Love After 78 Years of Marriage (1/3)

He raced other suitors to win her hand. She threw his belongings in the river. Eleven children, 38 grandchildren and almost 80 years later, Arthur and Alice John are making it work.

Love After 78 Years of MarriagePhotos: Ian Stewart

Arthur John sits by the living room window, clutching a cup of tea in his stiff, cracked hands. At 102, he can’t see much anymore, has trouble hearing and sometimes gets mixed up, mistaking the teacup for something else—a lynx trap, perhaps, or a piece of bone used to scrape fat from moosehide.

He fiddles with the cup, tipping it dangerously to one side. His wife, Alice, younger by six years, raises a gnarled hand in silent protest. She’s used to these antics. She doesn’t bother shuffling across the floor to rescue the cup. Instead, she continues to brew tea for her husband, even though it sometimes ends up on the floor.

The Johns have been married for 78 years, making them, by all accounts, one of Canada’s longest-wedded couples. It’s a feat that requires tolerance for spilled tea—and a great deal more.

Their love story began in 1932 on a raft bobbing down the Pelly River in the Yukon. Out trapping in the woods, 21-year-old Arthur lashed rough-hewn pine logs together with rope. Once the raft was done, he pointed it toward the tiny Kaska First Nation settlement of Ross River, more than three days downstream. When it grew dark, he paddled. When thunder and lightning rolled across the sky, he paddled. Even when exhaustion took hold, Arthur kept paddling because he knew there were others—all hightailing it toward the same spot.

A rival suitor was running overland from Dawson City, more than 400 kilometres away; another had left his village of Pelly Crossing to head madly up the river. All three were making a beeline for Alice, a dark-haired beauty with plenty of beaux. She’d turned 15 and was now old enough to marry.

Alice knew they were coming. She’d met them before, during feasts with families from far-flung villages, and she’d seen them out on the trap­line in winter when their dog teams passed, heavy with furs. Arthur was most familiar to her. A local boy, he was already a family favourite. So when he arrived first, tired, hungry and happy, he immediately got the nod from Alice’s father. Arthur had won himself a wife.

Following Kaska First Nation tradition, the young couple had to build a tiny cabin in the woods to learn how to coexist. Before moving in, Alice was spotted on the shore of a nearby river, chucking Arthur’s possessions into the fast-moving current. She didn’t know that around the bend, her brothers were quietly fishing them out. The family liked him, and they were sure Alice would learn to, as well.

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