Some say Alex VanBibber is the toughest trapper in the whole Yukon. At nearly 80 years of age, he's been trapping here since he was a kid. Now, he's doing his bit to fend off the anti-trapping groups by teaching Yukoners how to use more humane trapping methods. And after being a member of the Yukon Fish and Game Association for 50 years (he signed up in 1946), VanBibber has won the Clay Pugh Memorial Award for sportsman of the year.
"For the past 16 years, people have called for the betterment of trapping," says the stalky, fit resident of Champagne. "The industry had been getting pressure from the animal-rights groups, so the government formed the Fur Institute of Canada and chipped in money to use for more humane traps, quick-killing traps. "It was just to get the anti-trapping people off our backs but you can tell the difference with the quality of the fur now. "The hides are cared for better and the animals are taken more humanely." Yukon trappers must also now check their traps within five days of setting them. In other parts of Canada, it's two or three days.
VanBibber's family originally came from the United States. His father arrived in Skagway from West Virginia in 1898, when the Klondike Gold Rush was in full swing. He worked as a packer on the White Pass and was there when the great slide of April, 1898, killed dozens of people. When he finally reached Dawson City, he found there wasn't enough gold to go around. "He took off into the bush with his brother, who eventually went to Nome, (Alaska)," says VanBibber. "My dad came out to Fort Selkirk and eventually married a native woman, and that's where we come from."
VanBibber went to school in Dawson City and then started working for a gold-dredging company in 1934. But he always returned to Pelly Crossing to trap in the winter. In 1942, he headed to the Whitehorse area to get work during the building of the Alaska Highway. He ended up working on the Canol pipeline project, surveying for a railroad that was supposed to run from Prince George, B.C., to Fairbanks. Eventually, he got on the pipeline survey team. "The army bought seven horses from Johnny Johns in Carcross and we had to walk the horses to Johnson's Crossing and cross the river on the ferry. "We met the survey party there and headed for Quiet Lake and eventually Norman Wells," he says. "It was well over a 500-mile trek. Late that fall, it was slow on the South Canol. "We were going ahead with the horses and the survey party was behind us, clearing survey lines with Cats. There were no axes or chainsaws, they just came through with Cats. "Right behind them, they were building and finishing the roads. You could go back a little ways and drive all the way back to Whitehorse." VanBibber also worked on the refinery in Whitehorse and received a small vial of the first crude oil to arrive in the city from Norman Wells. He has since donated it to the Yukon Transportation Museum.
He started outfitting in 1943, spending 20 years guiding near the Kusawa Lake area. He now lives in Champagne. "I was trapping all along, too -- off and on. In fact, I still trap and I still guide and I'll be 80 on the fourth of April." He says his secret to staying young is spending as much time as possible in the great outdoors. "I guess it's all the fresh air outdoors. It's a great life. I'm drinking good water, getting lots of exercise and I sleep well at night and eat well, too."
VanBibber is teaching his trade to students at many Yukon schools, he says. He also teaches sessions at the Fish and Game Association's camps. "I just like to tell them what the fur industry is all about, that there is no great fear. "It's being managed by the government and there is no depletion of any one species. "It's all being monitored. If the animals were just left to roam, they would multiply so much that they would suffer a worse death by starvation and disease." The kids learn mountain climbing, canoeing, rifle and bow and arrow shooting and first aid. VanBibber teaches them horsemanship and wilderness camping survival as well as trapping. "Living in the North country, it's always handy to know the outdoors and the ways of the bush. "These kids will probably never use it but it's good for them to know. It keeps them out of trouble, too."
And VanBibber is one of the best to teach bush skills. He's been the expert called in for some great adventures. He's climbed with Senator Robert Kennedy, when Mount Kennedy was named to honor his brother, and former president, in 1965. He was also involved in a search for a couple who survived in the bush outside Watson Lake on nothing but snow for 48 days after their plane crashed. He was also part of a team that brought elk back to the Yukon, trucking them here from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton in the early 1950s. But he hasn't been hungry himself. During a "starvation trip," where VanBibber had to take 25 soldiers out into the bush with only shotguns, he outsmarted the group. "I had a .22 so I just walked ahead of them all and started filling up my pack with rabbits and grouse," he says. "The last group at the back there was living pretty slim. They missed a few meals."
VanBibber has received the Order of Canada. He mentions it as an afterthought but admits he can't remember whether it was in 1983 or 1993. He seems more proud of the sportsman of the year award. "I was surprised they picked me. I just enjoy working with young people."
