The following is from Jim Christy’s 1980 classic, Rough Road to the North, recently reissued Feral House.
What is the lure of this great land, this ultimate Northwest, Ultima Thule? Something other than the sum of its natural wonder and the drama of its history. There is no other place on earth like it, not even remotely, and if you have spent considerable time here, as have I, it keeps tugging at you when you are gone. It offers, as few other places do, the promise of flat-out old-fashioned adventure. It is inhabited by a kind of people who just do not exist anywhere else. Furthermore, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. It has had its bards but never the epic poet it deserves because before its grandeur and its ferocity one can only be overwhelmed, humbled, silenced. You can live there even now and be a true pioneer, but that will not be true for very much longer—and it is this knowledge too that draws one back, for over this land hangs a vague but palpable melancholy. And through it all winds one road, a lifeline, an achievement of heroic proportions that opened up unlimited potential, brought the world to a few thousand people and revealed a land that since time immemorial had existed in its grandeur and its permanence. The road brought the world, the road brought riches, and the road inevitably cannot but fail to bring the end to a way of life we will never see again.
I have made numerous trips up this Alaska Highway, known also as the Alcan, formerly called the “Road to Tokyo.” I have even labored on the road, maintaining it around Whitehorse in the Yukon. So I have lived and worked up here and truly know it well, yet when I am away and begin to think of the land it stirs in me a wanderlust that some might describe—and some do!—as youthful or naïve, but I am a youth no longer. Naïve, yes, in the sense of a wonder one cannot help but feel in the presence of nature. In the sense of the road and its myriad possibilities. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose,” as Whitman wrote.
I just get to thinking about it. About the cabin I used to have, alone, the only person on Fox Lake in the Yukon and of the lake trout and grayling that were almost too easy to catch. I think of Jesse Starnes, the old prospector in the Peace country. I picture everyone coming in from the bus to spend their dough on a Second Avenue Fairbanks Saturday night. And I think of that Far North road just snaking through the tall trees and bending around the vast cold lakes. And I know I will have to pack up and take off, have to find some excuse to get there; it may be tomorrow or two months from the first time the feeling hits me but I will get there even though it may, and usually does, wreak havoc with any schedule I’ve set for myself, any projects that have to be completed; even though it might be against good sense, it is unavoidable. The call of the wild.
So I leave Dawson Creek once again to travel up the Alcan, the bus nudging through streets laden with a record snowfall. After a mile of sprawl, neon drive-ins, auto-parts stores, new motels, we are in the bush, flat wooded land, the trees bare and their branches black and skeletal against the white fields.
Thirty-two miles along we cross the five-span cantilever bridge over the Peace and there again is the refinery and the pipeline that runs down to Oregon. Purple smoke puffs into the milky gray sky. I laugh to think of my journal notation of years ago. The one about the “indomitable will” it must take to live here on this desolate plain. I laugh because I had not yet met Jesse Starnes.
Jesse’s knowledge of the outdoors is pragmatic because for eight decades he has had to exist and earn a living from nature.
Jesse lives over there off the road in one of those trailers and he possesses exactly that sort of will. He is in his mid-80s, but to him decades are meaningless notations, for he has the energy of active men a third of his age. His interests are boundless, his horizons limitless. He gets up every day full of enthusiasm and with a thousand things that must be done. There is his trapping, his gold-panning, his lapidary concerns, his study of astronomy; he has to tune his pick-up truck and take some geologists out in the bush and, hopefully, he can arrange an hour in the evening to read the old books about the pioneers. Mackenzie, Pond, and the greatest of all, David Thompson.
Jesse is their direct descendant. The lineage from the voyageurs and explorers traces smoothly to his trailer door. He came to Taylor when it was just a trading post on the Peace.
