In the summer of 2004, a small cabin stood on the western bank of Chain Lakes in central Yukon, bordered by poplars that had flourished in the wake of a forest fire years before. The cabin was nine-by-twelve-feet, the logs cut by hand with a machete and Swede saw, topped with a sod roof. Rows of radishes, carrots, lettuce, beets, and watercress grew out front, and a tall wooden food cache poked up above the spindly spruce trees nearby. Near the cabin was a smaller structure filled with almost 400 books, including Spanish and French literature, history and philosophy texts, and hunting and trapping guides. A 200-metre trail encircled the main cabin—a bush running track.
Guy Mirabeau called this place “Monlac”—“My Lake” in French. It was the 56-year-old’s wilderness paradise. Inspired by prospectors who lived this way during the Klondike gold rush, he’d started building it in 1996. Every summer, he would fly from his home in Ottawa, where he worked as a translator, to the Yukon and spend three months living alone here, fishing, hunting, and canoeing—while also studying Russian, listening to Latin American music on his Walkman, and baking clafoutis in the outdoor cement oven he had made.
It was a tiny one-man civilization in the sub-arctic boreal forest, more than 100 kilometres from the nearest communities—Faro, home to 340 people, and Keno, home to 20—over mountain ranges and rivers. Moose walked the lake’s edge and wolves howled at night in the distance, providing a musical accompaniment to Mirabeau’s solitude. In his daily journal, he documented, in French, the weather, his meals, and quotations from Seneca, Baudelaire, and other classic writers.
Mirabeau claimed not just the lake but the wider area as his own. One year, he bushwhacked up the mountain behind his cabin, lugging a chainsaw, and built another small structure to serve as a base for future hunting trips into the valley. Another summer, he built a cabin north of Monlac, along a creek near the Hess River. This, he thought, could be a launch pad for fishing trips on a lake nearby—he’d already stashed a green canoe near the Hess in 1998.
Mirabeau wasn’t a total recluse: Every fall, when temperatures dipped below freezing and the daylight dwindled, he would close up his cabin and return to Ottawa. There, he’d spend time with his family and friends, and resume his freelance translation work. Some winters, he’d vacation in an expat community in the Dominican Republic. When June rolled around again, he’d eagerly return to Monlac, chartering a small plane in Whitehorse and flying into Chain Lakes. His plan, ultimately, was to live out his days there. By 2004, he was retired and separated from his wife, their two children grown. He wanted to devote more time to his isolated homestead, and even try surviving a winter there.
On August 18, Mirabeau had been in the bush for two months. He had grown a grey beard and wore a plaid shirt on his five-foot-eight frame. That afternoon, he was preparing to bake bread when he heard the whirring of a helicopter overhead. It circled the cabin, whipping the leaves of the surrounding trees, and landed near his garden. He didn’t know it yet, but the arrival signified the end of his idyllic existence at Monlac. His homestead was about to be snatched away from him, though it was never really his to begin with.
Before Canada was Canada, First Nations people in what’s now known as the Yukon travelled across large areas to food sources that flourished in different seasons—a river during the summer salmon run, the mountains in the fall to hunt moose and caribou. Some built rectangular lean-tos and circular dwellings made of brush and poles, which, according to Catharine McClellan’s book My Old People Say: An Ethnographic Survey of Southern Yukon Territory, often housed multiple families and relatives. They’d walk long distances on well-worn trails and paddle canoes across large bodies of water to meet other nations for trade.
First Nations across the country shared a view of land as something that provided for them, and that they in turn were responsible for protecting. When European settlers began to arrive in Canada, they brought with them the idea of land as a commodity. It could be farmed, mined, tamed, civilized. In 1872, Canada passed the Dominions Lands Act, which established homesteading policy that promoted settling the West by offering free 65-hectare chunks of land to newcomers, ideally Europeans with farming experience. To entice people, the government produced propaganda that heralded “The Last Best West.” From 1870 to 1930, the government issued about 625,000 land patents.
