By Dan Davidson
The Yukon lost one of its literary lights when Dick North passed away on September 23. North, the author of five major books about Yukon historical events and personalities, as well as one novel, had been in ill health and on the decline for some months, living at Copper Ridge in Whitehorse.
In addition to his writing, North was instrumental in establishing the Jack London Interpretive Centre in Dawson City and for setting up a photo display relating to Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper” at the Eagle Plains Lodge.
Born in New Jersey on March 19, 1929, raised in Long Island and West Virginia and educated in New Hampshire, North saw service in World War II and then headed out to California after earning a degree at George Washington University. In 1954 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Berkley, and during that period he came a familiar at the First and last Chance Saloon in Oakland, one of Jack London’s favorite watering holes.
He was already familiar with Jack London, and had read and reread his tales of the Yukon.
A variety of jobs over the next few years saw him writing from New York for a paper in Nevada, and being asked if he’d like a job on the Daily Alaska Empire in Juneau. North has been known to ask people if it was actually possible that, given his surname, he could ever have ended up having a journalism career anywhere else.
He would work for newspapers in Alaska and in Whitehorse over the years, but soon began writing books about people and events that caught his interest. He became fascinated by the mysteries of the North, and his early interests became the subjects of his books.
The strange story of Albert Johnson grabbed his attention and generated two books, The Mad Trapper of Rat River and Trackdown, which were later combined into one volume under the original title. Johnson’s story also provided the material for his only novel, The Man Who Didn’t Fit In, years later.
Having learned something about the Dempster Highway, he became fascinated by the sad tail of Inspector Francis Fitzgerald’s tragic death, along with the three other members of his detachment, an event North recreated in The Lost Patrol. Watching caribou in Alaska, North was moved to wonder about the logistics of the historic reindeer drive of 1929, and produced Arctic Exodus.
Dick North didn’t exactly discover the cabin in which Jack London spent the winter of 1897-98. Lots of people seemed to know about it, and he learned about its existence during a river trip in the early 1960s. What he can be credited with is organizing the expedition to rescue it from its inevitable return to the soil. The expedition of 1965 is the reason why half of the cabin now sits in Jack London Square in Dawson City, where it was erected and recreated in 1969.
It took another 18 years before North’s collection of London memorabilia became the inspiration for the Jack London Museum, located next to the cabin. In 1986 the Klondike Visitors Association gave the idea a trial run in Parks Canada’s Klondike Thawing Machine building. It was a modest success, enough to spur the building of the large log cabin, which now draws thousands of visitors each summer.
Early on in the centre’s history, North produced a small booklet about the finding of the cabin, but the full story of his lifelong obsession with all things Jack London was reserved for his autobiographical masterpiece, Sailor on Snowshoes, which was his last book. Much of it was drafted on a portable typewriter, which he kept at his desk in the centre. He donated that typewriter to the Dawson City Museum when he finally relocated to Whitehorse.
North was the curator and main interpreter of his London collection until his retirement, due to declining health, after the 2008 summer season, by which time he had trained a worthy protégé, Dawne Mitchell, to carry the torch. She reports that while many of her visitors come to see the London exhibit, there is a significant number who come because they have read one of North’s books.
During his years at the centre, North spent many summers in Dawson, and later on lived year round in several different apartments, sometimes along with his wife, Andree. One winter he even got to serve a stint as a writer-in-residence at Berton House.
Though he would often return to the United States for part of the year, he eventually decided to take on Canadian citizenship, and did so during a ceremony with a number of others at the Commissioner’s Tea in Dawson City one June.
For an unassuming man, who always cared more for the reputation of his subjects and his work than of himself, North collected a number of honours over the years. The Klondike Visitors Association presented him with a service award. He was made a member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers.
In 2003 he received a Commissioner’s Award for Public Service. The plaque read “In recognition of his contribution to the Yukon’s history and the economic life of the City of Dawson – Dick North.”
In Dawson’s Dome Subdivision (sometimes called Literary Heights) there is a street named for Dick North, along with those named for London. Service and Berton. That happened in 2004, the same year that there was a Dick North entry in the Discovery Days Parade. The Reverend Ken and Aldine Snider organized the event, called “Honouring the North’s by North”, in which huge banners bearing he titles of his books were paraded through the streets.
On the same day the Dawson City Museum presented North with a commemorative coin and held a luncheon in his honour. The entertainment was a reenactment of part of the story of the Mad Trapper.
In 2008 North was made a Member of the Order of Canada, an honour that took him completely by surprise.
“Jeez, I never really thought I’d get an award like that,” the 78-year-old said at the time.
“It’s a great compliment, and I thank all the people who had something to do with it.”
In June of that same year it was decided that more recognition was due the man who had done so much to raise the territory’s profile, and North found himself in a tuxedo at the Commissioner’s Ball, receiving a gold pen and a special framed certificate from
Commissioner Van Bibber in recognition of his years of work and his Order of Canada award.
Funeral services for the late Dick North were be held at Sacred Heart Cathedral. He was in the YOOP portion of the Whitehorse cemetery.
A Tribute to Dick North evening will be held in Dawson at the YOOP Hall on October 18 at 7 p.m.
Note: Thanks to the following for assistance in preparing this story: Mike and Kathy Gates, Dawne Mitchell, Derek Sweeny, Harbour Publishing and the KVA.