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Jack London in the Kootenay

Did novelist Jack London once work in a tie camp at Lardeau?

Jack London (Wikipedia/Little Pilgrimages, p. 235)


The author is best known for his works related to the Klondike Gold Rush, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang. This story appeared with a Vancouver dateline in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 3, 1929, under the headline “Jack London was no good as BC lumberjack, says [sic].”

Jack London may have been in a class by himself in writing about the rugged northland and the people who lived and worked and battled there, but as a lumberjack he was only so-so, according to E.R. Vipond, who used to run a tie camp in the British Columbia interior in the hobo days of the famous novelist.
In fact, Jack London was such a poor hand in getting out timber that Vipond fired him and his companion, both of whom, Vipond recalled, were “always writing letters.”
“I spotted him as a tenderfoot first thing,” says Vipond who didn’t recognize Jack London until years later when he saw the novelist’s photograph in a newspaper.
“I gave him and his pal jobs in a tie camp near Lardo,” added Vipond. “They worked together and said they’d soon learn. After two weeks of labor they showed little improvement. I asked an old woodsman what he thought of them. He said they were fine fellows, but spent most of their time writing letters.
“A constable came along one day and suggested that they might be criminals hiding from the law. He looked them over and shook his head. They looked innocent enough. But I had to let them go, anyway. I had to get out 20,000 ties and there was no room in the camp for men who couldn’t do their share.
“Twenty years later I spotted Jack London’s picture in the paper. He was famous then.”

While London was at least familiar with the Kootenay, Vipond was almost certainly mistaken.


The only time London might have passed through the area was in 1894, when he was tramping across North America, whereas Vipond didn’t arrive in the Lardeau until the summer of 1899 and wasn’t even in West Kootenay until 1896 or 1897 (according to Kootenay Pathfinders, p. 24-27).


The closest thing I can find to confirmation that London was here is in his book The Road (1907), in which he writes about following in the footsteps of a man called Skysail Jack: “[E]arly one bitter gray morning, at the end of a division just east of Kicking Horse Pass, I learned that he had been seen the night before between Kicking Horse Pass and Rogers’ Pass.”


In Jack London and His Times (1968), his daughter Joan wrote on p. 88-89:

It would be well to start West before the winter weather began, especially as he had decided to return across Canada to Vancouver … Many cold nights later while he was thawing out in a sand house near Rogers [Pass] in the mountains of British Columbia, he met another young man who entered the sand house for the same purpose. He was also bound west, and their acquaintance began, Jack later recalled, when Smith, the newcomer, remarked that he had been ‘pounding his ear’ …

London was familiar enough with the area to mention it in his story “An Odyssey of the North,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1900:

“It’s only a ‘hunch,’ Kid,” he said; “but I think it’s straight. He’s never been there, but he tells a good story, and shows a map I heard of when I was in the Kootenay country, years ago.” […]
“They had dropped out of the world, being now poor; and so I wandered from camp to camp, even north to the Kootenay Country, where I picked up the cold scent. They had come and gone, some said this way, and some that, and still others that they had gone to the country of the Yukon. And I went this way, and I went that, ever journeying from place to place, till it seemed I must grow weary of the world which was so large. But in the Kootenay I travelled a bad trail, and a long trail, with a ‘breed’ of the Northwest, who saw fit to die when the famine pinched ...”

According to Dick North’s Sailor on Snowshoes: Tracking Jack London’s Northern Trail (2006), p. 52-53, imposters “plagued” London after he became famous — but Vipond indicates that when they crossed paths he was as yet unknown.

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rverzuh
rverzuh
Mar 09, 2018

Who knew? as they say. Thanks to you we now know. Maybe London came through the Kootenays, maybe not, but the Vipond recollection is still good history bloodhound work on your part, Greg.

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Greg Nesteroff
Greg Nesteroff
Mar 09, 2018

Greg Scott writes: “Didn’t know of his reference to Kootenay. The story also appeared in the Nelson Daily News and I have it around someplace. When Dick North’s book came out in 2006 they sent us a copy. Having already found the article, I faxed North’s publishers with a copy to confirm story but they never replied. I remember reading years later that reports of London sightings were quite common. Price of fame. I especially love his short story To Build a Fire.”

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