The historian Richard Slotkin has written extensively about “the myth of the frontier” in describing how the American West was viewed during colonization: as free, “untamed” wilderness, where man, if he was tough enough, could conquer nature, wild animals, and Indigenous people. For 200 years, American settlers’ preoccupation was westward expansion; when they reached California in the late nineteenth century, it signified the end of the frontier.
That created an existential crisis for pioneers, according to the late David Neufeld, a Whitehorse historian who had studied the frontier myth. Who were they without exploration and adventure? What would set them apart from their strait-laced European counterparts now? “The threat to masculinity, I think, was a prominent part of that,” Neufeld said when I interviewed him in 2019. The solution was to colonize the North. The Yukon and Alaska presented one last chance for settlers’ discovery, and when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, thousands of Americans boarded ships heading north.
While the Klondike gold rush was brief—just three years—it paved the way for the settlement of the Yukon. “That kind of last chance still holds true, because it’s so embedded in contemporary popular culture,” said Neufeld. Alaska’s license plate slogan is “The Last Frontier,” while the Yukon’s plate has an image of a man panning for gold. The territorial government heavily promotes the gold rush in its tourism advertisements. Whitehorse jewellery stores sell gold nuggets, downtown buildings in both the capital and Dawson City have Old West-style false fronts, and Dawson’s casino features high-kicking, short-skirted dancers. Robert Service’s famous poem “The Spell of the Yukon” is painted on the side of a building there.
Indeed, both Service’s and Jack London’s writings about the gold rush play into its enduring romanticization. In the 2020 film remake of London’s The Call of the Wild, Harrison Ford’s character refers to Yukon locales as “places no one had been—wild places.” The frontier myth erases the presence of Indigenous people and conveniently avoids examining the negative impacts of colonization.
During the Klondike gold rush, when settlers began arriving in droves on the territory of the Hän people, they quickly populated Tr’ochëk, an ancient fishing village at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. The miners staked any land in the area they could. According to Hammerstones: A History of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, written by Helene Dobrowolsky and published by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, accounts of what happened next differ, but some say that in September 1896, the Hän people accepted money, between $50 and $200 for each of their fifteen dwellings. The miners’ intent, apparently, was to buy the buildings and the land. But, as Dobrowolsky recounts, the Hän merely thought they were selling the structures, which would then be moved across the river to Dawson City.
“The story of the ‘sale’ of Tr’ochëk and the confusion that followed becomes more understandable given that the idea of land as property—to be parcelled into small chunks then bought and controlled by individuals—was a completely foreign concept to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in,” she writes.
The Hän were denied access to their village after this, and moved across the Klondike River to the south end of the Dawson City townsite. The North-West Mounted Police, though, had already staked this area for a compound. “The police saw the First Nations people as undesirable neighbours, squatters on officially surveyed land,” writes Dobrowolsky. Ultimately, after correspondence between the federal government in Ottawa, the local Anglican bishop, and the police, the First Nation moved to Moosehide, another traditional camp, five kilometres down the Yukon River from Dawson.
“The newcomers brought a new view of land ownership; for them, land was a commodity to be exploited rather than a resource to be cherished,” writes Dobrowolsky.
Guy Mirabeau first visited the Yukon in 1982. For a month, he toured around the territory, visiting several of its small communities. The vastness of it all made him feel free. If it wasn’t for his family back in the city—his wife, Laetitia, and two young sons, Laurent and Olivier—he’d have stayed in the Yukon. He decided, on that trip, that he’d return one day for good.
Over the next few years, though, only short trips were possible. In 1984, Mirabeau paddled the MacMillan River—typically a ten- to sixteen-day trip—with Laurent, who was then fourteen years old. The canoe tipped in one of the river’s bends, and they nearly drowned. Four years later, he returned with Laurent and his brother to paddle the Big Salmon River. And in 1992, he visited again with a friend and the friend’s son.
While Mirabeau enjoyed these adventure trips, as he got older, he knew the physical demands of paddling, and the effort of setting up and taking down camp every day, would at some point be beyond him. Then he had an idea, inspired by the writings of a British gold miner and explorer: perhaps he could build a cabin and use it as a retreat from urban life.
