Klondike Sun ~ May 6, 2009
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The Good Old Days according to JJ Van Bibber
On family, mining and freighting:
Story by Josée Bohomme, as told by JJ Van Bibber
The Van Bibber family is legendary in the strength and diversity of Ira and Eliza Van Bibber’s brave resourcefulness. It takes a big map of the central and north-eastern Yukon to follow the family’s progress from Fort Selkirk to the South Nahanni, to Pelly Banks and through the Mayo region, from Dawson to Fort McPherson.
When asked how his parents could cover such vast distances, JJ tells us “they went by dog packing, they walked. I was born under a tree (on September 6, 1920), way up the MacMillan River, at Russell Creek. Whenever a baby was ready to be born, mom (Eliza) just holed up for a week, and then put us on her back, and just keep going.”
An article in Alaska Magazine by Lorna Walmsley of the 1960’s describes Eliza further: “Less than five feet tall, Eliza could stand beneath her husband’s outstretched arm without touching it. Ira always called her “Short”, a nickname still used by her many friends, who agree that in stamina, courage and patience, she is a giant. It would take a remarkable person to walk in the petite prints of her wandering moccasins!”
Eliza was of the Crow clan of the Tlingit nation, a granddaughter of Chief Conone of the Taku Tlingits of the Juneau area. Her mother, one of five wives taken by Chief Jackson, was threatened by another wife and escaped with others headed to the Yukon River. The Champagne area was where baby Eliza came into the world around 1880, and she would meet Ira at Fort Selkirk in the early 1900’s, where she had retreated to avoid an arranged marriage at Champagne.
She was raised in the traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of her mother and step-father, travelling the land in search of fishing areas, trapping lands and good hunting grounds. The survival skills required to manage life in the Yukon’s harsh climate would prepare her for an epic of a life with Ira.
Ira and Eliza would have 16 babies in all, in a long and productive life where the backcountry was favoured for raising their children, rather than the city lights. They continued a life of hunting, fishing and trapping, with some prospecting thrown in for good measure. Ira became a respected big game outfitter and guide. A mountain was named after him in 2000, south of Ethel Lake.
JJ’s adventures as a young man went something like this: “We put on snowshoes here and walked to McPherson. That was all in a day’s work. That was called travelling light.”
By the time JJ got to his forties, it was time to do some serious mining. He started placer mining in the 60’s on Bear Creek, a tributary of the McQuesten River, because the oldtimers had worked there and he thought he would follow their lead. They had left some infrastructure behind such as a flume, and a great big dike, to be able to mine the creek, and JJ was able to use a return box to recycle his water.
“The sluicing water and slurry would come barrelling down, and the water was directed through openings at the bottom of the box back to a settling pond and reservoir. The slurry goes over the box, the water underneath, into the pond, and you can re-use the water.
“The inspectors couldn’t believe it,” he says with glee and excitement. “They had never seen anything like that. The creek had no water you see, so it was a way to bring water to it, and save it without the rocks and gravels, they just floated right on by. The water used for (ground) sluicing was diverted to a pond and re-used again, and was clean. Clear water would come in from the small creek and would dilute the wash water.
“When the reservoir was empty, you knew because an automatic gate would come down and shut with a loud BANG! The system would just refill by itself, and the gate would re-open for sluicing once the reservoir was full again.”
The gate was designed in such a way that it would flip open or closed based on 1/3-2/3 proportions, where the longer segment was the top part. As the water pressure eased or built up on either segment, that would cause the gate to flip. JJ says, “it was simple, but it worked.”
One of JJ’s adventures takes us to the Wind River Road in the 1970’s. In a panic to beat the spring thaw, the Van Bibbers won a contract with Tintina Silver to haul some camp trailers and fuel 150 miles northeast of Keno for an exploration project into Rusty Mountain, past Kathleen Lakes.
“My son Steve did all the paperwork on that job, and my brother Archie was the only cat operator who could back up a fuel sled under a 40- foot ATCO trailer, load and secure everything, and then walk it down the trail… we bid $86,000 and we did well because we had no breakdowns or mishaps, we knew what we were doing.
“We went through areas with no trees, like clearings in the forest, whenever we could. It saved work. We had two D-8’s and one brand new D-6. We had special sleds made to haul fuel barrels 24 feet long, with spacers four inches wide so the loads wouldn’t shift. The sleds were designed by Bill Scott and my brother Archie for Mobil, when they went up to Eagle Plains to look for oil and gas in the 60’s. We bought two of eight sleds left behind in Dawson with some chains to tie down loads from them for $1,000 each. The remaining ones were scattered about around Dawson, but never used again. We got two to take to Rusty Mountain”
When asked how they did it, JJ says, “we hauled one caboose trailer, it was a combination cook shack and bunkhouse with two bunk beds. We never stopped, just kept going. You had to go 24 hours a day. We were trying to beat the spring melt.
The 40-foot trailers were mounted on the fuel sleds using the heavy equipment. We used “steady bars” to support the 24-foot overhanging section of the trailer. We hauled five trailers in, and only broke one window. We were careful not to get into trouble.”
Reg Van Bibber, JJ’s grandson, tells of his first gold panning lessons: “Everybody was too busy mining, but grandma had time to spend with us, and teach us little ones about gold mining. She knew to dig to bedrock to find gold, and that you didn’t find it in river banks on the edges of the rivers. That there is no gold in the mud on the shore. Maybe if you went to the bottom or the middle of the river, you might find gold. I learned to pan for gold at Bear Creek, and it was grandma (Clara) who taught me.”
JJ met Clara in a happy and fateful meeting at Little 12-Mile Creek on the way up to Seela Pass on one of his jaunts through the countryside. She was washing salmon in the creek, and this would be one time he would allow a distraction that would last 61 years. JJ and Clara had four children and now grandchildren, and great-grandchildren…
Today JJ shares his rich lessons in life as a professional storyteller and heritage consultant with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. We are thankful for the opportunity to share this account with our readers. At 88 years of age, he says, “I started taking pictures when I was 13, and I still keep taking them at 88.” Mahsi cho and gunescheez for the graphic memories, JJ.
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