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Travel: The characters of Telegraph Creek

This tiny town has been home to northern pioneers for more than a hundred years

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Claude was somewhere in his 90s when he agreed to rent his house on Sawmill Lake to us for the summer. He was blind in one eye and walked with the aid of a stick but remained as fiercely independent as the day he left California as a young man seeking his fortune in the gold fields of the Klondike. From Alaska he took one of the steamers up the Stikine River to Telegraph Creek, where thousands of other gold-seekers had gathered to prepare for the long overland trek to the Yukon. Claude decided to stay.

He worked the bars of the Stikine River for fine gold, built a tiny log cabin on the shores of Sawmill Lake and, with the aid of a yearly prospector's grant, spent his summers prowling the local mountains in search of minerals - until he had a run-in with the bureaucracy.

He was well into his 70s before someone in government noticed and refused his application for the usual prospector's grant. "I was so mad," he told me. "They said I was too old to go prospecting so I decided to apply for my old age pension." He used the money to buy a bunch of lumber from Gus who ran the local one-man sawmill. He dug a deep well up the hill from his log cabin and built his new house over the top of it. But during the warmth of summer he still prefers to move back into his little cabin down by the lake. He was happy to rent his house to us and I was delighted to have a convenient base for my geological survey.

Sawmill Lake is located on the bench-lands high above the Stikine River where the town of Telegraph Creek includes a general store, a post office, a public health clinic, and a fuel dock beside the river. We based our floatplane and helicopter at the lake and bought our supplies in the town, an arrangement that entailed frequent trips down the two miles of steep switchbacks from the lake to the store. But Claude flatly refused to accept a ride. Once every week he put on his best clothes, shouldered his pack, donned his bright red molded plastic fedora and set off to buy his groceries. Including the time he spent visiting with Lou, who runs the general store, it took him all day, but by God it's the way he did things and he wasn't about to change.

Between his cabin down by the lake and the house we rented from him Claude had planted a large garden and every other day he came up to check his "trap line" and use the pump to water his vegetables - a routine that never ceased to amaze and concern Betty. The "trap line" consisted of multiple mousetraps down in the well and checking it involved lifting the trapdoor in the kitchen and descending a vertical ladder down to the surface of the water. Somehow the old man managed to retrieve the bodies, including those that had bounced off into the water, and reset his traps without falling in. That done he used the pump in the kitchen to draw water for his garden.

Sometimes when he was returning from shopping he dropped into the house and left some change in a jar by the window. "I'm saving for one of these," he told Betty as he opened a well-worn Eaton's catalogue and showed her a picture of a Lazy-Boy chair. "I might want the foot-rest when I get older."

Neither I, nor my crew of student geologists spent much time in base camp. My wife, Betty, and Rosemary, the pilot's wife, kept in touch with our roving fly camps by radio, scheduled our flights and kept us supplied with food and fuel. Because the geologists were seldom around Claude never quite figured out who was who. He referred to Betty as "Mrs. Jack" and Anne, our two-year-old daughter, as "little Jack" but I'm not sure he knew who Jack was. On one of my rare visits to base camp he took me aside and confided in a low conspiratorial voice, "I think Mrs. Jack in expecting. You boys should give her more help." Although I had been aware of Betty's condition for nigh on eight months I thanked Claude for drawing it to my attention. In fact it was touch and go whether the baby would wait 'til we got home or be delivered by Nursie down in the Telegraph Creek clinic.

Nursie the gruff, no-nonsense public health nurse who ruled her one-room clinic with an iron hand and a warm heart provided the town's sole access to medical care. She had probably delivered more babies than most obstetricians and, when the situation demanded she could and did take on the role of surgeon, family doctor, and counselor. There was the time Gus was trimming slabs on his sawmill and an edge backfired across the top of the saw and slammed into his face. His nose is permanently crooked but Nursie fixed him up so he could breathe and go back to work. For longer than most people can remember she has lived alone above the clinic and, except for her annual trip to Reno, she has been on call any time of the day or night. She gives away most of what she earns to needy kids but always puts aside enough for that trip south to Reno. After two glorious weeks in the casinos she comes back broke, tidies up her clinic and goes back to work for another year.

When Nursie is in Reno she leaves the key to the clinic with Gord, the RCMP constable who pinch-hits for her while she's away. I was unlucky enough to get an ear infection during one of those times and went in to see Gord. "I'll give you a shot of penicillin. That'll fix you, he told me confidently. He found a vile of serum in the fridge and rummaged through several cupboards until he came up with a bunch of needles scattered on a glass tray. After testing each one with his thumb he selected a sharp one and told me to bend over. It cured me.

Gord was always ready to deal with emergencies as they came up. There was Lorna's wedding for example. Lorna, a beautiful young native woman who worked for Lou in the general store, was a bit of a procrastinator. She dearly wanted to get married before her baby arrived but kept putting it off until time had just about run out. She appealed to Gord, who took over as justice of the peace, and the whole town came out to her wedding. Nursie delivered her baby the next week.

Gord was as much a social worker as a policeman - the kind of cop who could defuse a tense situation with a bit of humor and a lot of humility. And he knew when to enforce the law and when to look the other way. When people who are living on the verge of poverty have the good fortune to bag a moose you don't prosecute them for hunting out of season.

During the years I worked out of Telegraph Creek many of the old-timers I came to know and call my friends either moved away or were buried in the little cemetery overlooking the town. When Claude didn't show up for his groceries one week Lou knew something was wrong. She turned the store over to Lorna, drove up the hill to Sawmill Lake and opened the door to Claude's house. "He was sitting in his new Lazy-Boy chair," she told me. "He looked as though he was sleeping." But Claude had put his feet up for the last time and Telegraph had lost another of its pioneers. "It's almost as though he planned it this way from the start," said Lou.

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