Looking for Ernie

Sometime during a three-day span in early July, our adopted dock keeper, Ernie lost his balance during a strong blast of wind and was quickly washed downstream through the rapids that flows by the Outpost.

When Nancy and I returned from a canoe trip over that period, we were saddened by disappearance of Ernie. Ernie’s, companion dock sentry, Bert remained, standing stoically on the dock.

This past May we had found Bert and Ernie at the Annual Mt. Lorne Dumpster Dining Picnic at the local dump and recycling shack, called the “Free Shack.” This is a shack you can bring items that are too good to throw away or you are tired of and leave for someone else. Well on this day, when our eyes fell on the pair of faux stone Easter Island heads, both made from foam and painted stone gray, we whisked them to our truck.

Our monoliths were not twenty feet tall like the real stone giants on Easter Island. These were maybe thirty inches but no more. In short order our pair, christened “Bert” and “Ernie” were firmly wedged to the edge of the river dock. In an odd way the dock guardians looked perfect.

At the time of Ernie’s disappearance the river levels were still high from June snowmelt in the upper Watson River. Mounting a canoe rescue operation was too dicey.

The Watson is born well upstream in an area known as the Yukon Stikine Highlands ecoregion. Located in the cool rain shadow of the Coastal Mountains, this region is home to the greatest mammalian diversity in the Yukon. This area has historically been a network of trade and travel routes for First Nations people and later Europeans who entered the region to prospect gold and fur.

In three summers at the Outpost, we have not observed a single canoe descending the river. Two weeks after Ernie disappeared, my younger brother Scott arrived from Minnesota for a visit. The river levels had dropped and we immediately made plans to initiate a recovery expedition. We knew little of the river and its character. I had spoken with a couple of folks who had paddled it over twenty years ago. There was also a brief description of the river in a local paddling guide but the emphasis is on the lower river.

Canoeing is usually done as a recreational sport. But for Scott and I it would provide a means to accomplish a task. We would weave around river bends, drop through rapids, pull over trees lying across the river and do what we must to find the foam statue. How long this fragile statuary last in the wilderness was anyone’s guess.

So with packs of food and camping gear we waved goodbye to Miss Nancy. The following day she and two other women backpacker friends would shoulder their packs and take a 15-mile hike far up the Watson River to spend the night at an old trapline cabin before returning.

While a canoeing warm up is nice, Scott and I immediately had to contend with the boisterous rapids that pass our dock. We were so focused on the run, that we could not even salute the solitary Bert who forlornly stood on the dock as we passed him. Within seconds we rounded the bend and were feeling good about negotiating the first of many stretches of rapids.

Scott and I have each logged thousands of river miles in a canoe. Oddly we have never been paddling partners for a river trip so this was a rare opportunity. Scotts passions are his dog Dingo and messing around in a canoe. He is a very good bow paddler and does a great job in moving the front of the canoe around. A good bow partner makes an average stern paddler look good.

The time together was rich in conversation and observations and yes, even for brotherly spats. Being older and supposedly wiser I am quick to offer advice to my brother. I should have learned long ago that this is not a good strategy. But some things never change and consequently we had a couple of river miles of grumbling at each other and making accusations. Amazing how incidents from nearly half a century were still simmering.

And suddenly, a stretch of whitewater would show up and demand that we focus on more important issues. It worked. The wisdom of the river prevailed and demanded that we focus on the surroundings.

Both of us were amazed at the serpentine nature of the river. At times we swore that we had just completed a complete circle. We certainly covered each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Repeatedly I pointed out Caribou Mountain. During the third morning of the trip, Scott challenged my woods knowledge by asking, “Tom, this is the third day of passing Caribou Mountain. Face it you don’t know where we are.” He was right. . . kind of. Because the third day it was the real Caribou Mt. and the others were some other peaks.

There was usually an accompanying maze of timber piled on every outside river bend. We peered through the trunks and branches hoping to see the somber face of Ernie. No luck. We did see a few old pieces of foam insulation and I wondered if these were fragments of a rapids battered Ernie. Could there be some sort of DNA tracing of the chunks to Ernie?