He was born in Texas and spent his earliest days there and in Oklahoma, which was then still Indian Territory. When he was still a boy his folks moved to a farm in Saskatchewan, but working a patch of prairie earth wasn’t for Jesse. He took off for the West at the age of 14, just drifting. Stopping now and again to work as a logger, camp cook, or on the river boats. The work was just an excuse to allow him to wander around in the wilderness he so loved. He came to the Peace when he was 17 and has been there ever since.
He built a cabin and set out a trapline, beginning in earnest to accumulate his vast store of knowledge of the natural world. Nearly 70 years later Jesse still says he learns something new every day. Walking through the bush with him one realizes that he reads the landscape the way other people read books. He seems constantly aware of the nuances of his surroundings, simultaneously noting the sunlight glinting off the poplar leaves, the smell of wild flowers, the wind rippling the river, the currents shifting, the myriad sounds of the forest.
I remember hiking in to the river with him one time. We had to cross a wheat field and he talked about that particular type of wheat and worried about the year’s crop. We found a deer trail and he pointed out a raccoon spoor. We scared a covey of grouse from their resting place in the bottomland alder trees, and that inspired Jesse to tell me his favorite way of cooking them, which is to cover them with mud, unplucked of course, and bake them at the edge of a fire. When they are done the mud and the feathers come off like a shell, leaving the meat tender and succulent.
Jesse bent down to pick some rose hips and nibbled at the leaves surrounding the center and allowed as how he liked tea made from the flower. “If a man’s desperate he can make him some tea out of spruce needles. It doesn’t taste too wonderful but it’s full of vitamins and it’ll save your life. If those cheechakos’d known that during the Gold Rush they wouldn’t have gotten scurvy. Grouse and rose hip tea has made me many a tasty meal. But, hell, a man don’t have to go so far as spruce needles to survive. Believe it or not, them nettles over there make good eating if you dip them in boiling water. Anything that grows by water is generally good for eating. Like the lichen grows on rocks. Rock tripe I call it. Fish you can catch with your bare hands next to shore against the rocks. Good place to get them barehanded is by a beaver dam. Just muddy the water with your feet. The mud blinds the fish and you can reach down and grab them with your hands.”
There is never a hint of the lecturer with Jesse; he doesn’t come on like the self-appointed proprietor of the wild places. No, he is simply talking about what he loves and if he imparts information it is done incidentally.
The trail dipped through a thicket and we came to a five-foot-wide puddle which he jumped without a break in his stride or a quickening of his breath. He never missed a beat and kept on talking.
We came out onto a sandbar of the river and Jesse looked for the best place to do a little gold-panning and while he was making up his mind he casually mentioned he had just come back from Berlin, Germany, where he gave a gold-panning exhibit.
“Yeah, and I have to go all the way to Atlanta, Georgia, next week to give another one. When people started getting interested in gold again I reckon they got the idea of going and doing some panning. Somehow folks heard about me and started writing me letters to come and teach ’em. Particularly in Europe. So I got me a new career now that I’m pushing 90.”
We went back in the house and sat by the wood stove and he told stories of the bush, tales of wild animals and survival.
Ninety, I repeat to myself. The word seems incongruous indeed. He bends down to examine the gravel. He’s timeless as the river.
“I’ve always done a little panning whenever I had some spare time in the bush.”
He still has the slightest trace of a Texas accent. His eyes are so heavily lidded he seems to be catching a quick nap while filling the pan. His hairline has crept back halfway on his scalp and patches of white and gray make wings on either side of his head and his nose is gently beaked so that he reminds me of a hawk.
“Never made much money at panning till the Depression. Furs weren’t bringing in any money so me and a partner prospected for four or five years. Then it was back to being just a hobby until these last few years. Now I go to them exhibits and to contests they have. It brings me in enough money I can spend the summers traveling. I load up the camper and me and the wife head off to Alaska or Mexico. I do some panning wherever I go.”
