It was two in the morning on Front Street in Nome, mid-March of 1992. I had just crossed the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, my fourth time. A parka-bundled figure appeared out of the bustle, from the edge of the cold darkness, clearly a tourist or something, but confident and plain-spoken, and walked up close to me. A strong voice penetrated the sleep-starved fog and finish-line elation that together form the weird mental state of the Iditarod musher finally standing, after 12 days and nights, beneath the burled arch.
“These are the best-looking dogs I’ve seen here so far.” Gratifying words, guaranteed to grab the attention of any musher. I smiled back at the stranger. “Well, yeah, these guys are fantastic, just great, but hey, aren’t we in 26th place or something?”
Of course at that moment I could not know that I had crossed paths with a larger-than-life character, a fellow who would become a friend and confidante and a denizen of the Hoarfrost off and on over the next twenty-five years. Together we would share many small miseries and many large adventures — not to mention countless moments of head-shaking, hand-wringing exasperation — from Dubawnt Lake to the upper Nahanni, from Nome to Duluth to the trails above the Hoarfrost, finally winding down to some final poignant moments in the strange world of upper-class Palm Springs, California, in April of 2017.
Harry B. Turner died peacefully in his sleep a week ago, almost certainly in Southern California. I learned of his death just today. And today, had he made it, would have been birthday number 96. I have been thinking about Harry most of the day, and as I do I chuckle to realize that I could effortlessly start posting a blog entitled “Travels With Harry,” once a month for at least two years straight, without ever once needing to scratch my head for more material. And you would love it — most of it, anyway. Granted, some of it would not be rated “G,” but so it goes. Harry was Harry.
Harry could be exasperating, to say the least, and 30 seconds later he could be inspiring. Sometimes, when he was well into his cups, late at night, in Whitehorse, or Grand Portage, or Yellowknife, I had learned all too slowly that it was best to tap him on the shoulder and say, “Harry, probably best if we head back and call it a day, don’t you think?” Particularly if there was a stray set of XX chromosomes anywhere within hailing distance…
One of Harry’s favorite after-dinner aphorismic rhetorical questions (he had a million of these) was “If you could know, precisely and infallibly, the time and date of your own impending death — would you want to know?” Of course this sparked a debate. Harry, though, was always emphatic. Of course, he claimed, he would want to know, “because that way I could plan.”
I don’t think Harry knew, the other day. And I do wonder, deep down, even after all his bluster, if he would have wanted to.
One Harry story. In 1994, three friends and I made a canoe trip on the upper Hoarfrost, and Harry came with us, to make five. Around the fire one night the talk turned to money, of which Harry had plenty. My friend Mike Murphy’s ears perked up beneath his ball cap. Mike and I were both flying for Air Tindi at that time, and we had flown together as Captain and co-pilot (Mike the captain, me the co-joe) for two crazy diamond-rush summers in 1992 and 1993. In those crazy boom years Mike had often taken great delight in exasperating me by racing off to Weavers’ grocery on our quick turnarounds in Yellowknife, at the height of the biggest mineral rush since the Klondike, to grab the day’s edition of The Globe and Mail while the Twin Otter was being refuelled and reloaded for another trip north. We would cut loose from the dock, taxi out, and within seconds of liftoff he would pull out the paper and say, “Take over, will ya?”
I would continue climbing out, as Mike yanked down his side cockpit window and proceeded to stuff entire sections of the paper into the 140-knot slipstream. “Man, no! Hold on! I’ll read that!” To no avail. Crumple. Stuff. Crumple and stuff. Having thus happily reduced the entire fat newspaper, the New York Times of Canada, to a set of stock-market tables, the TSX and the Vancouver exchanges, where the values of the myriad penny-stock junior mining and staking consortiums, syndicates, scheisters, and con-men were all tallied every day in fine type — in those long-ago days before the World Wide Web — he would settle in to read and ponder the numbers. “This is all that matters, right here,” he’d chide me. I often wonder if a canoeist or a moose about 30 miles north of Yellowknife in those summers ever wondered why, every few afternoons, some crumpled sheets of newsprint came floating down out of the sky.
1994, late summer, diamond rush just barely beginning to wind down, and the five of us on the trail, by the fire, and the talk having turned to money… Mike all ears, Harry ready to hold forth on the nitty gritty of his decades in hedge funds, foreign currency exchange futures, and the mysteries of the Baltic Dry Index, and I finally got rewarded for my anguish. It was no secret that the only real reason Mike had joined us on the canoe trip, which was not really his cup of tea in those days, had been for just this moment.
“So Harry, tell us about your day, your working day,” said Mike.
Harry said, “Well, I get up early. I have coffee and I go for a walk. I come back to my little shack (A rental, in those days, and not palatial. Think Warren Buffet.), and I look over six or eight papers that I subscribe to. London, Hong Kong, New York, Brisbane, Moscow, Johannesburg, you know, around… Then I pace around out back for a while, and I think.
“And then maybe I make a few phone calls, and maybe I don’t. Then I go play tennis, or go for another walk.”
A pause. Then Mike again, puzzled. “But in all the papers, you just look at the business sections, right? The stocks? The markets and the currencies?
“Oh no, not those parts. Those are the done deals. If it’s in there, then I already missed it. What I read, what I think about, is the rest of it. All of it. The politics, the fashion section, the Arts, the Sports. Hell, even the funny pages.”
And the look on Mike’s face at that moment, and probably the look on mine, as we both recalled those sections of paper stuffed out of the cockpit window, just to spite me. The editorials and politics and sports sections falling slowly to earth over Gordon Lake. Well, it still makes me smile.
Harry stories. They go on and on. Rest In Peace, old man. They broke the mold after you, I swear.
Next month maybe I’ll post the piece I had written, before this morning. It has to do with living the dream, day by day, at a homestead in the outback, as compared to living the dream on trips into the outback, out away from home, in a tent and on the trail. Harry would have liked it, and we would have had a good back-and-forth about it. Now I will turn off the light and sit back and look out at the quiet dark, and maybe have a little sip of something smooth. Cheers. Good night.