Jack Fraser remembers when it used to take 10 hours to get from Dawson to Whitehorse. The rough gravel road was only half to two thirds as wide as it is now.
When you met the trucks from Elsa and Keno Hill, the dust clouds they churned up obscured everything. Now, with better alignment and better grade, you can make the trip in five and a half hours.
The shorter trip on better roads is due, in part, to Jack Fraser.
Fraser arrived in the Yukon almost 60 years ago, when he was still in high school. For two summers he worked in Whitehorse. The first summer he helped build a large sewer installation at the top of Two Mile Hill.
In 1952, the year he finished high school, the Canadian Army flew him in from Edmonton. That summer he wasn’t as lucky: he was put on the cement team, putting in curbs and sidewalks. But he did get some training, helping a surveyor.
Fraser was a “rod and chain man” – he’d hold the rod for the surveyor’s levels. The “chain” was the surveyor’s term for measuring tape. Early measures were calculated in chain links.
As a result of this job he found his calling. Leaving the Yukon in 1954, Fraser took a one-year course at Calgary Tech (now the University of Calgary). In 1956, he was hired by the Engineering Department of the Yukon government. With only one year of training and some on-the-job experience, he was sent to Dawson City to survey in 1958 … that’s 50 years ago. It was his first survey job on his own. Fraser admits he was “pretty green”.
“It was different then and it was acceptable to make mistakes. There was lots of work that had to be done.”
His assignment, to survey a road through the Klondike dredge tailings, was his first survey job on his own. The budget was so limited that they engineered a road that jumped from one tailing pile to another.
“We’d flatten out a pile, build a road on it. Parts of the highway were obsolete as soon as it was built. But if you put the road in the right spot, all the money spent on it is well spent.”
In those days, there were no aerial photographs. So they’d start with a cut line around a hill to see what they were going to run into: a canyon, a pup or a creek. A “pup” is a baby creek that runs into a larger creek.
Fraser remembers the little crew eating lunch on Flat Creek Hill overlooking the Tintina Trench. They commented on the good view and mused, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get a good grade here.” The route they suggested met the standards for curve and grade and the highway was put through that very spot.
He smiles as he remembers years later seeing an ice cream vendor at the spot they ate lunch, selling ice cream to tourists.
Fraser is proud that the road was chip sealed without having to be realigned. The grade was good for years to come. But when he sees how fast people speed along it, he has some regret about building the highway too good.
By 1975, Fraser had worked himself out of a job on highways in the area. So he and his family started gold mining. It’s an industry that requires considerable mechanical ability, and Fraser admits that’s not a strength of his. So he picked partners who were.
Mining was hard work, but it had an exciting outcome. “In the autumn, your work comes down to heavy stuff in a jar or two or three on the table. Figures on a piece of paper. And those numbers enable you to do this and this and this.” He made a good living from mining for many years.
Fraser is also a trapper. And he’s a curler, a golfer, a very successful gardener and a writer. He has six grandchildren.
“You’ve got to pull your own weight. Break even but not be a detriment to the community,” he says.
PHOTO: LULU KEATING