Nevill Armstrong had been managing a mine outside of Dawson City when, in 1900, he got word of gold potential on Russell Creek, hundreds of kilometres southeast. He travelled there to investigate, and so began his years-long relationship with the area. Between 1900 and the late 1920s, he made several trips to the confluence of the creek and the MacMillan, where he built a cabin, hunted caribou, sheep, and grouse, fished for salmon, grayling, and pike, and, to his delight, found traces of coarse gold. The Geographic Names Board of Canada named the site Armstrong Landing, and the tallest nearby peak Mount Armstrong. “A tract of country—barrens, mountains, river and lakes—was mine, the size of England,” he wrote in his 1937 book After Big Game in the Upper Yukon. “With the exception of about three tribes of Indians and a few white trappers I was ‘Lord of all I surveyed.’”
Armstrong was a hero figure to Mirabeau. Though his books were imperialistic and out of date, his hardscrabble existence, coupled with his descriptions of the Yukon’s rugged beauty, was tantalizing. Once Mirabeau’s children were grown, his wife left Canada and returned to France, where she was from. (Though the couple ultimately split, they remained in touch.) So he hatched a plan: In the summer, he would live alone in the Yukon woods. Come fall, he’d return to Ottawa to do his freelance translation work and spend time with friends and family. It seemed like an ideal balance.
Mirabeau knew exactly where he wanted to go: the Russell Creek area. By the mid-’90s, though, a large outfitting camp sat on the creek, so he turned his attention to the eastern side of the Russell mountain range and found Chain Lakes, about 25 kilometres from Russell Creek. The lakes are two skinny networks of water, one above the other, separated by two kilometres of muskeg. They’re bordered to the north by the turbulent Hess River and to the south by the MacMillan.
Chain Lakes are on the overlapping traditional territory of three First Nations—the Ross River Dena Council, Selkirk First Nation, and First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun. Both Selkirk and Na-Cho Nyak Dun, along with nine other Yukon First Nations, have signed final and self-governing agreements with the federal and territorial governments. The former, often called a modern-day treaty, is a comprehensive land claim, while the latter defines First Nations’ self-governing powers, such as law-making and taxation. By signing these agreements, First Nations are no longer governed by the federal Indian Act. (With no treaties, the Ross River Dena Council’s land remains unceded.)
As part of this modern-day treaty process, different classifications of land were created. While nearly all of the Yukon is on the traditional territory of First Nations, today, they don’t own their traditional territory but they do own what’s called their settlement land. It’s divided into Category A land (where a First Nation has surface and mineral rights, ownership of what’s above and below ground), Category B (surface rights only), and “fee simple land” (where the nation has the same rights that private property owners do).
On their settlement land, First Nations are the main decision-makers, while on non-settlement land, the Yukon government holds that role. But, as per the agreements, it must consult with First Nations on many land management issues. “Land ownership and management was a major reason that the Yukon Final and Self-Government Agreements were negotiated,” states the website Mapping the Way, produced through a partnership between the Council of Yukon First Nations, the Yukon and federal governments, and the eleven self-governing First Nations in the Yukon.
Chain Lakes are on Crown land—land owned by federal, provincial, or territorial governments—and are sparsely populated and little-used. In the winter, the lakes are split by the border of two trapping concessions. An Alberta-based outfitting business operates in the area for a month every fall, escorting wealthy clients through the sprawling wilderness to hunt caribou, moose, grizzly bears, and sheep. MacMillan River Adventures has seventeen camps spaced out over 11,000 square kilometres, including one on Chain Lakes. “It’s rugged country,” owner Don Lind told me. The silence gets to some visitors. “We’ve had clients come and even though there was a guide in camp with them, the solitude unnerved them, I guess you could say,” he said. “It was just too remote.”
In Mirabeau’s eyes, it was perfect.
On June 26, 1996, he climbed out of a small plane that bobbed on the southern end of North Chain Lakes, ready to realize his homesteading dream. He’d brought a canoe, a rifle, a Polaroid camera, and groceries from Whitehorse, including rice, semolina, cheese, soup packets, and vegetable seeds. He pitched his tent and, in the 10 p.m. daylight, caught a 25-inch trout. He crawled out of his tent in the night to see a cow moose, itching for a fight, her baby nearby. He shot them both, dragging the bodies away from his camp, saving only the calf’s hindquarters to eat.
