Once upon a time, the Yukon was crawling with hippies -- building homesteads, hunting their own food, partying in the bush. Forty years later, many have cut their hair and gotten real jobs. But a few still live the dream. By Katharine Sandiford. Photos by Lee Carruthers.
Peter Heebink and his then-wife, Ginger Vanvleet, lived in a teepee made from “fabric salvaged from the dump” while they completed their hand-built log cabin. It was 1972 and they’d just dodged the draft, driven their Harvester Travelall up from San Francisco, and staked a two-acre residential claim on the Yukon’s Cowley Creek. “Back then, you could stake anywhere that was Crown land. You went out and put four posts in the ground, just like a mining claim,” says Peter. “It only cost us $30.”
After the cabin was done, they built a sauna, then gardens and a greenhouse. Though only a 40-minute drive from Whitehorse, they rarely went into town, living out their dream of getting “back to the land.” In fact, to go even deeper into the wilds, they acquired a second parcel, this one on Mandana Lake, somewhere east of Carmacks and a full-day’s hike from the nearest road. For the next 10 years, they’d spend part of the year at one homestead and part at the other.
And at the time, they weren’t unusual. In those days, a sort of hippie village sprawled across Whitehorse’s forested outskirts. Young counterculturalists flocked to the territory, rejecting southern society as corrupt and conformist. They revelled in the freedom and solitude of the North – but they also valued the scene. “Most of our friends were living the same kind of lifestyle,” Peter says. “We’d have sauna parties almost every single weekend. All the people living in the bush around our area would come together. Of course, we were naked all the time.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the back-to-the-land movement was huge. Across North America, urban youngsters scattered onto rural homesteads, turning their backs on mainstream culture and striving to live closer to the Earth. Countless thousands went to the Desert Southwest or Vancouver Island or Ontario’s north woods, and a few hundred – perhaps the boldest – struck out for the Yukon. In the Age of Aquarius, the territory had what other places didn’t: free land, few people, and, for Americans, sanctuary from the Vietnam draft.
Most of the hippies made it only as far as Whitehorse or Dawson City, winding up in riverside camps or downtown cohousing. But some actually got into the bush, and managed to carve out viable homesteads. A few, now in their 60s, their bodies ripped and weathered from endless seasons of hard work, are still at it. The rest are for the most part unrecognizable. They live in town, work full time and enjoy all the amenities civilization has to offer. Their homesteads are long-since abandoned, or were sold off as tourist camps, or were engulfed by urban sprawl and demolished to make way for vinyl-clad, 3,000-square foot homes.
But while many of the hippies now wear ties and slacks, and hold influential jobs in the Yukon’s government, business and arts community, it doesn’t take much to get them yearning for the bush years.
When 23-year-old Lee Carruthers staked his residential claim on Frederick Lake in 1973, he was so excited he forgot to consider one key factor. “It’s almost an embarrassment,” he admits today. “I chose a spot on the south side of the lake, right at the base of a 7,200-foot mountain. We didn’t move out there until the next spring, so it wasn’t until over a year had passed that I realized my mistake. It was November and the sun vanished and didn’t come back until February.”
But that didn’t stop Lee and his then-partner, Lynne Sofiak, from spending the better part of the next six years developing their wilderness homestead. It was a 30-kilometre hike in from the Haines Highway, but with the help of pack-dogs and bush-plane deliveries, they put up a 400-square-foot log cabin with a sleeping loft, gardens that required they “go into the woods and scrape buckets of dirt together,” and a high cache in which to store their moose meat. (Lee once sat atop the cache and, using his self-taught moose call, patiently lured a bull right in under the structure.)
“You know, I didn’t have a lot of background,” he says, “but we had all the books. And there was a set of books every homesteader had to have.” Like Alan Mackie’s Building with Logs. Or the back-to-the-land bible, The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, and later, the Yukon’s own The Lost Whole Moose Catalogue, with instructions on everything from dog mushing to canning fish to acquiring Yukon lands.
They could also swap tips with their good friends Tom Humber and Muffy MacDonald, a couple who’d set up a homestead a kilometre across the lake. Tom and Lee had hiked in and staked their properties together before they even knew they’d have girlfriends to take back into the bush the next spring. The two couples would get together roughly once a week, to share meals, help with projects or just hang out. “Yeah, we got pretty close with each other,” recounts Lee. “We had great parties. We’d bring in Everclear and go crazy.”
And despite the isolation of Frederick Lake, the four of them stayed connected to the larger social movement. One year, Lee and Lynne hosted a Christmas gathering where a handful of other homesteaders, including Peter and Ginger, trekked out to join them. “It was something you felt a part of,” says Lee. “There was a sense of belonging and camaraderie among the people doing it. It was a big wave that has since subsided.”
Muffy remembers that camaraderie well. She’d met Tom when she was passing through the Yukon on a backpacking trip around the world. “I got up here and got influenced by the people building cabins and the beauty of it,” she says. Too poor to buy even a chainsaw, she and Tom built their cabin with hand-tools, hauling each log individually from the far-off woodlot and using adzes to plane the floor boards. She remembers digging out the root cellar while Tom wheel-barrowed the dirt away, a process that took a month – and several cave-ins – to complete.
“We were all in great shape,” she says, “and ate such healthy food.” Their diet featured canned moose, fresh-caught trout or grayling, canned or garden veggies, loaves of bread from the wood-fired cookstove, plus a daily ration of fresh or dried berries – “to prevent scurvy,” she says with a laugh. She even published her favourite recipes in a 1979 Lost Moose piece entitled “Hippie Food: Crunchy Granola and Yogurt and Sprouts!” (Peter Heebink wrote an article in that same issue on “Homemade Beer.”)