At one point, during a break, I slipped into the spruce forest to make my way upstream to cut a leaning spruce trunk that was bulging in mid stem with a softball-sized burl. I cut the burl and an accompanying two-foot section of the trunk and carried it back to the canoe. Proudly I showed Scott my future sauna water-dipping ladle. No Ernie, but I had a souvenir of spruce.

The river became a boa of bends, slowly drawing us further and further along. Each sand bar was riddled with moose tracks, beaver sign was abundant and here and there we saw where bears had been digging for tender roots. On one bend Scott pointed out a massive shed moose antler so we stopped and fetched it. Still no Ernie, but we had a handsome antler.

As we turned one tight corner and looked ahead, we spotted a pale orb in an upcoming logjam. We drifted towards it puzzled as to what it was. Only when we were within a few feet of it could we tell that under the coating of mud and grime that it was a soccer ball. I splashed water over the ball to wash it off and in the process discovered its name. Franklin. Still no Ernie but we had found Franklin.

After scores and scores of river bends, enough to hypnotize a swimming beaver, we suddenly found ourselves at the brink of a major gorge where the water roared its deep throaty challenge for us to enter. No way. Quickly we got to shore and were faced with a nearly vertical scramble up a very steep climb of fifty or so yards through spruce and brush.

Scott was not happy. Not at all. He let me know and in the process taught me a new word. ““This is idiocracy! If I’d had know this was here I would have not agreed to this trip.” Tired, we settled around the campfire as our supper cooked, sipping on the last feeble ration of Yukon Jack. Still no Ernie but I had been issued a new word to take home.

The third morning broke as a blue-sky repeat of the previous two days. We finished the portage and paddled into the river current below the gorge. During a pee break, we discovered large wolf tracks prancing around the point of sand. Looking up we discovered the reason for wolf giddiness. There was a trail of dry moose bones strewn along a trail. We wondered how many wolves did it take to kill the cow?

We rounded another bend, perhaps our 168th bend, and found ourselves facing the mother lode of all logjam. It spanned the entire river. We groaned about the work that lay ahead of us. Luckily we discovered that the right side of the jam was partially open next to shore. With the help of a camp saw and pushing some logs out of the way, we were able to heave the loaded canoe over partially submerged logs. We cheated the ragged jam that was easily six to eight feet over the water. We looked all over and around the jam for Ernie. He could have easily been buried under the tons of tangled logs. Nothing.

We knew there was a lower river gorge to deal with and while we heard tales of canoe carnage inflicted there. But we had also heard the set of rapids was runnable. Not long after the logjam, we rounded a corner and suddenly the river accelerated hurrying us towards a canyon of steep granitic walls. There was no choice but to quickly read the water and slalom our way through three bends of whitewater. We got hung up on a rock less than forty yards from the bottom. Quickly the current spun the canoe around, like a compass needle spinning north, and suddenly Scott was facing upstream. “We’ve got a problem!” he called out. I yelled for him to turn around and I did the same. And just like that we had changed paddling positions. I stepped out with one leg and pushed off a rock to free us and we finished the canyon in fine style. We earned our lunch.

Just downstream from the lunch spot, we entered another set of rapids and I mistakenly called out “Right!” I actually meant the other right. There was confusion and Scott blew up. This was our third spat in three days. This was the third of three brotherly verbal sparring matches. I was scolded in a rather biting way. Scott hissed accusations that he was tired of a lifetime of me telling him what to do. Of course, I hissed back at him which only added fuel to the argument.

Silently we paddled the next two bends. Sullenly I considered his biting words. He was right. It was no longer necessary for the older brother to watch out for his little brother. And to a degree he was right. I should lay off. But I love him and I will likely fail in not making future suggestions to him.

Suddenly we discovered that we earned the last river bend and the world opened up into Bennett Lake. After a half-hour of vigorous paddling on the windy lake we beached the canoe in Carcross where the truck was parked. We raised our hands and high-fived each other. We had made it. Alas, there was no Ernie. But over the two and a half days we had engaged with a river shaped like a series of question marks and discovered an antler, a unique burl and recovered Franklin, and perhaps the greatest treasure, a bonding of brothers.

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