The Family of: Ira VanBibber and Eliza Jackson:</div>
Now the big house is silent. Only one of the children %u2013 Theodore, the youngest %u2013 lives there during the winter. Eliza sits alone by her window overlooking the Pelly, watching the deep, swift waters of the wide river slip by, as the many years of her life have slipped by. During warm summer days, she often sits outside, even closer to the river, on the seat from an overland stage sleigh which once was hauled by horses over the winter trail from Whitehorse to Dawson City. Even when the river is frozen by winter, she sits inside her snug home for hours, gazing upon the Pelly and remembering. Always she remains unperturbed, like a serene island in the midst of the ever-changing river.
Eliza is a Tlingit Indian of the Crow clan, granddaughter of Chief Conone of the Taku Tlingits in the Juneau area. Eliza's mother, Alice, daughter of Chief Conone, was one of the five wives of Chief Jackson, Eliza's father. Because another wife was jealous of Alice and threatened to kill her, Alice left Chief Jackson before baby Eliza was born, and joined other Indians making a long trek over to the Yukon River.
Eliza was born in the Aishihik Lake area, probably in the early 1880's. There is no written record of her birth, but her family believes she is over 90. It was years after her birth that she and her mother registered in the white man's records and were given the names Alice and Eliza.
When they came to Fort Selkirk, near the mouth of the Pelly River, there were no white men around the deserted site of the trading post, which had been sacked by the Chilkat Indians by 1852 and abandoned by the Hudson's Bay Company.
In the nomadic way of the Tlingit people, she roamed widely with her mother and her stepfather, and later her half-brothers and sister, Susie, Peter and John. Through the Yukon and Pelly watersheds they hunted, fished and picked berries.
On one trek, when Eliza was very young, her family traveled up the Stewart River, then crossed over onto the Pelly. Eliza recalls that they were camped above Granite Canyon on their way down the Pelly, when she saw a white man for the first time. The little girl was deeply impressed by the stranger's unfamiliar language and the pale color of his skin. That first encounter with white people remains vivid in her memory.
After Alice's second husband died, she married Copper Joe, from Copper City on the Yukon River below Fort Selkirk, but they had no children. They lived mainly around Coffee Creek, where Alice died about 1921.
When Eliza was a young girl, she accompanied her mother and step-father to the Aishihik area to attend a potlatch, where, according to custom, her marriage was arranged. Eliza didn't wish to marry the man her parents had chosen. She slipped out of camp early one morning and returned with her uncle to the area of old Fort Selkirk. Several years later, she met and married Ira Van Bibber.
Ira and two of his brothers, Theodore and Pat, had left Chehalis, Washington, to join the stampede to the Klondike in 1898. There were originally from West Virginia.
After spending some time on the gold creeks, Ira and sourdough musher Tom Hebert hauled mail by dog team on the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City. Later Ira trapped and prospected in the Selkirk area and spent several years on the upper Pelly. In the early 1900's he met Eliza at Selkirk, and that was the beginning of their long adventure-filled life together.
Around 1908, Ira, Eliza and their baby, Leta, traveled to the headwaters of the Pelly and Ross rivers, then crossed the rugged MacKenzie Mountains to the head of the wild, little-known South Nahanni. With Eliza's cousin, Tommy Joe, they spent three years trapping and prospecting on the Nahanni. Their daughter May was born there above the spectacular, higher-than-Niagara, Virginia Falls.
Returning from the South Nahanni in 1911, Ira and Eliza settled on the bank of the Pelly at Mica Creek, about 40 miles above the Pelly's mouth. Here Ira built the big log house in which they raised their family, and trapped, fished and hunted in the Pelly and MacMillan watersheds, where Ira operated a big game guiding business. Van Bibber became a respected name throughout the Territory.
Eliza bore none of her 16 babies in a hospital. Some were born on traplines, some at hunting or fishing camps. Ira assisted at most of the births, and elder daughters Leta and May helped deliver the younger ones. Their first son, Abraham, was born near the head of Ross River, on the long trip back from the Nahanni. Dan was born at Tatimain Lake, and Archie at Beaver Lake. Alex, Helen and a stillborn baby were delivered at Mica Creek, and then John ("J.J.") entered the world at Russell Creek, below the forks of the MacMillan River. Pat was born at Mica Creek, and Kathleen at Selkirk. George arrived at Pelly Crossing, where the Van Bibbers lived for a time. Lucy, Linch, a baby who died at birth and "Dode" (Theodore) were born at the Mica Creek homestead.
Twelve of Eliza's children are still living, 11 of them in the Yukon. All the Van Bibber family have contributed greatly to the development of the Yukon; their exploits and remarkable experiences are both legion and legendary. Alex, for example, is highly regarded as a big game guide and outfitter and as a dog musher in the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Races. Lucy and Linch are well-known artists. "Dode" -- who lives with his mother during the winter -- mans a fire lookout tower near Whitehorse in the summer, and despite severe disabilities caused by a crippling disease, is known to have the keenest eyes in the forestry service.