Over the coming weeks, Mirabeau chopped down trees to build cabin walls and tilled a garden. He paddled south on the lakes, taking notes on each one in the vertical chain. He watched beavers swim, a pair of loons pass by with their newly hatched offspring, eagles swoop overhead, and moose—many moose. He ate well, supplementing the groceries he’d brought with food he harvested at Monlac: lentils, onions, potatoes, and trout one day, another, rice, vegetables from the garden, a morel mushroom he found near his cabin, and chunks of a moose he’d shot.
Mirabeau quickly learned the problem with killing big game. After shooting a young bull in August, he placed three of its quarters in a hollow and covered them with branches. Tucked away from sunlight, he thought they’d be well-preserved. But the next day, he arrived at the cache to find a bear had discovered the meat and dragged it out into the open. One shoulder was half-eaten, and what was left was covered in flies and worms. A waste. He raced back to his unfinished cabin and moved his tent inside, then nailed logs in the doorway as a barricade should the bear return to the area. For dinner, he cooked up the moose tongue in a sauce with parsley from the garden. Delicious. At least it was one thing the bear wouldn’t get—“unless he eats me, of course,” he wrote. From then on, he stuck to fishing and hunting small birds.
Much like Armstrong before him, Mirabeau surveyed the lake, surrounding forest, and nearest mountain, whose summit gave him a glimpse of the Hess River, and felt they were his. “My domain,” he called it. The fact that he had no legal right to be living there seemed inconsequential. This was the Yukon, after all, and he was certain it was outside the reaches of bureaucracy.
Canadians are allowed to camp on Crown land for 21 days, after which they must relocate to another site at least 100 metres away. Building any permanent structure, like a cabin, is illegal. The Yukon Lands Act prohibits using or occupying “Yukon lands without lawful authority.” And yet the territory has a proud history of squatting, given its origins as a place where newcomers cleared brush and built homesteads pretty well wherever they pleased. Through much of the 1900s, squatting was commonplace, and even up until the ’70s and ’80s, it was socially acceptable —part of the place’s anything-goes reputation—if not totally legal.
The Yukon appeals to people who seek the opposite of dense, urban living. As Neufeld wrote in the 2016 book Canadian Countercultures and the Environment, “incoming back-to-the-landers conceived of the Yukon as untouched wild space, a place where they could build alternative ways of living.” He writes about a young American man who, in the ’70s, came north with some friends. They paddled down the Yukon River towards Dawson City, looking for places they could live in the wilderness. “Steering into likely spots, they wandered through their selection of ‘free’ land, dreaming about what they could do,” Neufeld wrote. “Their experience was an almost mythic idyll of the counterculture.”
Also in the ’70s, a handful of people staked land on the Annie Lake Road, half an hour outside of Whitehorse. I know of one resident who bought property off another squatter in ’77 for $200—less so for the land than the hand-dug well the seller had built. (Now, the hamlet of Mount Lorne is home to about 400 people, with a community centre, ski trails, and a bush golf course. Large homes sell for over $500,000.)
At least in part, what’s fed this persistent “free land” mentality is the displacement of First Nations people dating back to the gold rush. The Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s 2020 book Dǎ kwǎndur ghày ghàkwadîndur: Our Story in Our Words lists nine forced relocations of its people since 1897.
Post-gold rush, as Whitehorse grew, neighbourhoods sprung up along the Yukon River downtown. In the ’40s and ’50s, about 1,000 people, including many First Nations residents, lived in Whiskey Flats, Sleepy Hollow, and Moccasin Flats, tight-knit communities of cabins and shacks with no sanitation, and many without electricity. According to Pat Ellis’s book The Squatters of Downtown Whitehorse and Their Stories, one-third of the city’s population in 1956 were squatters.
