FOR several years I ran a small library up in the far North where I once lived. It was a mining library. Mining was big business in the North and we had two very productive gold mines on the outer edges of town, so I had books on rocks and minerals and other things to do with the earth.
Most of the people who visited my library were locals - geologists and miners who came in to read the magazines. But in the summer I got visitors from outside - independent prospectors who came north to work on their claims. These were tough, seasoned men. They had stubble on their chins and wore caps advertising trucking firms. Most were retired and didn't need to work, but I suspect the lure of gold was something they could never get out of their blood.
One of them was Rudy Thies, a retired diesel mechanic. Rudy was born in Germany and had come to Canada as a boy. He was a small man, tough as steel cable and wiry. He had quick, darting eyes that were small as raisins and black as the northern night sky.
Rudy was never stationary. He was always on the run, flying to the bank, the map office, down to the hardware store in Old Town. Wherever you went, Rudy had been there before you. Jake Elrod, the bush pilot, said he was a man ahead of his time.
Rudy's claims were out on the Barrenlands, that vast expanse of land extending west of the Hudson Bay to the shores of Great Bear Lake. Rudy was convinced his claims held diamonds, and he was hurrying to stake every square inch of Barrenland he could get his hands on. His plan was to sell it all to a mining company and retire in luxury back in his homeland.
I had some books on diamonds in my library - big, expensive tomes - published in Holland. Nobody was very interested in them. But to Rudy they were pure gold, so I let him take them out to the bush, providing he took good care of them.
Apparently, it was very difficult looking after books in the Barrens, and the main problem was bears. Rudy had no end of trouble with them, because of the culinary expertise of Olaf, his cook.
Olaf was Rudy's opposite, a big, jovial man with no sense of timing or organization but a wonderful way with pies. Olaf's pies were famous, especially the blueberry ones. They were big, bumpy things, oozing juice and berries and with crusts so flaky they fell apart if you breathed too hard. Men put their jobs on the line for those pies, and bush planes were known to go several miles out of their way just so their pilots could get a piece of one.
Unfortunately, so did the bears. Whenever Olaf put a pie out to cool, a bear would inevitably turn up. It would saunter into camp, poke its nose under the tent-flap, and make itself at home while Olaf hid under a rock. Then the bear would go through the contents of the cookhouse until it got bored and sauntered back out.
Such an event always put a great strain on the camp. Rudy would come back tired and hungry from a day of drilling to find nothing on the table to eat and Olaf knee-deep in a sea of pots and pans, looking for his rolling pin. They wouldn't speak to each other for days.
Rudy always kept my books on a shelf above the stove. Why he did that I don't know, as they always suffered the worst indignities there, ending up either in the soup pot or on the floor and coming back to me tattered and torn and covered with strange substances that couldn't be identified.
I told Rudy he should take my books out to the bush with him when he went and not leave them to the mercy of the bears. So the following year he did. He packed them in a rucksack, along with his axes and blasting caps. But then he swamped his canoe, and everything but Rudy went down to the bottom of Great Bear Lake, never to be seen again.
He lost a lot of money that year. He had to replace his canoe and gear and buy me new books (which amounted to a few hundred dollars), and he only got half the amount of claims staked that he intended. Plus he had to find a new cook because Olaf went back to town and found a job as a hotel pastry chef.
Staking claims in the Barrenlands is a very difficult process, so Rudy told me one day. Much more complicated than anywhere else. Normally you hammer your claim stakes into a tree or the ground, but when there's only rock and tundra, sometimes you have to build cairns and bury the claim tags on top. Then you paint the rocks red so you can find them again next spring. Otherwise you lose track of the previous year's work and have to start over again. That was why some of my books sometimes came back in Sep tember with red streaks on their spines.
IN the mid-'70s, Rudy struck it rich. A wealthy aunt in Germany left him clear title to a mansion on the River Elbe, just outside of Hamburg.
To Rudy, it was a dream fulfilled, much better than tramping over the tundra looking for diamonds. He couldn't get back to Germany fast enough. But to go the conventional way would have meant retracing hundreds of air miles back down to Edmonton, so he hitched a ride on a passing bush plane and went up to the Arctic Coast. From there, he took a helicopter back down to Anchorage and picked up a Tokyo-Frankfurt flight that was just coming in on a refueling stop.
In his haste, Rudy packed my books. He didn't find them for over a year. When they finally turned up in the bottom of a tool box he sent them to "Norma Lofthouse, care of the Northwest Territories." But he left off the full address. They went to Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. A kindly librarian there figured out the mistake and sent them on to me, along with a cheery note.
I don't know if Rudy ever returned to the North. I think probably not. For the good of northern library services, I hope he didn't.
But I read in the newspaper recently that diamonds were found up around Great Bear Lake last summer. It's quite a bonanza, the biggest since the Klondike. There are over 30 companies up there right now, and millions of dollars are being made.
It's too bad Rudy couldn't have gotten a piece of the action. He was 20 years too soon.
But then, Jake Elrod always said he was a man ahead of his time.