"Sure. Hop in," I said.
As we rolled north with the Klondike flashing through the spruce off to our right, Marco lamented the alcoholic atmosphere of Dawson (Dahv-son was his pronunciation) during Discovery Days. "Is drunk out all time, day and night," he said. "No time to get sober. No sleep. Too many fights. I was at party with friends, and stranger come in, we give him to drink, and he try to steal a butcher knife from kitchen. My friend Jane—she work at the bakery in town, across from post office, you know?—she try stop him. He try hit her. I go up to him and he hit me in eye."
"That's how you got the shiner?"
"Right," said Marco, grinning, showing a gap where his front teeth used to be. "But I give him one, too. We take butcher knife back."
Marco, who is 36 years old and whose real surname is Hampel—"I always play cowboys and Indians when kid, so my friends call me 'Kennedy,' the only American name they know"—is an escapee from Czechoslovakia. In the course of our two-day journey north to Inuvik, he cautiously opened up about his earlier life. Born and raised in Prague, he began reading Jack London's books as a boy and developed a fierce desire to get to the Klondike. He belonged to a street gang that called itself the Tramps, the members having read London's book about hobo life in the 1890s. In 1966 Marco tried to slip across the Czech border to freedom but was caught and spent two years in prison. He got out just before the 1968 upheaval that saw Russian tanks invade Prague to put down the "liberalism" of the Dub?ek regime. In the chaos that prevailed, he made it across the line into Austria, and from there to Canada.
"I got job in Winnipeg on auto assembly line," he says, "but after a week I could not stand it no more. Went to work at a sawmill and made money enough to head up north to Whitehorse. Whitehorse was nice town then—small, real, no motels, no tourists. Now Whitehorse finished—too slick. I head up to Dahv-son five years ago. Got me a little cabin on Hunker Creek." He shares the place with seven sled dogs—wolf and Malamute crosses—behind which he mushes up and down the frozen rivers during the winter in a manner that would do London proud. (In point of fact, London passed only one winter in the Klondike, and spent most of that indoors listening to sourdoughs spin their yarns and filing away material that would later become such books as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But don't tell Marco that, or you'll disillusion him.) The leader of Marco's dog team is named Sundance—"dumb, but a good puller," he says apologetically. Last February, one of his bitches whelped nine pups. "Was 70-below outside when she borned them—70-below for three straight weeks. No wind. Clear sky. Stars growing from roof. Smoke barely clear the stovepipe before it collapse. I build a igloo for the pups, but still five of them died." He pauses. "Just as good they die that way. I not have enough to feed them, and I not like to drown�d them."
Marco hunts his own meat—moose, usually by drifting the rivers in a canoe; bear, when he sees one; once a caribou far up in the Ogilvies. He uses either a 30/30 Marlin or, preferably, a .303 Enfield—"hits harder, and shells don't cost so much," he says. He snares snowshoe hares and ptarmigan. During the salmon run he strings a gill net in the Yukon River or in the Klondike, which empties into the Yukon on the outskirts of Dahv-son; last year he killed 500 dog salmon to feed his team, and a few king salmon for himself. "I have enough kings so I can sell some," he says. "You know restaurant in Dahv-son called Midnight Sun? They serve fresh king salmon. They buy from me for $1 a pound, sell for $9 a steak. Is criminal, but what can you do?"
Marco's life isn't all hunting, trapping, scavenging for berries and mushrooms, running traplines or gill nets. He spends some of his time cutting the five cords of firewood he runs through his stove—a former 55-gallon oil drum rigged out with legs, door and flue—each year and some painting landscapes, taking photographs with a 35mm camera, making jewelry and tattooing people. "I do good work," he says, talking of his tattoos as he rolls up his sleeves to show his craftsmanship. "Use hand needle, not the electric. Get better colors that way, more shades, more subtle."
During the long hard winter, Marco, like most people who live in this icebound land, spends a lot of time reading and sleeping. Wake up at about 11 a.m., with the sunrise, and feed the dogs, chop wood, eat a big breakfast. Then back to bed for a two-hour nap. Then maybe read a bit. (Literacy, it seems, improves with latitude in North America.) Then chop more wood, cook supper, eat, feed dogs, back to sleep. Once, during his first winter in the Klondike, Marco decided to walk into town for the mail. It was a warm day—clear, windless and a toasty minus 30�—so he wore only mukluks, longhandles, Levi's, woolen pants, wool shirt and down-filled parka. On his hands he had cotton gloves covered with fur mitts. He picked up his mail and then bumped into some friends who bought him a few beers. By the time he left town for the eight-mile hike back home, it was 3 p.m. and the sun was setting. Not that it ever really rises during midwinter in that latitude; at best it barely eases, pink and tiny, above the horizon to render a few brief, weak hours of light. "Halfway back I find I have to—you know—get rid of that beer," Marco says. "Is very cold. By time I get my gloves off, my hands too numb to work zipper. I get it open, though, and do the job. Then my fingers too numb to close zipper. I walk on best I can. When I get to cabin is dead dark, iron cold outside. I cannot fit key in lock—you damn American locks so hard to turn! I figure I'm finish now. Finally, I remember stick hands in armpits, warm them up. Barely get lock open. Build fire. Safe."
By now we have left the upper Klondike and climbed out of the spruce forest into the foothills of the 4,000-foot Ogilvie Range. The bare, blue mountains slope up from sparsely wooded stream beds—small spruce and quaking aspen, just beginning to go golden with the onset of fall—into high, dry sheep country. Off to the left rears Tombstone Mountain, a bleak slab. As Marco talks and I translate inside my head, I've adhered to the unwritten rule of this road: don't drive faster than 40 mph and watch out for sharp stone. Now the road looks so smooth and gently bended that I unconsciously pick up the pace. We are perhaps 60 miles from the Klondike crossing when the Dempster Rattlesnake strikes. Pop. Hisssssssss.