As the city developed, though, these makeshift buildings were deemed unsafe eyesores and residents were ultimately kicked out of the area and their homes destroyed. “Labelled as ‘squatters’ by townspeople in more fortunate economic circumstances, they lived in difficult conditions and faced constant pressures to leave—but had nowhere to go,” states the Kwanlin Dün book. Elijah Smith, an influential figure in Yukon history and the former chief of what was then called the Whitehorse Indian Band, called this what it was. At a 1968 public consultation with the federal government regarding changes to the Indian Act, Smith said: “We, the Indians of the Yukon, object to…being treated like squatters in our own country.” Smith and other leaders would pave the way for First Nations’ self-government and modern-day treaties. But that came later.
By the ’80s, the Yukon government decided it had to better address the high demand for rural land—and along with it, all the squatters. It had already developed rural residential neighbourhoods on the outskirts of municipalities for people who wanted a less urban lifestyle, but in a 1986 document, the government noted that there were still people who wanted to live in a “less structured environment.”
It acknowledged that there was limited rural land available for a few reasons, indicative of a young jurisdiction: a lack of land use plans, land inventories, and “a suitable land base” for the government to create a rural residential policy. Some people, as a result, chose to quietly squat. The federal government had amended the Territorial Lands Act back in 1957 to allow squatter evictions, according to Ellis’s book, but the problem continued. In the 1986 public document, the government acknowledged squatting “has long been recognized as one of Yukon’s most serious land management issues” and estimated there were 400 squatters in the territory.
It proposed a homesteader policy, which would provide inexpensive rural land for purchase, and a squatter policy, which would offer people a 90-day window to apply for lease or purchase of the land on which they’d been illegally living. If they ignored the process, they’d be evicted under existing federal and territorial legislation. And then the government would, typically, burn down the unauthorized structures.
Gerd Mannsperger, the owner of Whitehorse-based charter company Alpine Aviation, recalls many cabins being burned down in the Whitehorse area in the ’90s. He flew Mirabeau in and out of Chain Lakes several times over the years and warned him about the legality of what he was doing. “Quite a number of people over the years did exactly that,” he says. “They’d think they could just come up here, build a cabin, spend a winter, and there were cabins going up everywhere.”
Another warning, according to Mirabeau’s journal, came from a man named Simonson, who visited Monlac in 1999. It seems both men believed the cabin sat on Simonson’s trapping concession, which he used in the winter. Simonson advised Mirabeau to leave a sign on his door when he left for the season, informing government inspectors that the cabin was registered and that Mirabeau wasn’t a squatter. But Mirabeau didn’t think it was necessary—he wasn’t bothering anyone.
According to Mirabeau’s journals, the next few summers at Monlac were idyllic and passed without incident. He kept busy: In 1998, he cleared burnt trees from around the cabin, remnants of the forest fire a few years before, and crafted a bunk bed in anticipation of a visit from his son Laurent. The pair fished, hiked, took photographs, and baked bread. “These eight days went on like a dream,” Mirabeau wrote. “I wish all the fathers of the world to live from time to time a week with their son like the one I just lived.”
In 2000, he upgraded his oven, building a structure of willow wood, laying flat stones upon it, mixing powdered cement his pilot had dropped off, and pouring it over the oven vault.
Two years later, he began constructing a library near his cabin. An avid reader since he was a child, he called it the Very Small Library of the Very Big North. By the following summer, his collection had more than 150 books, including Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Plato’s Republic, and Sophocles's Complete Plays. He decided the library’s ex libris—a bookplate inscribed with its owner’s name—was the mosquito, since one of the smushed insects decorated the first page of nearly every book, sometimes tinged with his blood.
“The departure of guests is a blow every time, but then I resume my rhythm,” he wrote after his close friend Pierre Devinat visited in 2003. “I note that both types of stays, (alone or with one or more people) have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It’s not the same experience. More friendly, closer to what we experience in the city when we’re in company; more austere, almost religious or mystical, when you’re alone.” That summer, he finished building a cabin on the mountain, complete with a stove and chimney. When September rolled around, he was already excited for the following year. He’d decided to retire in the spring, then spend fourteen months at Monlac. “Finally… I will not be a cheechako anymore”—the derisive gold rush-era term for someone who hasn’t endured a Yukon winter.
