Built from 1899-1901, the Yukon Telegraph Line was designed to connect the gold mining town of Dawson City with the rest of Canada, and by extension, North America. Long portions of this line ran through some of the most isolated territory in Canada, and linemen lived alone in small shacks spaced every 40 miles in the virgin Canadian wilderness.
Their amazing feats are still studied by historians and survivalists alike.
These men were charged with keeping this vital telegraphic link open, even during harsh conditions, and despite being there to keep the late 19th century “grid” up and running, they lived the most off-the-grid lifestyle imaginable, and their experiences teach us several key lessons.
You Are Completely Alone
These men maintained a critical telegraph line that connected the Yukon and U.S.-controlled Alaska to the rest of the world, but the workers for the Yukon Telegraph Line were famously alone. Most cabins were located in what can be best described as “howling wilderness” and were reachable only by foot, horseback or sometimes by water.
They were hundreds or more miles away from the nearest settlement, and men lived there six months at a time without relief or resupply. The famed poet Robert W. Service may have summed it up perfectly in his poem “The Telegraph Operator”:
Cheer up! Don’t get so glum
And sick of everything;
The worst is yet to come;
God help you till the Spring.
God shield you from the Fear;
Teach you to laugh, not moan.
Ha! ha! it sounds so queer —
Alone, alone, alone.
When you plan your off-grid retreat or home, how will you handle isolation?
You Live off What You Have
Living off the land is a romantic ideal, and it’s also extremely difficult. There is a reason hunter/gather cultures operate in small bands with defined divisions of labor, and defend resource-gathering. Foraging food is hard, time-consuming and not always dependable. This is even more true for the lone wolf or very small group living in isolation. The linemen of the Yukon Telegraph were largely dependent upon their supplies. No doubt, they supplemented them with fresh game and plants when they could, but their supply cache was of paramount importance.
Plan for your immediate needs, but also plan ahead, because the only supplies you can truly count on are the ones you have on hand.
Communication Can Be Difficult
You’d think working on a telegraph line would ensure you could contact the outside world, right? Not really. Even for those tasked with keeping the line operational, communications problems existed. During times of severe weather, it was impossible to have all breaks in the line fixed at the same time, or even to get out and repair them. These men controlled the communications grid in their area, and still couldn’t be sure of getting a message out.
Today, we are blessed with the luxury of radio and other communications methods. How will you get your messages out if you are off the grid and alone?
Off-Grid Life Is Hard. Very Hard.
Once you go into an isolated rural region, you are separated from all the benefits of modern industrial civilization – except for what you bring with you. You may be mentally prepared to live off-grid, and you may be well-equipped, but you have entered a different way of life.
You may choose to live an off-grid life, or one day you may be forced to do so. Whatever the case, we should look back to our past and examine what life was like for people who had to live in isolated rural circumstances. It was not always pleasant then, and it is not always pleasant today. We can learn from their trials.
The men who built and maintained the Yukon Telegraph Line worked hard, lived hard and at times suffered hard to keep a vital communications link operational. Learning from their experiences is the least we can do to honor them.
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