A long, hard road
Courtesy David Johnny/Yukon News
Special to the News
Gary Sam, of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, worked as a mechanic, coal miner, outfitter and forester, and served on the Carmacks Renewable Resources Council. Gary died Nov. 10, 2016. His friend David Johnny remembers this story of a particularly tough hunting trip.
When I was 21 years old, I worked as a guide for an outfitter up the Stewart River. The year was 1968. It was my fourth year of guiding, having started with Louie Brown when I was 18.
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 the guides and we trailed 15 or 16 horses out the road from Mayo to Mayo Lake. With us was the outfitter and one dog. The outfitter’s girlfriend and her daughters were with us 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 kilometres. Beyond Mayo Lake there were no cleared 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 look back along the trail so we’d remember how it looked when it came time for the return trip. The weather was good.
The first stage of the trip, from Mayo Lake to Lansing, took us more than three days. We followed the north shore of Mayo Lake, went up Keystone Creek and Pass, then east along Granite and Roop creeks to Tiny Island Lake.
There wasn’t much trouble along the way. One of our horses got stuck in the mud while trying to eat a plant and we had to pull it out with another horse. Our dog, a German shepherd, had acquired some cuts on its 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 precarious because of the lake’s steep drop-off. But the terrain soon flattened out more and we continued east to Penape Lake, where we spent the night, before reaching Lansing.
We rode the horses across the wide Stewart River just north of Lansing. This was a safe place to cross but the water was deep enough that the horses were swimming in places, and their hooves bounced across 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 three days. We followed the north bank of the Lansing River all the way to its headwaters in the Tasin Range. We set up our camp at a small lake east of the Tasin 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 hunters would fly in, two to four at a time, for two-week hunts. We hunted sheep in the Tasin 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, 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. “I got it!” Gary then cried, emerging triumphantly with 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 toward 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 those horses.
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 up 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 path from July and head to Penape Lake and then on to Tiny Island and Mayo lakes. But 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, 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. 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 toward Tiny Island Lake but the going wasn’t easy. The horses, Alberta-bred and not used to Yukon bush life, were weak and we started losing them. We also began running out of food: our supplies of flour, sugar and tea ran out after Tiny Island Lake.
By the time we got to Roop Lakes, just east of Mayo Lake, we started running into snow and as we got into the mountains, it was knee-deep. The Roop Lakes were frozen, so we walked on them. By then we were down to two Yukon-bred horses.
Travel through the mountains north of Mayo Lake 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. During the day we just kept walking to try to get through it. At one point, Gary told everyone that if he fell over, he just wanted us 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 five or six bags of oats that had been cached there, the horses decided they’d had enough and headed on down the road back to Mayo.
We walked down to a cabin where we met Cliff from Stewart Crossing. The outfitter then came by and he was full of smiles to see us back safe. He thought we must have gotten lost further north and had been looking for us with a helicopter from Elsa. Alec and I packed 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 memorable hunting season.
David Johnny worked as a guide in the Yukon for 23 years and was the project manager at the Fort Selkirk Historic Site. He lives in Pelly Crossing.