Jesse squatted at the edge of the sandbar, the blunt toes of his scuffed boots in the water. He shook the pan, tossing off the heavy rocks. A fish jumped in the middle of the river upstream and we looked toward it, a silver flash cracking the gray surface of the water. Jesse said, “I been trapping all along this river and I love it. It’s the only river through the Rockies, you know. It got the name Peace because it’s where the Beaver and Knistineaux Indians settled their disagreements. Indian name is Unchaga.
“I’ve always gone out in the bush with Indians. There’s not many full-breed ones left. Never had any trouble with them, with getting along with them, but a lot of folks think they know all about Indians and know what’s best for them. These people think they’re experts ’cause they call them Native People.”
I remember the line from the newspaper obituary on Bella Yahey, whom Starnes had known well, and I repeated it to him.
“Now isn’t that ignorant,” Jesse exclaimed, shaking his head. “Indians have very strong traditions and whites can’t understand this because they think the only history and culture worth anything is their own.”
We panned for an hour and came up with about 20 flakes of gold, which Jesse put in a half-filled medicine vial. Then we gathered up the pans and shovels and started back. As we were approaching the trail he bent down and picked up a couple of green and violet stones which I was about to walk upon. “Amethyst. I need them for some jewelry I’m making. I have a building out back of the trailer that I converted to a lapidary workshop.”
We returned to Taylor and spent another hour in this workshop among the grinding, cutting, and polishing machines and display cases of stones and fossils. He had collected fossilized dinosaur teeth, insects, birds, and two halves of a dinosaur egg with the embryo clearly visible. He operates a mail-order lapidary business and maintains a voluminous correspondence with lapidaries as well as archaeologists all around the world. “Yeah, and I write to these fellows at the Museum of Natural History in Ottawa. Every once in a while some lapidary from Belgium or an archaeologist from Montana will knock on my door and we might have exchanged letters a few years back or he heard of me from somebody else, and we’ll wind up going out in the bush for a few days.”
We went back in the house and sat by the wood stove and he told stories of the bush, tales of wild animals and survival. Jesse’s knowledge of the outdoors is pragmatic because for eight decades he has had to exist and earn a living from nature. Yet he is still filled with awe at the wilderness and maintains not superstitions, but rather an intuitive empathy with its mystery.
“One time I was at my camp and this female grizzly came into the clearing. She was hungry and started coming closer. I shot her. I was starting to skin her when I heard a crashing in the bush and her mate appeared and he was angry as hell. Now you can believe I was scared. He was only about 40 yards away. I fired at point-blank range and I missed him. Now I don’t miss. I fired again and missed again. He made a move and I started running. You better believe it. Then he stopped and went over to the dead bear and bent over her. Now I had as easy a target as could be and I fired. I missed and he didn’t even pay me no mind. That grizzly started making the most amazing and scary noises I ever heard. He was crying, ’s what he was doing. Sounded like a whimpering little baby. Now I figured that bear was gonna put two and two together and come after me, so I got my canoe and went out to the middle of the river. After a few hours he got up to leave and I took another shot at him ’cause I figured he might decide to come back. I missed again. After he’d gone I tested the sights on my rifle, checked it another time for good measure. Everything was lined up perfect. I set some targets a hundred yards off and hit them dead on. I can’t explain it ’cept to say I just wasn’t meant to kill that poor grieving grizzly.”
Evening wore on and we sat there, him mostly talking and me mostly listening. He told his stories and discussed his plans, plans that would carry him through at least the next ten years. Eighty-five years old and in love with the world around him.
I got up to leave around midnight and he invited me back to go out in the woods for a week or so. As I was going out the door he said, “Say, thanks for coming to visit me. It’s what keeps me young.”
Somehow I thought it was more than visits that keep him young and this time passing through Taylor I had to laugh, like I say, because Jesse would never think it took any special kind of will to live where he does, but that was exactly what he has, all right. That indomitable will.
From Rough Road to the North: A Vagabond on the Great Northern Highway by Jim Christy. Reprinted with the permission of Feral House. Copyright © 2019 by Jim Christy.