne resident Alex Van Bibber were there for it. Well, not at the summit, but on the mountain. They were guides for the media groups documenting the climb.
The National Film Board called Alford and asked him to lead their party, and Whitehorse Star owner Bob Erlam asked Van Bibber to support the newspaper team: the Star, Edmonton journal and Time Magazine.
Van Bibber, 97, recounts the story from the Happy Café in Whitehorse on an afternoon in July, before heading over to Monty Alford’s 90th birthday party.
At the time, Van Bibber was 49 years old, and had been taking people into the Yukon wilderness on big game hunts for more than 15 years. Erlam must have figured they’d be safe in his hands.
“My job was to look after the newspaper people in case weather set in and they were all there for any length of time,” says Van Bibber, who is of Southern Tutchone and Dutch descent.
And if bad weather did blow in?
“I’d put them on rations,” he says. “There’s no way of getting food up there. There are no animals of any kind. Not even birds.”
Van Bibber figures it might have been too big of a job to keep them alive.
“I’d keep them from freezing, anyway,” he says.
The weather was reasonable to start with, although there was a biting wind and plenty of snow.
“The airplane landed on snow,” Van Bibber says. “We had to dig down into the crusted snow a couple of feet to set up our tent.”
Van Bibber stayed at the base camp with the newspaper crew, while the Kennedy party headed up and down the mountain.
He recounts that on Day 1 the Kennedy party spent the night at the base camp with them. On Day 2 they spent the night half way up the mountain. On Day 3 the Kennedy party summitted, then returned to the base camp, arriving after dark.
When they arrived, Van Bibber had 10 gallons of water ready for them.
“I had all day to melt snow,” he says. “There was nothing else to do.
“But they appreciated it when they came back down, all sweaty. They had a good wash.”
Then they got word that a storm was blowing in.
The next morning an aircraft whisked everyone to Whitehorse.
After a tour of the town, Robert Sr. and his entourage were ready to fly home.
“When the party was leaving Whitehorse I was there to see them off and I gave Bobby Kennedy a gold sheep horn bolo tie as a gift,” he says.
Just three years later, Robert Kennedy Sr. was assassinated.
Now Robert Jr. is visiting Kluane National Park, a place that his father had a pretty good view of.
The trip will be run by local outfitter Neil Hartling and Nahanni River Adventures and Canadian River Expeditions.
Robert Jr.’s environmental presentation flows from the vision of Waterkeepers Alliance, which aims for “fishable, swimmable and drinkable waterways worldwide.”
They are in alliance with community groups patrolling 207 waterways in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.
“Our Environmental Destiny” takes place at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse on Wednesday, August 7 at 8 pm.