Leonard Lea Frazer didn’t know what he had stumbled upon when he met what looked like a road-weary traveller in the lobby of the Valemount Hotel in 1979.
Frazer, who is an avid historian and journalist ended up speaking with a man he describes as ‘an old drunk’ in the prologue of his book, Caribou Joe and the Building of the Grand Trunk Railroad.
What Frazer discovered after letting his thirst for history get the better of him was the beginning of a four-hour conversation that would be responsible for a series of stories in the Canoe Mountain Echo, a former Valemount publication.
“Caribou Joe is not like the Kondike Petes or Yukon Jacks that people have come to associate with the gold rush days,” Frazer said.
“Regardless, he was a legend in his own time.”
Caribou Joe was a bootlegger who made his way by offering his wares to the men that built the Grand Trunk railway, Frazer learned in the first and only conversation he had with Caribou Joe.
“After that I would almost constantly tell my friends the stories he told me,” he said.
“They got tired of hearing the stories and suggested I write them down.
“It wasn’t until 1986 that I actually took their advice.”
When Frazer introduces Caribou Joe he is a wet-behind-the ears 18-year-old plying ‘stump whiskey’ to blue-collar lads along the Grand Trunk.
Caribou Joe used to cart up to 70 bottles of moonshine on horseback and always kept his revolver, knife and rifle close to him, Frazer wrote in episode one of his book.
“Suddenly I had all these people reading the paper strictly for my Caribou Joe stories,” Frazer said.
“Well I’m sure they read the rest of the paper too, but they read about Joe first.
“I had people yelling at me across parking lots trying to find out what was going to happen next.”
The book is a compilation of years of episodes published in the Echo, which Frazer admits became mostly imagination after a time.
“I ran out of material from the conversation I had with Joe fairly quickly,” Frazer said.
“But with steady research and a bit of creativity I managed to keep writing.”
Frazer took a 20-year hiatus from writing about Caribou Joe until a new editor came to Valemount asking for some fresh stories.
“By then I had started collecting illustrations and was living in Smithers,” Frazer said.
“That’s where the artists from the northwest come in,” he said.
Most of the stories in Caribou Joe are accompanied by illustrations from northwestern artists, such as, Leah Pipe, James Madam, Bill Metcalf, Theresa Schwab, Katherina Loschberger and Wanda Belisle.
“There are also several photos,” Frazer said.
“But, I think, the illustrations give the book a bit more texture.”