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Kate Partridge, A Lady in the Wilderness


Ben-My-Chree, British Columbia

    The story below, which appeared in Canadian Home Journal in 1938, describes a trip to Ben-My-Chree in the summer of 1930.



A Lady in the Wilderness

By Frederick Niven

    You cannot be presented to the lady in the first paragraph. The stage has to be set, here, as it was set for us before she stepped forth and won our hearts.

    A thousand miles northward from Vancouver to Skagway we had voyaged, noting, nightly, the Pole Star drawing nearer. We had journeyed on beyond Skagway (the "Gateway of the North") up the spectacular White Pass and heard, when the train stopped to let us look down on the great gorge of it, the roar of all its cataracts like the sound one hears holding a shell to the ear. We had seen, mounting onward, fragments of the trail of '98 in the steep gulch alongside, a foot-wide scar between the rock-slides that have descended over it in the years - as though Nature would fain wipe out the memory of it.

    Climbing on, at the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia we had remarked other evidence that we were indeed more than entering, that we had entered, the North, seeing on a blackboard on the wall when we halted there the imperative command that all mushers must report. We were going in. Men and women of the North speak of going in, coming out, not just going and coming. The phrase is inevitable. Here was a far cry from Vancouver.

    Here was a far cry even from Skagway as we rolled on by Lake Bennett that twisted under cliffs and round the butt-ends of rock-slides, with only the rufflings of passing winds on its surface and the twinkling pin-points of sunlight, though in '98 as many as four hundred rafts were counted at one time on it, rowed by sweeps, sculled by sweeps, aided on their way by blankets rigged up for sails on lopped trees for masts. Going in - indubitably were we going in. There is a feeling as of having come to another planet up there on the divide. And at Carcross, sixty miles or so north of Skagway (that once had a name more vocal of the land - Caribou Crossing - changed to Carcross because of muddles with the mail caused by the existence of the district of Cariboo in B. C.'s far interior) one is aware of the ambient silence and vastness of the Yukon. The sledge-dogs loafing there in summer-time hint of the winter life. It has a quality like that of a little village on the shore of a great sea. It is a jumping-off place for that wilderness, the peaks of which keep watch on it, the twisting waters of which come to its doors.

    When they tell you that Yukon Territory has an area of 207,076 square miles - 206,427 of land and 649 covered by water - you are not surprised. When they tell you that the Pelly River, lying wholly within the territory, is three hundred and thirty miles in length and its main tributary, the Macmillan, two hundred, you are not unprepared for that statistical information. You can quite believe it. It feels like that here. The silence of the great hinterland laps the place as the waves play among the piles and breakwaters of an ocean-fronting village.

    Aboard the Tutshi (pronounced Tooshy), thrashing out of Carcross to investigate that silence, the realization must come to many that the old phrase, the Lure of the North, is not just poppy-cock. Most, I think, must be aware of it and to some of these it comes as a call to be answered, to some as a warning; better to be gone, they feel, before it has them in thrall. Of the lady whom we were to see later we had heard nothing at Carcross. A story or two we had been told, to be sure, of women in the North, such as that of the trapper's wife who was brought in by dog-sled in mid-winter to the hospital at White Horse, some way further on northward, and two weeks later departed - with the new baby - for their back-of-beyond. Two other children there were also, whom they had brought along with them. On their return journey to their lodge in the wilderness blizzard assailed them. The storm continued and the husband built a shelter in which that woman of the North remained with the two children - and two-weeks young baby - while the man mushed back through the storm for more supplies.

    "That," I suggested, "finished her for the North."

    "Bless you, no," was the answer. "You couldn't drive her out with a club."

    I thought of her as the Tutshi slapped with its stern-wheel on its way into that waiting immensity. Here was a land that seemed empty as the sky. A gaggle of geese passed overhead and, dropping beyond a range to the southeast, left an added sense of emptiness. A flight of ptarmigan, piebald, white and brown, strung across the blue bloom of the dwarfed spruce trees, and there was the impression that this was more rightly their domain than ours. We were intruders among mystery. Beyond that silvery blue of the spruce trees were staring cliffs mutely, heedlessly, watching us. Beyond and above the cliffs were obdurate peaks with snow in their lower creases and glaciers lying in their upper hollows.

    From Tagish Lake to Taku Arm we churned on, the uninhabited shores slipping past. The reflected silvery light off the water touched, as with a veneer of unreality, the white-painted boat, the high pilot-house - and the faces of those who clustered on deck looking at this austerity of desolation. Valleys that we opened up seemed vast as Old Country shires. The mountains that hung along their far ends might have been of stationary clouds. The airplane, I considered, will make a great change in this land. I spoke the thought aloud, and a man who stood by me had a story to tell of adventure and fortitude of the pilots of these airplanes that are indeed changing the Northland's life. This article, however, is not of them but of a lady of the wilderness, and I would merely prepare the stage for her entrance as it was prepared for us going in, going on. When we had dropped Engineer Mountain astern and the little cluster of the houses of the Engineer Mine dotted along its base had dwindled to the value of crumbs-

    "Where are we going to now?" I asked the first officer, having been invited by then up into the pilot-house.

    He glanced over his shoulder, surveyed me for a moment, and then replied that he was not going to tell me; I was to see for myself without any preparation and so have my own uninfluenced impression. I accepted the decree and sat mute behind him, his robust figure, as he stood at the wheel, blotting out a section of the everlasting mountains.

    I looked down at the water that came rippling toward us, as if forever. I looked to the shores, and the blue-sifted spruce trees slid past on either side - as if forever.

    The skipper came up; the first mate departed. We took a bend into West Taku Arm and at last I saw what seemed to be the twisting water's end, and caught there the gleam of a few roofs, very small in the immensity. Yes, we were indeed, at last, at the end. But even though these stern-wheel steamers of the inland lakes and rivers are of shallow draft to make landings on beaches, we could not land at the apex here, shelving as it did into seepage and quagmire. We slowed down and crept close to high cliffs to west, along the base of which lay what I can but describe as a floating sidewalk. It disappeared round a projection of the cliffs, and as we drifted alongside a dapper Japanese - I say dapper advisedly, for he wore a boiled shirt and his trousers were creased - appeared at the cliff's base, as if by some magic of this land. He caught the rope thrown down and tied us up to a knob of rock.

    With the other creatures of my dream - or the other incredulous mortals (on each face was an expression as of incredulity) - I went down the gang-plank. With them I passed round the base of the cliffs to where that floating side-walk touched land and with them, speechless, followed the path beyond. It brought us to a garden. "A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot." But a garden here - what did it portend? How came it? The flowers were sweet-peas, delphiniums, asters, columbines, peonies, pansies, monster pansies, and many others besides - a pool of colour under the sheer precipices. And at the gate a lady stood to welcome us - dressed, by the way, as ladies are dressed who welcome us at garden-gates in the sophisticated hubs.

    As erroneous is it to imagine that women in these distant places (that is, places distant from wherever is our own centre) are clad in skins of beasts, as to imagine that men who can cope with the trials and affronts of the wilderness must needs be roughnecks. Stevenson once remarked that he had seen a London lawyer in the cottage of a Hebridean fisherman and not for worlds would reveal which he thought the greater gentleman! There's a sophistication of the crowded centres that is no more than a veneer. Scratch it and you find the barbarian. And those who take their good manners and civilization into what we call the ends of the earth do not discard them there if they are the real thing. But this is a deflection from the lady who so charmingly met us at the gate of that sanctuary of flowers - not that she, memorable though her greeting remains, is the lady of this article.

    Would we care to walk round the garden? she suggested. Assuredly we would, and we passed on, a little quiet, spell-bound, for we had expected nothing like this, wilder wilderness, perhaps, but not a garden in it. And, finding it, the contrast with the scene round us made it all the stranger. Having walked through that oasis of colour we came to a house beside which was a small conservatory. There we clustered, looking back at that tended and multicolored enclosure, looking up at the contrasting severe summits, deeply aware of the quiet ashore here, the throbbing of the steamboat's engine and thrash of her stern-wheel no longer sounding in our ears.

    It was then that a little silver-haired lady in velvet and lace came to the door - our lady of the wilderness - and bade us enter.

    "You must introduce yourselves, she told us, "for you know me now, but I don't know you.

    It was a large main room into which we moved, with space for us all. There was a salver for our visiting-cards on a table to one side, cards of our hostess beside it; and a book lay there also for us to sign our names as her guests. The Japanese servant who had appeared round the cliff to meet the boat, and another, carried trays among us laden with glasses of home-made wine. When we had all drunk to our hostess she began to speak. She told us that this was a place far off to most and that it had been her husband's custom to keep open house for all comers. He had recently died, but she was here to carry on the tradition. (He and she - from the Isle of Man - had been long in the North). Stories of the land and the old days, such as those with which he had been wont to entertain guests, she could not tell, but the house, said she, was still open house to all, as when he was there. And one usage that he had when visitors arrived she would ask us to acknowledge: Here, where all the boundaries were so close - of Alaska, Yukon Territory, and British Columbia (into the northern border of which, by the way, our twining inland voyage had brought us again, out of the Yukon) - it had been one of his aims to work toward friendship between the English-speaking peoples; and would we, to commence the evening, sing our two national anthems?

    "You see," said she, "he had the two flags side by side on that wall." There they were, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. We were all moved as one is moved , if not inhuman, by humanity and sincerity, by direct simplicity of speech and largeness of heart. In a corner-niche was a little old harmonium - it had been in the country close on fifty years I heard later - and sitting down before it she played, a frail figure in velvet, silver-haired, with lace at her throat and wrists. There were about thirty of us in the room and of these but five were of British stock - the others all American - two New Zealand girls (one of English, one of Scots extraction), a Canadian (from Calgary), my wife (an English-woman), myself (a Scot, born in South America). "We bring the Empire together," the Calgary man would say when by chance the girls from New Zealand, my wife and I, and he happened at any time to meet. Now more than Empire was brought together. I was moved, deeply moved. I wished that Ramsay MacDonald and Hoover might have been there. It would have moved them I know, this peace-parley in the heart of that quiet North, this little old lady gathering us together in friendship.

    We sang first, in deference to the majority, led by our hostess, My Country 'Tis of Thee. And when the Americans sang with us God Save the King I regretted that there were words of their anthem of which I had been uncertain, so well they knew ours and so enthusiastically sang - to us and to that lady in the wilderness who kept open house for us.

    After that we had community singing. We sang Scots songs that all knew, and old English songs, and songs of the war - Pack Up Your Troubles . . . , Tipperary - that recalled to some the bitter war years and made the spirit of this gathering doubly valuable, and plantation songs. But soon our hostess was prevailed upon by her friend and companion (who had met us at the gate) to lie down. Before she obeyed, however, she had to make another little speech, one of apology. She said that she had known a lot of trouble recently, and that very morning she had been upset. A murmur of condolence passed, and she went on to explain that there was a moose she was trying to tame. It had been coming very close to the door, but that morning, just as it drew near, an airplane roared overhead and frightened it away.

    The wilderness with its moose and its caribou and its wolves; the wilderness, and this garden, and airplanes: that's the North today. I did not know if all was true or but a dream and that at any moment I might awaken. From her friend I heard of how, lately, our hostess (Mrs. Partridge) had been widowed but, loving the place and its memories, and all that had been made of it, hoped to stay on, with these memories. Twice a week in summer the steamer from Carcross called and everybody came ashore, as on that day. They had a motor-boat that the gardener ran. In winter they had their dog-team. They had their books. To my wife Mrs. Partridge said that perhaps, for this winter, she might go out. That, thought my wife, might presumably mean Vancouver, Victoria, or at least Skagway.

