"Gaby's Cabin" by Stark Daley.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
ARE YOU TRYING TO
by Gabriela Sgaga
In the winter of 1999, I was asked to house-sit the Boivin family’s cabin on the Stewart River. They lived completely off the grid on a trap line 18 miles from the nearest, isolated road, along with 30 sled dogs. The only way in was by river on a snowmobile, with a dog team, or on skis. As it was my first winter in the Yukon, I thought it would be a learning experience to live in the wilderness so far from civilization, so I agreed to watch their place for a week while the whole family went north to hunt.
Towards the evening on the appointed day, Roch Boivin, a self-proclaimed, crazy French Canadian, picked me up in Dawson and we drove 1½ hours on the Klondike Highway to where he had parked his snowmobile. Attached to the snowmobile was a komatik (a large wooden container on skis) loaded with supplies. Along with Roch and myself, three kids were coming with us; Roch’s 12 year old son sat on the snowmobile with Roch, a couple of girl friends of Roch’s 15 year old daughter sat in the komatik, and I stood on the back runners and rode it like a sled.
We started along the 1½-mile trail to the river at a fairly high speed. At one point, we hit a bump and the crossbar that I was leaning on collapsed; I fell face first into the komatik. Roch stopped long enough for me to climb in with the girls before continuing on at the same breakneck speed.
We finally reached the end of the trail and made our way down onto the frozen river. Two minutes later, we crashed through. Luckily, it was only overflow, but it was fairly deep – two feet of it between the upper and lower layer of ice.
Roch yelled at us to get out and push. After a brief moment of hesitation, the girls and I jumped into the freezing cold water, while the boy stayed on the snowmobile, and we started to push as Roch gunned the engine. There is very little traction when you're trying to push on ice; other than getting everything below the knees wet, we were not able to budge the snowmobile or the komatik.
After a few more futile attempts, we climbed out onto more solid ice while Roch kept trying. As it was now night and the temperature had dropped below -20°C, frostbite was fast becoming a danger. While we waited, I told the girls to keep moving around so that their feet wouldn’t freeze in their water-soaked boots.
Ten minutes later, Roch told all of us to walk back to the land trail, warm up, and wait for him there. The kids and I slid along thin, cracking ice until we got to the trail. I decided we needed a fire, although I still hadn’t had a lot of experience starting one. As I was the only one with a headlamp, collecting branches and twigs in the dark was difficult, but we managed to gather enough to give it a try.
After several attempts, I handed the few matches left to the Yukon born, bush-savvy 12-year-old, who had it going in seconds – so much for the adult being in charge! We took off our socks and boots, which was not easy with frozen shoelaces, and started toasting our feet back to health.
We had barely got started when I could hear the roar of the snowmobile – it was coming closer! Suddenly, Roch came veering onto the trail, narrowly missing my hands (I was leaning back to allow my feet better access to the fire). He was whooping with success, telling us that he had strapped a couple of traps to his feet for traction – after that, it was easy!
We put our still-wet socks and boots back on and followed him to the snowmobile. Just as we reached it, Roch’s 15-year-old daughter showed up with her 10-sled-dog team and whisked away the two girls. The boy got back on the snowmobile and I got into the komatik and sat on the load of supplies. Off we went at break-neck speed down the trail to the river. Branches were whipping by as I tried to hang on and stay calm. Speed is something I’m not very comfortable with, but I kept reassuring myself over and over that Roch had lived in the bush for years and knew what he was doing.
Once on the river again, Roch picked up even more speed. At one point, we slowed down to take a sharp curve, but it wasn’t slow enough. The komatik whipped around and flipped over onto its side. I was jettisoned out and managed to tuck myself into a tight ball, rolling just out of reach of the komatik as it came screeching by. Phew, a close call! It was at that time that I started to question whether Roch really knew what he was doing and whether I was going to survive this trip. Eventually, Roch came to a halt, we lifted the komatik back into an upright position, I climbed in, and we continued on.
Half an hour later, Roch stopped, unhooked the komatik and continued on a bit farther to check for more overflow. While I sat there alone in the dark and the cold, surrounded by nature and silence, I felt that my feet were dangerously cold. I decided to take my boots and socks off, wrap my bare feet in a sheepskin vest I had found in the komatik, stick them in a box, and cover my lap with a tarp. What a weird experience, I thought, sitting here in bare feet in the dark in the middle of an isolated river. This would definitely be a story to tell – provided I survived!
Several minutes passed before Roch came back, hooked me up and off we went again. I was beginning to realize that Roch didn’t know the meaning of the word slow. Once again, we were skimming along pretty fast, the snow spray of the snowmobile hitting me in the face. As I had not been in the Yukon long, I wasn’t yet equipped with the proper outdoor gear. My parka was a thin one and there was no fur around my hood to protect my face. I tried to hunker down as low as I could, holding my hood around my face to avoid the painful pricking of the snow. It didn’t work very well and cold hands were now added to the list of discomforts. I resigned myself to enduring as best I could and kept hoping that the journey was almost over.
After what felt like an eternity, the snowmobile once again stopped. Roch sauntered back to where I sat with my knees to my chest, bare feet in a box and parka hood stretched over my face.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
My pride would not allow him to see me suffering, so I said in the most cheerful tone I could muster, “Sure, everything’s great … by the way, are you trying to kill me?”
He laughed and offered me the highest compliment a crazy, French-Canadian bushman can give … “You’re tough!” and off we went.
Finally, through squinty eyes and frosty eyelashes, I saw a light through the trees at the top of a hill. We were finally there and I had somehow managed to survive! Roch parked at the bottom of the hill, grabbed some supplies and started walking up the trail to the house. I couldn’t find my socks (Roch told me the next morning that he had found my socks frozen to the side of the komatik and had to use a tool to pry them off), so I stuck my numb, bare feet into my freezing-cold boots and stumbled as best I could up the hill, my feet feeling like frozen stumps.
I was incredibly happy once I reached the top and saw a two-storey log cabin blazing with light and warmth. Kathy, Roch’s wife, hug ged me as I stag gered in, sent a pointed look and a few words towards Roch’s retreating back as he went down for more supplies, and sat me down by the fire. Oh, heaven! An hour later, thawed out and full of wonderful moose stew, I finally inspected my toes – all 10 had survived!
Gabriela Sgaga lives off the grid in her West Dawson cabin with her sled dogs. She enjoys mushing, skijoring, and writing about everyday life in the Yukon.