The summer of 2004 passed as previous ones did, with long sunny nights and mild days, until the helicopter landed near his garden in August. Two territorial natural-resources officers, Aaron Koss-Young and Glenn Sorensen, stepped out of the chopper. By both Koss-Young’s account in the court documents he later filed and Mirabeau’s as per his journal and court filings, it was a pleasant interaction. Mirabeau offered them coffee and proudly showed them around. Though the officers complimented him on his setup, he was suspicious.
Mirabeau told Koss-Young and Sorensen of his plans to live at the lake throughout the winter, and, according to his journal retelling, they had no problems with this, though they advised him to apply for a lease on the land. But alarm bells were going off in Koss-Young’s head. “It cued a whole bunch of concerns in my way of thinking,” he told me in 2018. “He was well set up and stuff like that, but I don’t think he understood the full effects of the Yukon winters there. And as well as sustaining himself, there were a lot of questions in my mind how he was going to do that legally.”
At the time, one of Koss-Young’s tasks was to fly around the area and inspect residents’ properties, many of them trapping cabins. Often, he’d encounter people squatting. “You talk to anybody that visits the Yukon and a lot of people still think it’s the last frontier, the wild west here so you can get away with anything,” Koss-Young told me. According to his affidavit, he told Mirabeau that he was unlawfully occupying the site, and Mirabeau said he wanted to get tenure for the land. Koss-Young instructed Mirabeau to visit the lands branch office in Whitehorse when he was there in the coming weeks, a pre-planned trip to gather supplies for winter.
During that week-long trip in early September, Mirabeau talked with family and picked up a suitcase of books Devinat had mailed him. He did not, according to Koss-Young’s affidavit, visit the lands office. In court documents Mirabeau later filed, he said he’d given his mailing address to the officers so they could provide him with more information about getting land tenure. When he checked his mailbox in Whitehorse and saw no letter, he figured all was well. He arrived back at Monlac to snow on the mountaintops.
Meanwhile, Koss-Young had confirmed that Mirabeau had no claim to the land. While Mirabeau had told the officers he had Simonson’s permission to be there, the cabin didn’t actually sit on Simonson’s concession—it was on the neighbouring one, leased by a woman named Jane Wilson. Her lease only allowed for structures at two specific sites. The government began moving to seek a court order that would force Mirabeau off the land.
At home on Monlac that autumn, he was oblivious to this. He watched the temperature dip below zero, snow start to fall, the lake freeze over. On October 25, he turned 57. He spent the early winter months baking, feeding his wood stove, and reading. Periodically, he called Laurent and his mother using his satellite phone. “I have no alcohol or beloved in my cabin and I do very well,” he wrote on December 22. “Apollinaire and all his friends in the very small library are enough for my happiness.” On Christmas Day, he called his brother and his mother, and on December 30, he called Laetitia and Olivier in France.
Temperatures dipped to -40C outside, and -15C inside his cabin. Mirabeau would get up in the morning and hurriedly make a fire. He wrote that he felt like the character in Jack London’s To Build a Fire—a man who, rushing to his friends’ mining camp at 70-below, falls through ice, soaking his feet, and tries several times, unsuccessfully, to start a fire to warm them. Ultimately, he freezes to death in the snow. It took hours for the cabin’s temperature to creep up to 10C, so Mirabeau would put on a wool sweater and make steaming coffee, then crawl back into bed and read. On New Year’s Eve, he wrote a poem:
The cover of the calendar
On July 24, 2005, Mirabeau flew to Whitehorse on his way back to Ottawa, feeling triumphant he’d survived his first winter. Nine days prior, the territory’s manager of land use had filed paperwork in Yukon Supreme Court, seeking an order that would kick Mirabeau off the land. He got word of the motion on August 1, and hastily filed a response at the Whitehorse courthouse. He was livid and felt betrayed by the officers, who built a case against him while he showed them hospitality.
