The Dirtbag Queen
Kel Sax opened her door wearing a bathrobe. “It’s a jammies day,” she said, waving me inside. It had been years since I’d last seen her, but she didn’t seem to have changed at all: same shortish graying hair, same alert eyes, same quick, loud, smoker’s laugh. She offered me tea or water and I told her I’d brought a six-pack of beer. “I don’t know if it’s too early…?” I hesitated. It was not yet noon on a sunny summer Saturday. “Darling,” she said, “ain’t no such thing.”
We cracked two cans open and settled into her living room, in the house on Faro’s upper bench that she’d bought in the midst of the Yukon’s last mining boom—the staking and soil-sampling rush that had swept the territory from 2009 to 2011. There was something funny, but also fitting, about a mining geologist using her mining money to settle down in a place like Faro: a one-time company town still re-making itself two decades after the mine closed down. I imagined the town served as a daily reminder of the highs and hazards of the industry—not that Kel needed reminding. She’d seen bust follow boom plenty of times before.
That most recent rush was the reason we’d met. In early 2011, my freelance writing career had bottomed out and, with a subletter installed in my Whitehorse apartment, I’d wound up bumming around in my Jeep, staying with friends and roaming south from campground to campground, racking up debt with every fresh tank of gas. When I landed back in Whitehorse with my credit card nearly maxed out, I’d told some friends I planned on getting work as soon as possible, wherever I could: Shopper’s Drug Mart, Wal-Mart, the movie theatre. One friend, a geologist, said, “I think we can do better than Shopper’s.” She got me a job as a labourer with her company, and two weeks later I flew in to Kel’s camp to begin my brief career in gold exploration.
I spent a month in her charge, walking (or scrambling, or sometimes, in the worst of the dense bush, crawling) along my GPS-designated line on a grid each day, dirt-bagging: digging small holes every 50 metres and collecting paper-bag soil samples that would eventually be sent to assay labs in Whitehorse for testing. The operations manager who’d hired me back in Whitehorse had said, “You’re going to want to write about Kel,” and he wasn’t wrong. I was fascinated by the self-proclaimed “Dirtbag Queen,” by her stories, by the gritty poetry in which she told them. She'd spent decades of hard toil as a woman in the Yukon bush, and I tried to soak up everything I could from her. Kel Sax taught me how to use a chainsaw and fire a shotgun. When I caught a case of “bush gut,” she brewed a bitter tea from foraged plants that made the hard lump of nausea in my stomach dissipate. I wanted to know where and how she’d acquired all her knowledge and skills–and why–but I was shy to ask too much. I was also exhausted almost all of the time. Eventually I came home, paid off my Visa, and my writing career picked up steam again. Meanwhile, it was the mining industry’s turn to bottom out.
Five years later, the Yukon has weathered mine closures and contractions, and a half-dozen lawsuits between First Nations and the territorial government over consultation, exploration, and more. While the bigwigs in their glassed-in Toronto and Vancouver offices look at commodities prices and dither about when to gamble on the North again, the foot soldiers of Yukon mining make do. A lot of them are like Kel: hard-working, blunt, resourceful. I’d never forgotten my time with her and I decided, finally, to find out what it takes for a farm girl from Alberta to transform herself into the Yukon’s Dirtbag Queen.
“I still had hay in my hair when I got up here.”
Kel, now 54, first came North in 1981. She was just a teenager then, fresh off life on a farm in Lougheed, Alberta. (“Kids on a farm, we’re always working, and helping out other farmers. My granddad had a slaughterhouse and meat market, so I spent a lot of time working there as well.”) She’d enrolled at the University of Alberta with the idea of becoming an engineer. On campus, she heard about two summer employment options: treeplanting down south, or soil sampling in the Yukon. “Soil sampler—huh? Yukon—huh?” She chose the more mysterious of the two. “And the rest, as they say, is history. Came up here, fell madly in love with the rockpile, and changed my major to geology from engineering.”
