I met Jim Robb when he came to Whitehorse in the late fifties. Our first encounter was at the end of a shovel. We were both labourers with the Canadian army, moving dirt piles from point A to point B in Camp Takhini.
Neither of us knew why. It was a summertime job for me while I was going to school, and an introduction for Jim to a Yukon make-work project.
He was a quiet guy. At least I can’t remember any lasting conversations. Our focus was on moving dirt. He showed no hint of his later brilliance for capturing Yukon scenes and characters. Our paths rarely crossed after that. To me, he became this strange guy who carried art supplies and a camera under his arm as he strolled the back alleys of Yukon communities. Who knew why!
Years later, we all knew why. He had captured the Yukon as it had never been seen before. His work took time to catch on. Great art and artistic interpretations usually do. Picasso’s strange faces and lopsided caricatures were not an instant hit around the world.
Neither were Jim’s scenes of Wigwam’s table dance, or shacks at Moccasin Flats, that seemed to tilt far more than science would allow. Mining camps no one had seen for years became grist for the ceaseless pen and ink sketches of Jim Robb. Faces of characters long since gone took on new life and meaning.
For whatever reason, and no one knows the reason for the acceptance of artistic endeavour, Jim’s work came into vogue. Pretty soon everyone wanted a Jim Robb. Everyone ! Today, the entire Yukon looks like a Jim Robb sketch.
Our conversations today are more focused than they were in the fifties. The last time I saw him, he greeted me with the observation that I must now be older than all the rocks on Grey Mountain.
My comeback was that he had been in the Yukon longer than the Tintina Trench. He drew a sketch of me. I looked like Mr. Magoo. He said it was an accurate portrait. I drew a sketch of him. He looked like a hobo. An accurate portrait, I said.
He showed me his collection of Yukon artifacts - things that long since would have ended up in some dirt pile had he not picked them up. Jim’s persistence in sketching and collecting and picture-taking finally paid off when Canada recognized his immense contributions by awarding him the nation’s highest honour, the Order of Canada.
I’ll bet that when the Governor General fastened the pin on his suit, he must have recalled those days with a shovel on a Takhini dirt pile and recognized that the Yukon really does hold out the promise that with persistence and dedication, a person can be what they want to be.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.
It's hard to imagine a life filled with more adventure than that of Percy De Wolfe. Like many young men from eastern Canada, when he heard about the Klondike Gold Rush he and his partner, Peter Anderson, headed for the Klondike.
They arrived in Dawson City in June, 1898, but, as it was for other late comers, the pair could not find any ground worth staking.
Both had done some fishing on the east coast, and decided to try their luck with a fishing business on the Yukon River. With a net bought on credit, they set up camp ten miles down the river from Dawson and brought back the first fresh salmon to the booming town.
The fishing business in the summer time was good. In the winter, the pair did freighting to the Fortymile mining camp. During this time, they built the 16-mile Road House and Halfway House on the Yukon river.
In 1920, De Wolfe and Anderson ended their partnership and Percy got a contract to carry the mail from Dawson to Eagle, Alaska. It was the beginnning of a remarkable career, at times risking his life to get the mail through.
On one trip, his horses broke through the river ice. Percy was able to throw the twenty bags of mail off the sleigh before the three horses and sleigh went under the ice.
In 1935, Percy De Wolfe received a silver medal from King George, in recognition of his public service.
Percy De Wolfe carried the mail between Dawson-Fortymile and Eagle, Alaska, from 1910 to 1949, when they finally ended the mail contract to Eagle. His last contract was to Fortymile.
The post office at Fortymile was closed in 1951. Percy De Wolfe died in St. Mary's hospital in February, 1951, after several months of illness. He had carried the mail for forty years in all kinds of weather and conditions, travelling more than 100,000 miles by dog team.
In 1976, to commemorate the contributions of Percy De Wolfe, the KVA sponsored the Percy De Wolfe Memorial Mail Dog Sled Race.
Still going strong, the route follows the Yukon River trail, from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, and returns on the same trail to finish.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin