Veteran trapper, guide, and outdoor educator Alex Van Bibber is a living Yukon legend. At 93 years of age, the experienced woodsman still takes time to show younger trappers how to survive in the wilderness.
Alex Van Bibber stands in front of 15 would-be trappers enrolled in the Yukon trappers’ education course. He’s wearing a plaid shirt, a ball cap and a stiff cardboard cone on his right arm. “Imagine this,” he begins. “You’re out on the trapline, checking traps. You get off your snow machine to re-bait a 330 Conibear and –” He briskly swings his arm into the jaws of a nearby trap. The steel snaps shut. “If this was you, your arm’d be broke. It’d be cold and that 330 Conibear is toggled down with a chain to a tree and you’re stuck. You can’t reach the tools in the ‘boggan on your snow machine sitting just three feet away.”
Alex pauses and looks around at the room full of rapt faces before reaching into his pants pocket for a length of rope. “Here’s how you save your life,” he says, and coolly goes to work.
Van Bibber, 93, has trapped “from the time I was big enough to bend down and put the snowshoes on.” But it was just one of many outdoor skills he learned growing up in the Yukon wilds. His beginnings were simple – and his attitude remains humble to this day – but the life he led is anything but.
At his home in Champagne, Yukon, he walks me through his living room and office, sharing nearly ten-decades worth of experiences. When assembled, the bits and pieces of his adventures and personal stories place him at the heart of Yukon history.
A true storyteller, Van Bibber settles on a couch, clears his throat and gathers his words before beginning the tale of his fabled life.
He was born April 4, 1916, on the Pelly River, to a father, Ira, who came over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 and stayed on to homestead with his northern Tutchone wife, Eliza.
When he was three years old, the veteran trapper recalls, he witnessed the last big cattle drive to the Klondike, when cowboys on horseback drove 30 to 40 bovines across the Pelly River and passed the Van Bibber camp on the north bank. “That’s the first thing I remember seeing as a kid,” he says.
He jumps forward ten years, pointing to a sepia-tinged photo, and describes how as a thirteen-year-old his parents put him in charge of delivering himself and four younger siblings to Dawson City, 400 km downstream, on a handmade log raft so they could enroll in boarding school that fall. “I’m the oldest on the raft and the youngest is seven: that’s Kathleen and Pat, and JJ and Helen. She’s gone now.”
He takes me through his adult years, sharing how he spent eight of them working on the dredges – the floating behemoths that mined the Klondike Valley – and later surveyed an alternate route for the Canol pipeline, an expedition that took him 42 days over mountain passes, along river valleys and through uncharted territory. “There wasn’t a human track for more than 300 miles of that 560-mile trip,” he says. “Just snow.”
After pausing for a moment, Van Bibber shares how he’s guided hunters since the middle of the twentieth century and how, in 1948, he led a man to harvest a ram that still holds the number-ten spot in the Boone & Crockett Club’s all-time record book. Reverently, he relates how he was part of the expedition to the highest unnamed North American peak in honour of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy, “I just hung around base camp in that job,” he states, humbly. “I melted snow for Bobby Kennedy, Sir Edmund Hillary, the journalists and the other mountain climbers.”
Alex’s high-adrenaline adventure days are over, now. For the past thirty years he’s shared his vast bush knowledge by leading trappers’ workshops and is still the chief instructor for youth outdoor-education camps. He lives a quiet life with his wife, Sue – his partner of 66 years and four years his elder. There are photos in their living room of their children, plus their many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Worked in among the many photos, knick-knacks and awards he’s hung on the walls over the years (including an Order of Canada) is a certificate from Arctic Red River Outfitters Ltd. with a caption that sums up Alex Van Bibber’s life: “Alex has the drive of a 19-year-old, the spirit of a 30-year-old, the body of a 40-year-old, the stories of a 75-year-old and the liver of a 100-year-old. No matter what, Alex gets his game in town or on the trail.”
When asked for his own take of his long, eventful life, Van Bibber chuckles. “Well it’s just the life I live… I work hard and play hard. That’s what it is, but I live an outdoor life and get enough exercise and sleep good at night.”
Back in the classroom, Van Bibber weaves the two-metre length of rope through the Connibear-trap spring. He whips the rope over his right shoulder, pulls it tight under his left arm, and holds it steady in his teeth. He bends down and grabs the rope with his free hand and slowly straightens up. The steel spring compresses, loosening the jaws of the trap and freeing his arm. He looks up from his work and nods at his students. “Keep that rope in a pocket, where you can reach it,” he advises. “Remember, you’ve got no one out there to rely on but yourself.”
This profile was first published in Yukon, North of Ordinary, Volume 3 Issue 2 Summer 2009