She worked away on her degree, coming up North each summer, until she was booted from the U of A. “Got in a fistfight with a professor there,” she told me blandly. “To say that he was a bit of an ass is an understatement. And I was a bit of an orangutan back then too.” After that, she worked in mining year-round, until her boss convinced her to go back to school. She shipped off to Ontario’s Haileybury School of Mines (“best thing I ever did”) before eventually finishing her degree at Michigan Tech in 1989. She got married that same year, to another miner she’d met at Haileybury. “We chased each other across Canada for a couple of years and we finally said, ‘Okay, let’s make this legal.’” When they weren’t in the field they settled down together, first in Tagish and then in Destruction Bay, where they built a kennel of sled dogs.
“We had the big heavy freight dogs. Malamutes. Slower than dirt.” She gestured at a shelf I hadn’t previously noticed, in the corner of the living room, loaded with the red-painted metal lanterns given to the musher who crosses a finish line last. “Those aren’t all of them by a longshot.”
Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, Kel’s employer dispatched her down south to get an industrial First Aid certification. “Workman’s comp was starting to get nasty about having First Aid attendants out in the bush,” she told me, and she’d been picked to fill that gap. She wasn’t impressed by the task. “Back then I was sleeping naked in the crotch of a tree with a bottle of whisky in one hand and a shotgun in the other. First Aid? You’re out of your mind. No way, man.”
The two-week course wasn’t optional, however, and Kel took it and passed. (“I may be a lot of things, but I’m not stupid and I’m not lazy.”) On her drive back north, up the Stewart Cassiar Highway, she came across a nasty wreck—a passenger had been ejected out the window of their vehicle, and despite the shiny new training, she froze. Later, after the man had been medevaced to Prince Rupert (he would eventually be fine), she promised herself to keep learning. “That feeling of helpless incompetence —I would not wish that on my worst enemy. Do I like First Aid? Do I want to do it? Hell no. But if I’m going to do it, I’d bloody well better be good at it.”
She joined the Carcross community ambulance, and then Destruction Bay’s as well, once she and her husband had relocated there. Eventually, she became a certified instructor, so in turn she could train other community volunteers in First Aid.
Her marriage ended after 20 years (“most of them were damn fine”), just as the Yukon’s latest mining boom was starting to rock and roll. As the largest staking rush in the history of the territory heated up, Kel Sax, nearly 50, was in the thick of it. She’d become a well-known figure in Yukon mining by now, a cantankerous legend who spoke her mind, knew her way around the bush, and never flew into the backcountry without a good dog by her side.
“There’s no goddamn way I’m going out in the bush without a dog."
Kel has two qualifications she requires in a bush dog: “Come when you’re called, and do not chase things.” Over the years she’s had several dogs that met—and far exceeded —those qualifications. In camp, around the fire at night, I’d been most fascinated by her stories about them: her lineup of savvy, furry bush
“First one was Barney,” she told me. “He was a farm dog. But he was starting to get into trouble on the farm. So I showed up for a visit and 48 hours later I drove away with this damn dog in my truck.”
Some time later, in the late 1980s, she and Barney were deep in the bush in northern B.C., building a drill pad. “We’re talking Iskut country here,” she said. “Very, very steep, and huge timber, so dropping those trees you were sweating bullets, because if they bounce back on you, you got nowhere to go—you’re on a very steep slope.” Kel was intent on her work, and when she eventually took a break, Barney, who’d been waiting and watching, was gone. Eventually Kel found some scraps of fur and a mess of bear and dog tracks nearby. “The tracks pretty well told the story,” she said. “I figured that bear was coming after me, and I was running a chainsaw and not paying any attention, so Barney’s the one that got nailed. That wrecked me.”
Her next dog was Booboo, a puppy she picked up from the pound on her way up to the Dempster Highway for a caribou hunt. Booboo turned out to be a natural provider: She could take down a marmot even while wearing loaded packs, and her hunting skills came in handy whenever she and Kel got stuck out in the bush after a day of prospecting or soil sampling.
“We got left out overnight many times—mostly due to my own stupidity, didn’t get to a helicopter pad fast enough, and weather, and yadda yadda,” Kel said. The dog would come running back through the bush with a fat rodent in her teeth, and Kel would roast it over a fire before splitting it between them. “Marmots are actually quite tasty if you’re really, really, really hungry.”
Booboo lived 10 years and was eventually succeeded by Starska, a former sled dog who’d refused to work in a harness anymore after her partner wheel dog, Moose, died. Starska was part Samoyed, a gorgeous fluffy husky mix. (“Absolutely beautiful dog. Professional cementhead.") Starska lived for a decade and died in her turn, and then came Virga—the puppy I’d known in 2011, when I worked in Kel’s camp. She was a semi-feral mutt from Ross River, a smaller dog with a sharp bark, just five months old, and Kel flew into camp with her when they’d known each other for only a few days.
“After three days of trying to eat me and being afraid of everything, Virga said, ‘Hmm, this is a good stick I got going here…’ She decided that we were going to be best buds and that was it. It was her job to look after me, and she has.”
Three years ago, Virga proved her worth. Kel and her field assistant had split up as they explored a narrow valley, the assistant going high to the ridgeline and Kel working her way along the creek down low. They were in dense willows when Virga stopped, and the fur on the back of her neck lifted in alarm. “By this time I knew, trust your dog, so I stopped and I’m looking around to see what the hell’s going on, and a black head pops out of the bushes beside the creek.” The bear was just 20 metres away. “And then two smaller heads pop up. And I distinctly remember thinking to myself: ‘Oh, crap.’”
Kel just had time to unclasp the straps on her pack before the mama grizzly charged her. She tried to drop to her stomach, pulling the pack up over her head and the back of her neck to protect herself as she went.
“The last thing I saw was Virga, heading right for her. And this bear completely ignored her. She thought I was the bigger threat.” The bear swiped at Kel as she dove, puncturing her baseball cap—she still has the hat, claw marks clear as day in the brim—and raking the skin on her arms. “She helped me down to the ground, shall we say.”
Kel’s field assistant, watching helplessly from high above as the scene played out, told her later what happened next. As the grizzly pinned Kel to the ground, Virga, having failed to scare or divert the bear, ran straight at the cubs where they sat in the willows. That got the bear’s attention, and pulled her off Kel and back to her offspring.
“She collected her cubs and went screaming to the Northwest Territories as fast as she could go.” Kel came out of the incident with a few new scars, and as for Virga, “she was eating ribeye steaks for supper for a week after that.”
“Please, Lord, I promise not to waste the next boom!”
While we talked, Virga shuffled around the living room, simultaneously bored and antsy. “Suck it up, princess,” Kel told her. The dog wanted to get back in the field, as did Kel. But there isn’t a heap of exploration work to be had these days in the Yukon, and that chance encounter on the Stewart Cassiar—and her resulting devotion to First Aid training—is now paying the lion’s share of her bills. In between occasional mining gigs she works for Yukon College as an instructor, travelling to Whitehorse and to various communities, Virga riding shotgun in her truck as always.
“I like doing it. I like watching the lights come on, and seeing people’s skill-sets improve, and all this. And given the way I drive and the way I work, what are the chances of seeing any of these guys bend over me and say, ‘Hi, I know First Aid, can I help?’ And I want them to know what the hell they’re doing. I’ve got enough scar tissue, thank you very much.”
But she expects exploration to pick up again sometime soon, and when it does, she’ll be there—even if she’s not quite the efficient dirt-bagging machine she once was. “I got geologist knees. In other words, I ain’t got any left. We just beat the crap out of the cartilege, eh? So yeah, I’m moving a lot slower, and I’m being a lot more careful. The days of leaping tall mountains in a single bound are long gone.”
“No more ‘moronic mountain goat’?” I asked her, remembering the phrase she’d used to describe her soil-sampling style when she was facing the steepest terrain on our grid—scrambling hard and fast across precarious scree slopes, and climbing, unroped, over or around any rock formations that got in her way.
“No more moronic mountain goat,” she agreed. “But I still love it out there—I’m just slower. Put some tires on my wheelchair and I’ll still go out there.”