Over twelve pages, handwritten in blue pen, he railed against bureaucracy and what he called the new Yukon mentality. “This is why I tend to stay away from governments,” he wrote, mentioning that he knew Jane Wilson well and that they had been about to make a deal so he could stay on her concession. That he’d hoped the cabin would live on after his death as a refuge for travelers passing through the area. “But it seems that in this 21st century world, this kind of acting and thinking is out. It’s OK, this was done in the old Yukon spirit, the Yukon has sure changed a lot in the last years, and for the worse, this Yukon that’s rejecting me, I don’t want to be part of it anyway.”
The case made the local news. “It’s just not permitted to go out into the wilderness and hack out a homestead,” a government spokesperson told the Whitehorse Star. To some, though, Mirabeau’s actions were admirable. He was a symbol of the perceived good old days, before the government started to meddle in everything. “This man is living the dream!” one person wrote in a Toronto-based online forum.
After a hearing in Whitehorse on October 4, 2005, which Mirabeau did not attend, a judge ruled that he must stop living on the land. That month, employees with the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources moved Mirabeau’s possessions out of his cabin and library, and loaded them onto a helicopter bound for Mayo, a small community 160 kilometres away. Once there, the belongings were placed in a truck and driven four hours to Whitehorse, where they got moved into a storage locker.
EMR employees poured gasoline on the cabin and library and watched as they went up in flames. (It appears the government didn’t know about the other cabins Mirabeau built: the one on the mountain and the one near the Hess River. Those stayed standing.) In a November 4, 2005 letter to Mirabeau, the department informed him where his belongings were, and that he had until June 30, 2006, to collect them.
Mirabeau was devastated. Sometime between June 15 and June 30, 2006, he returned to Whitehorse and showed up at the storage locker with the government letter. The facility owner cut the lock and allowed Mirabeau to gather his things. “Mr. Mirabeau did not contact the Yukon government prior to retrieving his belongings,” EMR spokesperson Rod Jacob wrote to me in an email. “If he had, Yukon government would have unlocked the storage unit for him.”
Devinat tried to help his friend cope with the loss. He thought Mirabeau was depressed. “He was bitter about what happened, his way of life shattered,” he told me. A couple of times, the two men drove hours north of Ottawa, into rural Quebec, in an attempt to find an isolated, wooded area where he could live, closer to home. But nothing was suitable to Mirabeau. What exactly was he looking for? “A replica of the Yukon,” Devinat said. Instead, Mirabeau occasionally returned to Chain Lakes. Mannsperger recalls flying him out every few years for month-long stays. He’d bring a tent and, according to the pilot, bake bread using his oven, which was still intact.
In June 2014, Mirabeau arrived in Whitehorse once again. He was 66 years old now, with sagging skin at the corners of his eyes. He checked in to the Chilkoot Trail Inn, a derelict downtown hotel that tourists usually avoid, and booked a trip to Chain Lakes in a four-seater Cessna 180. On June 24, Mannsperger hopped into his truck at Alpine’s floatplane dock and drove into town to pick up Mirabeau at the Chilkoot. The man was “super happy,” as he always was on Yukon trips, Mannsperger says, and carried his usual amount of supplies: a duffel bag, a backpack, and two large plastic bins.
What was unusual, though, was that Mirabeau hadn’t booked a pickup date. He told Mannsperger he didn’t need one; he planned this year to paddle out via the Hess and Stewart rivers—a challenging trip, especially solo. He’d already stashed a canoe on the Hess, he said. But what if the canoe wasn’t there? Mannsperger asked. Mirabeau said he had a second canoe on Chain Lakes that he could use. Mannsperger relented, but told him he’d better call to let him know he’d made it out safely. One of Alpine’s pilots flew Mirabeau to Chain Lakes that afternoon.
Meanwhile, Mirabeau’s family members and a few close friends received letters from him. Devinat told me Mirabeau wrote that he didn't want to grow old and weak—he had aches and pains now that troubled him—and he was struggling financially. According to Devinat, Mirabeau wrote that he planned to shoot himself near one of his cabins.
On July 2, 2014, Mirabeau’s family reported him missing. For four days, police and EMR inspectors searched around Chain Lakes on foot, finding a small structure about 150 metres from where his main cabin used to be. Inside was, according to Yukon RCMP, “additional communication… indicating his potential whereabouts.” When they followed his directions, though, they turned up dry. When I told Devinat about this, he chuckled. “That might be a false hint,” he said. To him, Mirabeau had vowed, “They’ll never find me.”
