Monday, March 27, 2017

Alaska Highway history you may not have heard

In 1964, from June through September I worked on the Penalty Ranch across the Peace River from Fort St. John. I went back a few times in subsequent years. The man who owned the ranch, René Dhenin had come to the country from Southern Alberta in the 1920s and was a packer, guide, freighter, horse trainer and cattlemen in the area well into the 1990s.
This year, 2017, is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of construction of the Alaska Highway. Although he had already been a guide for several years René was not involved in the initial trail blazing and the following rhyme explains why.
The concept of a land route from the “lower 48” states to Alaska had been around for several years. There where three routes in strong contention. Where the Mackenzie Highway is today was one choice, from Peace River town up through Hay River in the North West Territories then west through the Yukon. A much better idea was where the Alcan actually is, from Dawson Creek, BC, north-west through the Yukon. A third choice that was favored by many in the US Army was where the Hazelton – Cassiar – Watson Lake Highway is now.
Thus, in 1942, confusion abounds.
René’s story bellow is a part of that history.
As I’ve mentioned before, the CD with the songs from local artists acknowledging and celebrating the 75th anniversary can be found at many businesses and art galleries along the Alaska Highway or take a look at

 Near Muncho Lake

 Minnaker River Valley - Mile 178 on Alaska Highway
Hiking Mountain Ranges, René Dhenin’s Yarn

He told me of a walk he made back in forty one
With a day pack, rifle, knife and hand gun

He received a wire at Fort St. John, it said “Services required”
It specified the date then added, “All equipment, horses supplied.”

“From US Army Engineers” he said, “I’d worked for them a lot,
With my horses and guiding them over hill and ‘round the bogs.

So I put my horses out to graze, stored all tack and gear,
And hitched a ride, me and a pal, early spring that year.

Rode the caboose from Dawson Creek, then Pullman car to Cowtown.
Partied there with folks we knew then railroad again coastal bound.

It took four boats along the coast, each one getting smaller
Then we walked a couple of miles, the Telegraph Trail to follow.

At Telegraph Creek there’s another message, addressed directly to me
And after days and weeks of travel, one I sure didn’t want to see.

Once again from the US Army, my services no longer required.
I’m off in the Coastal Mountains and before I’m hired I’m fired.

My pal says he’s off to the sea, without my work, no work to be found.
He’ll get a ride on some coastal scow and he’s for Vancouver town.

But I make my living with horses and tack, and it’s to the east not west
So we say our goodbyes, off he goes, and I head for a high mountain pass.

I’d walked a week or so, low on grub and getting gaunt,
When some mountain caribou appear; more meat than I really want.

I took a fat cow and did her up, skinning, stripping and eating my fill
Packed some fresh wrapped in hide, but smoked jerky for most of the kill

Crossed many a creek and skirted muskeg, rivers as well, one or two
But coming down in the Omineca, there was the Finley a river I knew.

So I made a raft tied with bark, planning to float down to the Peace
But white water broke up the raft, lost it and most of my meat.

Back when I shot the caribou I’d made the hock skin into slippers.
On stretchers they floated and I found ‘em but lost my boots in the river.

Had my rifle slung on my shoulder, pistol and knife on my belt
So except for my boots and the meat, came out of it all pretty well.

Another day to dry myself and another week of walking
I’m not far from Hudson’s Hope and the supply boat’s docking.

So I caught a ride down river to home where all my equipment sat
So you see I missed the start of building the Alcan, but maybe best at that.