But like the ’70s itself, the good times didn’t last. A few years into their experiment, Muffy and Tom split up. Today, dressed in smart business clothes, she’s a manager with the Yukon government. “I think you need a purpose to be out there. Others had traplines or were artists,” she says. “And I’m a little bit gregarious, so I needed to be closer to town. It was a limited-time thing for me.”
Tom lasted two more years, Lee and Lynne another three. Now Lynne’s a well-known ceramic artist in Whitehorse, and Lee’s a freelance photographer and social worker. “In a way, it became a bit of a burden,” Lee says. “I’m the type of person that likes new things. And, well, it’s a beautiful view, but after so many years of looking out the window at the same view, you start to wish for other views.” He laughs, then sighs. “It was a tremendous experience I will not repeat.”
It wasn’t just boredom and breakups that slowed the Yukon’s hippie movement. Some gave up their lifestyle because of the social isolation. That was the case with Jan and Gerry Couture, whose son Guy was just a baby when they moved onto their Yukon River property 160 kilometres upstream from Dawson. They built cabins, ran a trapline, set fish nets, grew hay, raised goats and chickens, tended a three-acre garden, and maintained 25 sled dogs. “I was five or six when I started running dogs,” Guy says. “That was life. It didn’t feel like work. I was more than happy.” He remembers getting up at 6 a.m., doing two hours of chores before breakfast, and being outside the rest of the day with a few hours of schoolwork in the middle.
Although Gerry grew up on a farm in interior B.C. and came with many of the skills necessary to run the family homestead, Jan was a flower-child born and raised in Manhattan, accustomed to living amidst millions of people. “Mom was into it,” says Guy, “but now that she’s looking back, she wasn’t as prepared for it as she thought.” The one thing they didn’t have was other people. By 1990, Jan and Gerry decided it was time Guy and his two sisters experience civilization. They packed up and moved to Dawson City.
Though he was 15, Guy had only been to town two or three times. “It was really hard. I was fully capable of taking care of myself in the bush for months on end. In town, I had no clue. People were strange. People hurt you. People were to be avoided,” he says. “I fought tooth and nail and claw not to move into town. Oh, I didn’t want to go. They were tearing me away from my home.”
Today, at age 36, he still lives in Dawson, along with his parents. His sisters moved even farther from the homestead, to Whitehorse. But he dreams of a day, perhaps when he retires from his career as a wildfire fighter, that he’ll go back to the homestead to live full-time.
Moriah Beattie was only three years old when she chowed down on piece of fried grouse and got a tiny thigh-bone lodged in her throat. For hours her parents, Mary and Peter, poked and prodded and fretted, to no avail. To get medical help, they’d have to mush their dog team 180 kilometres down the Stewart River to Mayo and the ice hadn’t fully set for the winter. “That’s when I thought about using the toothbrush,” says Mary. She slid it down Moriah’s throat, prying at the bone. “And it just bounced out, flying across the cabin. I never did find that little bone.”
The Beatties were originally from California, but dodged the draft and emigrated to Canada in 1970. (“We wanted to get away from America and everything it seemed to stand for, the whole consumerist mentality,” says Peter. “And things there have only gotten worse.”) A year later they were in Dawson City, and, looking around, realized they had a lot to learn. “We didn’t grow up with a lot of the skills we needed to have, so the first few winters we hit some pretty steep learning curves,” recounts Peter. “We realized that all you gotta do is copy the old timers.” For four years they apprenticed with trappers around the territory, learning how to run dogs, harvest furs, build cabins and gardens. During their last mentorship on a trapline up the Stewart River, the owner was killed by a bear. They were first in line to purchase the concession.
And unlike most of the Yukon’s hippie homesteaders, the Beattie’s are still at it – sort of. Since 1974, they’ve lived off and on at their Stewart River homestead. Peter and Mary still go in there annually, to hunt and trap, despite being in their mid-60s.
Their secret? Be flexible about what it means to be a homesteader. They socialize lots, take paying jobs when they need to, and moved away when they had to. In 1984, a decade after settling on the river, they bought a place (and a trapline) in the village of Mayo so their daughter could attend the odd semester of school – “mostly for socialization,” says Mary, “because when it came to the actual schoolwork, she did better with correspondence.” Then, they started taking summers off to work odd jobs around the territory. And eventually, they bought a place on Lake Laberge so Moriah could finish high school in Whitehorse. Yet they managed to spend several months of each year on the Stewart, running dogs, trapping and living the bush life. “The physicalness of that life is what we really enjoy,” says Peter. “On the go steady. You eat like a horse and sleep like a log. It’s a wonderful way to live.”
From their cabin on Lake Laberge, Peter and Mary still grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes and carrots each year, pick billions of berries, hunt moose and maintain various traplines. “We’d still be out there today,” says Mary of their Stewart River homestead, “but it’s a crappy fact that we’re getting old and just can’t do it anymore.”
As for Moriah, their daughter, she now lives in downtown Vancouver. She’s a competitive cyclist vying for a spot in the Olympics. According to Mary, “Her bicycle-racing success – and she’s mentioned this – has a lot to do with the life she had. It gave her the experience and knowledge that you just have to stick through it.”
In the early ’80s, Peter Heebink split with Ginger and sold off his Cowley Creek cabin. Yet he still clings vehemently to the values of those days. He moved to a cabin on the shores of Marsh Lake, but only installed plumbing and electricity nine years ago, at the behest of his girlfriend at the time. He boasts that he refuses “to use the flush toilet,” except for once, and that was to vomit.
Annually, he’ll ski or hike into his remote Mandana Lake cabin for a few weeks (he still refuses to ride a snowmobile, too). “You know, I would do it again,” he says wistfully of living out there. “If I were with somebody who was into it, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”