Adventuresome brothers' 1930s Yukon tales come to life in richly illustrated new book

·6 min read
'People pay big money to go out and have a wilderness adventure similar to what my father and uncle did,' said Don Barz, who wrote a book about his dad Ernie and uncle Art's time in the Yukon between 1937 and 1942. The Barz brothers are pictured here on the Yukon River in Dawson City during their first winter up north. (Art and Ernie Barz - image credit)
'People pay big money to go out and have a wilderness adventure similar to what my father and uncle did,' said Don Barz, who wrote a book about his dad Ernie and uncle Art's time in the Yukon between 1937 and 1942. The Barz brothers are pictured here on the Yukon River in Dawson City during their first winter up north. (Art and Ernie Barz - image credit)

Ernie and Art Barz's colourful stories of bush pilots, miners, trappers, dog teams, deadly river canyons and a long-lost era in the Yukon history were like shiny little pebbles scattered in the stream of Don Barz's B.C. childhood.

Sooner or later, someone should collect them up and sift out the gold, Don figured. Ernie was his dad.

"So I thought I should take on the task," Don said.

The result is Don's new book, Yukon Wanderlust, a richly-detailed and illustrated chronicle of brothers Ernie and Art Barz's five-year adventure in Yukon, from 1937 to 1942 — a period just before the Alaska Highway was built and the modern era arrived in the territory.

"They were basically at the very end of an era, you know, just before the entire North changed," said Don, who now lives in Kamloops. B.C.

Don spent several years researching and writing the book. His dad and uncle are now deceased, but before they died, Don managed to record long interviews with both of them. He also had a motherlode of more than 300 historic photos to work with, taken by the Barz brothers back in the day.

Paul Tukker/CBC
Paul Tukker/CBC

The German-Canadian brothers were drawn to the Yukon by the same thing that drew so many others there both before and after them — the smell of money. It was 1937 and they were living in Victoria.

"They heard about this fellow who came down from the silver mines in Keno, with several thousand dollars in his pocket. And, you know, back in 1937, that was a lot of money," Don said.

"So they were on the first boat going North."

Initially, the Barz brothers worked as miners in the Dawson area, but eventually they struck up a partnership with a Whitehorse businessman to run a trapping operation and trading post in the Bonnet Plume River area.

Art and Ernie Barz
Art and Ernie Barz

That's where their bush skills were really tested. They were largely on their own, miles from the nearest settlement, and only occasionally saw other people.

"They were almost treating it like an industrial enterprise," said Don.

"I mean, the equipment and supplies that they took in — four planeloads, when they set themselves up. That was quite an undertaking."

They built their own cabins and hunted for sustenance and occasionally made their way to Dawson or Aklavik, N.W.T., to trade their furs and stock up on supplies. They befriended some of the Indigenous people they'd meet in their travels, including Johnny Semple, a Gwich'in hunter and trapper, and his nephew Peter Henry. Henry ended up staying and working with the Barz brothers for a couple of years.

Art and Ernie Barz
Art and Ernie Barz

Their trapping operation — covering an area "about the size of Lebanon," according to Don — was hugely successful, and at first, not entirely legal.

Yukon law at the time required people to live in the territory for at least two years before they could get a trapping licence. Art and Ernie — with some help from their patrons and local business partners — managed to fudge things for those first couple of years. Don had to make that discovery himself when he was doing research for the book.

"They weren't telling all their stories," Don said, of his interviews with Art and Ernie.

Time to pull out

As the Second World War got underway, Art and Ernie couldn't have been further removed from the action. Don's book describes the idyllic summers the brothers spent, hunting and trapping in the bush, swimming in the river, or building cabins.

If the brothers' German ancestry ever raised suspicions in those years, they never caught wind of it. Don thinks it just wasn't an issue because people in Yukon had gotten to know and respect the Barz brothers.

Art and Ernie Barz
Art and Ernie Barz

But the war — and the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942 — would essentially bring an end to the Barz brothers' Yukon adventure. The bush planes they had relied on for supplies and shipping their furs were suddenly busy with other things.

"The pilots were making a fortune flying for the U.S. army. So basically [the Barz brothers] realized that they weren't going to be able to carry on their operations like they had, and decided it was time to pull out," Don said.

The brothers moved south to Salmon Arm, B.C., and bought a farm. Ernie would end up selling his half to Art and joining the Canadian Army. Ernie saw frontline action in Italy, and after the war he bought his own farm in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

The brothers lived in B.C. for the rest of their lives. They both died less than a year apart, in 2011. Ernie was 93 and Art was 95.

'Quiet period' in Yukon history

The construction of the Alaska Highway was not just a turning point in the lives of the Barz brothers — it was a pivotal event in Yukon history and the territory and its culture would never be quite the same again.

That's part of why the Barz brothers' story intrigues Michael Gates, an avid historian, writer, and Yukon's Story Laureate. Gates refers to that period as the "doldrums" of Yukon history — meaning, the stories are few.

"The Gold Rush was in the rearview mirror, and the First World War certainly put an end to the rosy hue of that era, and there was nothing big or spectacular to replace it," Gates said.

"It was a very quiet period in Yukon history and I think we tend to overlook it, which is a shame."

Gates loves to hear about people like Don Barz, who realized the historic value of his dad's old photos and stories and decided to share them. Barz said he did so much additional research — Yukon Wanderlust has an extensive index and nearly 400 footnotes — so that his book could be a resource for future historians.

He's also donated most of those old photos to the Yukon Archives.

Art and Ernie Barz
Art and Ernie Barz

The Barz brothers occasionally came back to the Yukon in their later years, to visit old friends. Don came along with his father one time in the 1980s, and would later live and work in Whitehorse for a few years.

"People pay big money to go out and have a wilderness adventure similar to what my father and uncle did," Don said.

"My father said at one point, 'you know, if we knew the risks that we were taking, I don't know if we would have done it again, you know?'

"I think when they got back south, becoming farmers, it was almost like a piece of cake in a sense, compared to what they'd done in the Yukon."

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