    "Oh, no," was the response; "I might go out to White Horse."

    Even in that reply was something of the charm of it all, the sense of other-worldliness, the spirit that made this visit memorable, an event of one's life, an experience so unexpected that even now I wonder at times if it is something I have dreamt or imagined. A glance at the map will show how far out is White Horse, that tiny metropolis of the Yukon.

    When gold was found in place in the neighbouring mountains Mr. Partridge built here a home that would be worthy of a woman of civilized refinements, and banked it round with flowers. Ben-My-Chree he called it, which is Manx for Girl of My Heart. And still his widow lingers here with her happy memories - to carry on, carrying on.

    After the singing there were new odours in the room and the servants brought among us trays of tea, coffee, and cakes. I need hardly tell you that before we left we all trooped past that couch where our hostess lay, to give her our sincere adieux. And then I stole off alone beyond the house, up the slope a little way (past a cluster of trees, the very boughs of which seemed to hold the hush), to look at the place where she lived. I got beyond the voices. I felt the enfolding silence, the silence one reads about, the silence of the Yukon. The sense of all being but a dream within a dream caught me; the strangeness caught me; the silence caught me. In fact what I felt there was perhaps that spell of the North of which I had often read. I realized that, for better or worse, it might easily take hold of one - till death do us part, as it were - and it was a spell, it seemed, at one and the same time tranquil and sinister, beneficent and terrible. I understood the Lure of the North, that Lure other than the one that is in the hope for sudden fortune in the gold of its rocks and sands. These phrases one reads - "Come and find me;" "What lies beyond the ranges;" and so forth - are not mere nonsense. I tore myself away from that arresting and detaining quiet, that spell, and joined the others below. Our heels sounded muffled on the floating side-walk as we returned to the boat.

    It was well on in the evening by the evidence of our watches but day lingers long in these high latitudes in summer, and even after we had cast loose and backed away from the cliff the sky above us was full of bright memories of day - and would hold them almost till a new day dawned. In the water through which again we thrashed the day had not gone. It clung there, beautiful and a little sad. But in the place we had left, under the towering precipices, lights were being lit. Yes, Ben-My-Chree was real. It was true, and we were leaving it alone there as the night of the valleys brimmed round it. I watched the lights diminish in size beyond our grey wake in the spectral water, watched till they were eclipsed at a bend, and then climbed again to the pilot-house in that queer drizile of lingering day through the gathering night.

    The first officer was there. He looked at me as I entered, raising his eyebrows in an inquiry. But, somewhat as he had wanted to give me no word of preparation for what I was to see, I felt unable to say anything to him in reply to that lift of his brows. And I think he understood. Of course he understood. I shall never, so long as I live, forget that lady in the wilderness, the lady of Ben-My-Chree.

Reprinted from Canadian Home Journal, 1938.



FOR BEN-MY-CHREE

There's a dear place in the Yukon,
    Where my heart is ever homing,
When the birds return with springtime
    From the south;
And I long, as flowers for sunlight,
    For that golden Northern gloaming,
And the touch of Tagish waters
    On my mouth.

I could tell you how the moose drink
    In the starlit upland meadow,
Where the beaver builds his dam
    Across the stream;
How the little fox slips swiftly
    Ere the moonbeams catch his shadow,
When the lakes enchanted lie
    In winter dream.

Of those mountains in the moonlight
    Words can never paint the glory-
Pendant glaciers gleam like diamonds
    Viewed afar.
Monarchs, they, of many winters
    And their snow-bound heads are hoary,
Laved in northern lights
    Or golden evening star.

Silver mists at dawn and twilight
    Drift above the sapphire water,
Wreathe with haloed grace the site
    Of Ben-My-Chree;
Though the Wilderness returns there,
    Takes her own I and gives no quarter,
Dreams immortalize its loveliness
    For me.

Kathleen Keats White.

Mr. & Mrs. Otto H. Partridge in 
their garden at Ben-My-Chree

Cover of 1938 booklet 'A Lady in the Wilderness'