Tall tales and blue of the great outdoors
HELLO, friend. My name’s Jon. That’s J-o-n.’’ Now, call me mistrustful but when a man hoists himself on to the next bar stool and seems inclined to instant conversation, my suspicions are aroused.
I am at the Snake Pit Bar of the Westminster Hotel in Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon. Dawson City sits right alongside the Yukon River at the heart of the Klondike region, the site of the richest gold strike, and most evenings the Snake Pit draws a fair representation of what passes for society in present-day Dawson City.
There’s a piano along one wall, sometimes played by Barnacle Bob, but furnishings are sparse. Most items that can be thrown are bolted down. Something that strikes me about Jon is that he appears to have a full set of teeth. In the context of the Snake Pit, this is unusual.
I am told that a full set of choppers is likely to stand a man in good stead with the women of Dawson City but I have yet to put this to the test. Teeth aside, Jon has just had what you may call a run of bad luck.
Recently retired as a corrections officer in the US state of Pennsylvania, he decided to try his luck as a goldminer, so he bought 21 mining leases for $US18,000 ($18,700) on the South Fork of the Fortymile River just out of Chicken, across the border in Alaska. He planned to spend the summer up there with his partner, who has a gold dredge.
So he piled his camping gear into the back of his truck, hitched up his boat and drove across Canada and up into Alaska. The only way to reach his leases is along the South Fork, but when he got there the water was too low for his boat. Also, some of his mining leases were in dispute, claimed by a fellow who went by the name of Mad Wayne. He set up camp hoping for rain to lift the level, but after a week that hadn’t happened. He decided to walk to his claim, got about a half day in, snagged his foot on a tree root and gashed his leg so he had to come back.
Jon’s spirits were at a low ebb by this time so he decided to head for Anchorage, where he planned to sell the boat. He was just out of Chicken when he waved at a vehicle passing the other way, went off the road and on to the soft shoulder, buried the nose in the gravel and bogged the truck.
He got a tow from another driver, but that must have done some damage because when he started again the driveshaft dropped off. He took it off and was waiting for someone headed for Tok, but no cars came. It was getting late in the day and a lonesome roadside in grizzly country is not where you want to be at sundown. Finally another traveller came along headed the other way who took him to Dawson City.
The plan was to get the driveshaft fixed, sell the boat, go home and start making artists’ easels out of red oak, which he would sell on eBay. In the meantime, he was short of cash. Could I shout him for the beer?
And, say, would I possibly be interested in buying a Colt .45? ‘‘ Real nice gun, never fired in anger. Here, take a look.’’ But I have a date waiting at Bombay Peggy’s bar and a gun in my pocket is the last thing I need.