The searchers did find a cabin on the mountain, though, and in their travels north to the Hess, another cabin along a creek. They also discovered a battered green canoe near the Hess.
A few weeks after Mirabeau’s disappearance, a hunting guide was walking alone on the south side of the Stewart River, near where the Hess flows into it, scouting the area before his clients arrived. He spotted human footprints in a sandbar, and, knowing someone was missing in the area, called Brian Wojciechowski, another guide who works that concession, directly north of Don Lind’s. They contacted RCMP, who brought out a helicopter. “We never found any evidence of anybody except these footprints that were there in this back channel, out in the middle of no place,” says Wojciechowski.
Searchers made frequent checks along the Stewart River, according to Jacob, and over the next three months, the RCMP and a government employee made at least three trips back to the area. Mannsperger never did get a call from Mirabeau to tell him he’d made his way out on the river. In November 2014, at -40C, officers flew over the area, looking for smoke curling up from the trees. In July 2015, a ground search uncovered nothing; the following month, another search was unsuccessful.
Police have now stopped looking, though they still consider the case open.
Devinat died in February 2020, but when we spoke a year earlier, he was certain his friend killed himself. Mirabeau was stubborn and steadfast—he wouldn’t change his mind on something he felt strongly about. At the time, Devinat was angry at him for what he’d chosen to do, angry he didn’t ask for help. His sons could have supported him financially. And Devinat could have passed along some translation work. “For me, it was more [that he was] giving up on the good things life could have given him.” But over time, Devinat came to respect his friend’s decision. “He was a bit of a showman, so his death was a bit of a show as well.”
Had Mirabeau decided to build Monlac a decade earlier, prior to the government’s squatter crackdown, perhaps he’d have been able to lease the land and live out his days there legally. But that would’ve required him to participate in a bureaucratic process, applying to the Yukon Squatter Review Panel, and Mirabeau bristled at complicated government procedure. Even up until the cabin and library were destroyed in 2005, he had opportunities to try to make what he was doing legal. He was warned about what would happen if the government found him. But he seemed to be in denial—he wanted to believe there were parts of Canada that you could escape to, that didn’t have laws or red tape.
Perhaps this was the most crushing thing about what happened at Monlac—not the physical loss of his lovingly built homestead, but that this ideal he’d held so closely and projected the remainder of his life onto was not real. “I don’t believe in property any more, nor in money, I don’t want to be an ‘owner,’” he wrote in his court affidavit. “In a few years I’ll be dead, and I’m not going to take this with me to the netherworld.”
Canada was founded on colonialism—land was not settlers’ to take, but we took it. To this day, we’re still reckoning with the fact that this theft—and everything that came after it, from disease to the Indian Act to residential schools—is what our country is built on. What does land ownership even mean in this context? Only in recent years have many non-Indigenous Canadians begun opening their eyes to the country’s full history, learning about colonialism and reconciliation, offering land acknowledgments, thinking about what existed here before we did.
Before Mirabeau, before big-game outfitting camps, before Nevill Armstrong, the Chain Lakes wilderness was the realm of the Northern Tutchone and Kaska people. Hallmarks of the landscape back then would have appeared much the same as they do now: moose picking their way through thick forest, wolf howls and loon calls carrying across the lake, warm, evening sunlight in summer, the stillness of deep winter.
Today, Mirabeau’s imprint on the land lingers. Sometime between 2010 and 2012, Lind, the outfitter, found a cache in the trees near the lake and a concrete oven dug into a hillside. The three buildings discovered in 2014—the small log structure on the side of the lake, the mountain cabin, and the fishing cabin—are still standing, according to the Yukon government. The intention is, perhaps next year, for territorial employees to remove these traces of inhabitation and reclaim the site by returning it to its pre-Mirabeau state. Something Mirabeau wrote in his affidavit sixteen years ago echoes: “They can take what I have, they can’t take what I had.”
This piece was written with support from the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program at the Banff Centre.