The eldest son, Abe, died in the Northwest Territories about 1933, after traveling from Mayo to Great Bear Lake by dog team during the Eldorado uranium stampede. He drowned while running a net to catch fish for his dogs. Helen died at 14, after contracting tuberculosis in Dawson, where she was attending school.
Across Mica Creek, on a high hill overlooking the valley, their father, Ira, also sleeps, in the undisturbed peace of the Pelly.
Eliza is adored by her numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Although her fine brown features are etched with lines of hardship and sorrow, her twinkling eyes and beaming smile reveal a quick wit and cheerful nature. Despite her dignified bearing, she is friendly and enjoys a joke immensely.
Less than five feet tall, Eliza could stand beneath her husband's out-stretched 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!
Her ties with the past and with the traditions of her Tlingit people and the Crow clan are strong. With obvious pride, she recalls her ancestral background and Tlingit legends, these memories mingling with those of her personal life.
As Eliza watches the Pelly flow by, she recalls trading posts, stampeders, steamboats and settlements that have vanished. She remembers traveling along the river with pack dogs, poling boats, rafts, sleds. Now she sees vehicles speeding along the Klondike Highway through what used to be wilderness. Cars, campers and huge ore trucks roll down a long hill and over a bridge about a mile from her door. But except for a handful of adventurers each summer, the 460-mile river itself is deserted.
Both Eliza and her river have seen many changes. There is sadness hidden deep in the brown eyes that watch the waters rush by. But like the everlasting Pelly, Eliza's memories live on for her, as she will always live in its legends.
ALASKA/magazine of life on the last frontier -- September 1973. Pages 22, 23 & 52.
1901 CENSUS OF CANADA (YUKON) The Territories, Unorganized Territories, Selkirk (Yukon), f- 78. HH # Jackson (Chief) M I Head M 55 Yukon Trapper & Hunter Chief of Tribe Ellen Wife F " Wife M 45 do Arthur (Harper) M " Son S 22 do Emma F " Dau S 12 do Note: Chief Jackson was the father of Eliza Jackson who married Ira Van Bibber.
Peter VanBibber, Jr. and Marguery Bounds
Matthias VanBibber and Margaret Robinson
David Campbell Robinson VanBibber and
Jane Ann Williams
John Campbell Robinson VanBibber and Catherine Malinda Taylor
Date of Birth: May 24, 1876
Name of Child: Ira VanBibber
Place of Birth: Nicholas County
Father's Name: Jackson VanBibber
Mother's Name: Malinda C. VanBibber
Name of Person Giving Information: Malinda C. VanBibber
Relation of Informant: Mother
Nicholas County, West Virginia Birth Book (1855-1904)
THE LIFE OF THEODORE VAN BIBBER Dode was the youngest child born on March 28, 1930 to Ira and Eliza Van Bibber. He was born in the Van Bibber home at Mica Creek. Dode was baptized by Reverend R. Stringer in front of the Big House. His Godparents were his brother and sister, Pat and Kathleen. Leta, his eldest sister, taught him basic reading and writing skills. This was for a year in Minto then he was self taught. As a young lad, Dode had his own dog team and hunted and trapped at Diamond Lake. He worked with J-Jay surveying for two years and he also worked on the Pelly Ferry with Old Jake Smith for three summers. Forestry was also a large part of Dode's life as he worked for Forestry at the Heckell Hill Forestry Tower for fifteen years. Another job that Dode held was the Elevator Operator for the Federal Building in Whitehorse. Dode was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the age of 12\. When the Polio epidemic came to the Yukon in the 50's, and at the age of 21 Dode was the first in the family to get Polio . Alex made arrangements for Dode to go to Denver, Colorado, USA for MS treatment. He spent every winter there for many years. The Family paid Dode's expenses to go to the Philippines with Dr. Branigan and his group. Dode moved into the Macaulay Lodge in the late 1980's. He was the very first resident for the Thompson Center and moved there on September 9th, 1993\. It was in these two places where Dode made many life long relationships with the staff and residents. Everyone enjoyed Dode's stories and singing. (And the All Night Milkshake Parties.) For the Van Bibber Family Dode has been the one to always demonstrate the Van Bibber humor and good nature even though he suffered from a life long disability. His courage and unflagging good humor is his gift to the rest of us. We have so much to be proud of. Dan says, "That when you are feeling real bad and had a tough day all you had to do was go and see Dode and he would make you feel so good." SOURCE ; by Ruby Van Bibber 1930 %u2013 FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT, ALASKA (FAIRBANKS TOWN) VANBIBBER, THEODORE HEAD- M-W-63-M- TRAPPER -WV-WV-WV LOUISE WIFE-F-W-63-M MO-GR-GR NOTE: Theodore Van Bibber was the son of John Campbell Robinson Van Bibber and Catherine Malinda Taylor. BROTHER TO IRA. </div>