Sunday, August 17, 2008
Eureka! On the Trail of Anton Money
It all starts with a dirt road. Its long, its steep, it twists and turns and it’s a two and a half hour dust storm. Totally fun…now I know what a 4 wheel drive is really for! I arrived at the public boat ramp of Frances Lake and was greeted by Andrea Laternser. She and her husband Martin, own the Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge. After a 40 minutes boat ride, I found myself on the shore of one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes I have ever seen. I should mention that in the 40-minute boat ride, I did not see another boat, another person or any sort of home or structure on the lake…pure wilderness. The campsite is composed of one main cabin or lodge and a handful of unique guest cabins. One of them was completely reconstructed from the remains of one of the Hudson Bay posts on the lake. These are rustic cabins…no electricity and no running water. Even though it is very rustic and remote, I enjoyed some fantastic meals prepared by the camp cook. The owners are great. They are both experienced guides and know quite a bit about the local lore and history.
Hudson Bay Company Cabin
20 Year old Girl's Cabin
During my first full day, the history of the Frances Lake region area of the Yukon really came alive. We boated and hiked to a couple of old Hudson Bay Posts. The original cabins, dating from 1930-40s were in various stages of decay. One of the posts had markers of both Indian and white settlers graves. These particular posts were the second Hudson Bay Company installations. The employees of the first posts (circa 1880’s) either perished or abandoned them due to starvation. The starvation issue puzzles me as the area has an abundant amount of moose, caribou, sheep and fish. No one knows why this happened…but it did. Most believe the people the company sent the first time were ill equipped to exist in the wilderness. We also hiked to the remains of a couple of other cabins, each with a unique story. I could write a book about these people, they are so fascinating. One worth mentioning here is the story of a 20-year-old girl who came to this very remote part of the Yukon in 1970 all alone. On her own, she built a cabin and managed to sustain herself for 1-2 years. No heat, no electricity, no running water, and no grocery store! The winters are quite cold here, sometimes reaching temperatures of -80F. Bears outnumber people by a substantial margin…and they are higher on the food chain. On one of the posts of the cabin, she carved her name and the period of time she lived in the cabin. I ran my fingers over it again and again…both intensely curious about her and impressed by her grit. This is truly an amazing account on a number of levels. I should mention that she is still alive today and has been in contact with the owners of the Wilderness Lodge. I hope to be able to contact her one day.
In preparation for the second day, which was devoted to searching for Anton Money’s cabin, Martin, Andrea and I poured over maps, re-read parts of the book and compared the pictures of Money’s hand-drawn maps and written accounts of the location of his gold strike and his cabin. Money’s autobiographical account states that he would hike +/- 3 miles from his strike on Finlayson River to the cabin. He also writes that his cabin is about 5 miles north of what is now called “Money” creek. We ended up with a reasonably tight radius in which to search. The other helpful information we had were the photographs in the book. The photos show a rock outcropping upon which he built a second larger cabin, the original cabin and outbuildings were below this on more level ground. The area at the time of the photos had been completely cleared of the original cypress timber, and you could see that the cabin faced the lake.
It took us quite a while to get from the Wilderness Lodge to the end of the lake where we intended to search. I didn’t mind however. It was a sunny, brisk day and the lake was as smooth as glass…beautifully reflecting the sky and the mountains. As we neared the Finlayson delta I looked for something that would resemble the photo. The shoreline on both sides was completely wooded…not a clearing to be had. We asked ourselves…where in this vicinity would you build a cabin if you had a choice. Someplace sunny, someplace with a good view of the lake, all came to mind. Most certainly you’d want it to be a reasonable distance from where you were working each day. We eventually focused on an area that curved a bit from the river delta and faced down the lake…and into the sun. It had an obvious rise and it also was covered with very different timber…new growth timber, which included poplar and birch. We beached the boat and began hiking. Not very far into the hike we came upon decaying building remnants, which included a cabin and some out buildings. This was exciting…my heart raced with the prospect of having found the very thing I’d been dreaming about for some time..and certainly for over 3,000 miles. The cabin was completely dilapidated, so there was really no way to identify it.
Money's Cabin remains (?)
Further, there was evidence at the site of items that most likely would have post-dated Money’s time there (80 years ago). For instance, there was a large iron stove still standing. It is unlikely that Money would have had anything like this as transport of something this size would probably have necessitated an overland trip…the dirt road I traveled down was not build until 30 years after Money left Lake Frances! However, Martin explained to me that it was common practice to re-use abandoned cabins…particularly among the First Nation people. We then hiked up higher in search of the second cabin. We covered the entire area, but could not find any remains of a second cabin. From the location of the ruins I gazed out onto the expanse of the Yukon wilderness. This view has not changed since the time Money was here. Its rugged beauty inspires as much today, as it did 80 years ago.
I do not know, and perhaps never will if the cabin we found was Money’s. It certainly fits the area described. One thing that is for certain however… I’ve learned that people love a quest. Everyone I told about this wanted to know more, wanted the title of the book, wanted me to tell them how it all turned out. I got all sorts of advice from the local Canadians on how to manage the logistical problems of getting to the site, including an offer to drive me to at least the boat ramp and pick me up a few days later. Martin and Andrea turned out to be great quest partners. They really engaged in the search and now have another colorful character to add to the Frances Lake Yukon lore. I gifted them the book. It seemed the rightful home for Money’s story….back to where it all began. As for me, I found much more than the ruins of an old cabin. My reward for this quest is, I think, the same as every other person who embarks on such an endeavor. It’s the priceless experience of making new friends along the way, living your goals, and the enlightenment that comes from the journey.
Cabin at the Camp
Bob, if you are reading this, thanks for the inspiration. I gave it my very best shot.
PS. A fantastic, pristine wilderness adventure spot: www.franceslake.ca