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Love After 78 Years of Marriage

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.

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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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It’s Friday night in Ross River, population 352, and Alice and Arthur’s place is hopping. A handful of the couple’s 38 grandkids spill out of the kitchen into the living room, where Curly, a little black mutt, is barking wildly. The Johns’ house has always been full of relatives: five generations grew up around Alice and Arthur. “What’s the secret to staying married so long, Mom?” asks daughter Dorothy, 62, yelling loud enough for Alice’s old ears. Alice looks at her quizzically. Dorothy repeats the question. Alice observes Arthur, sitting quietly across the room enjoying his cup of tea. “I don’t know,” she says, laughing.

Alice and Arthur were officially married at an Anglican mission in 1935 after spending almost three years together in the bush. Later that same year, out on their trapline, a visiting Catholic priest blessed them. Last May, Pope Francis consecrated their union, sending a letter in honour of their 78th anniversary celebrations. The illuminated document, written in thick black calligraphy, has 

been framed and now hangs in the house.

The Johns shared a big brass bed until just a few years ago, when their aching bodies finally forced them to sleep separately. But Alice still gets up every morning and fixes her husband coffee and toast, and when his snuff runs low, she makes more, mixing powdered birch fungus with tobacco and strong black tea.

It used to be the other way around.

For as long as their children remember, Arthur would bring his wife a cup of coffee before she got up. “Mom had to be treated very good,” says daughter Mary, 59. “We could never swear or raise our voices in front of her.” Coffee in bed was one of the few luxuries life in the mountains outside Ross River permitted. There weren’t disposable diapers, processed foods or doctors. Alice spent most of her days gathering berries, drying meat for winter, sewing, setting snares and tanning hides, often with one of 11 children strapped on her back. Arthur trapped, cut wood for the steamships plying the rivers, helped miners search for gold and ran mail for the U.S. army. 

This rugged existence didn’t allow much time for romance, though there were moments-nighttime toboggan rides when the kids were asleep, quiet swims under star-filled skies. Alice and Arthur worked hard to survive, and cared for each other through the loss of seven children to disease and accidents. When their remaining kids were taken to residential school in Lower Post, B.C., more than 300 kilometres away, Alice and Arthur packed what they could carry and travelled by dog team to rebuild nearby.

Years later, when the Johns finally moved back to Ross River, animals and intruders had ransacked their old cabin. Photos were scattered across the floor, and with them a love letter, containing pencilled promises in a script that wasn’t Arthur’s. “When Mom first started going with Dad, she had no choice,” says Dorothy. “I think she might have had someone else in mind.”

Arthur and Alice were very different. He was social, always meeting people and inviting them to the house. “Dad helped everyone and believed you get back what you give,” says Mary. One time, he offered to teach a German couple to tan hides. They stayed for two weeks. Sometimes her husband’s storytelling would make Alice-the quieter one-crazy. When Arthur paused to talk to people, Alice would jokingly tell one of her children to drive away, in a bid to speed him up. 

Alice never got her licence, so when they were in their 60s, Arthur put her behind the wheel. The lessons were going well but stopped abruptly when Alice rolled the truck. Arthur decided to stick with cards. After learning how to play poker from the American soldiers for whom he worked, he had taught his wife. She was a natural: whenever they played, they cleaned up.

The pair took pride in each other, and not just when it came to poker. Alice cooked Arthur the best moose meat; he gave her the fastest dog team. Whenever Arthur went trapping, he ensured his wife had the choicest furs to work with. In return, Alice sewed Arthur the most beautifully decorated dog harnesses and the thickest footwear. 

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Alice is holding a pair of tiny moccasins. “That’s caribou,” she says, gently touching the white trim. “And this part is moose.” These doll-sized slippers, which usually hang from the rear-view mirror of Dorothy’s truck, are the last ones Alice made before arthritis seized up her hands a decade back. The Johns have slowed down but still live independently. Dorothy, who has a place a few kilometres away, comes by most days to help with dinner. Hunters also drop off wild game, which Alice dries the traditional way, on poles balanced between kitchen cupboards. 

“Mom has a tough time with Dad these days because of his dementia,” says Dorothy. “But they have always cared for each other.” And they instilled strong values in their children: never gossip, respect your elders, be clean-even if you’re living in a tent-and be kind to one another. 

Alice and Arthur don’t talk much these days. He can’t see but can hear pretty well. Alice can see, with the help of glasses, but can’t hear clearly. This, together with Arthur’s loosening grip on reality, makes conversation tough. Arthur might not always remember the poker games now, the nighttime toboggan rides or even the years spent out on the land. Alice might struggle to recall small details, like what year the family moved to Lower Post or when exactly she gave up her dog team. But there are instances when everything comes rushing back to them. Quiet, candlelit evenings in front of the wood stove. That time they went to coastal Alaska and stood awestruck among the enormous trees. Their first taxi ride in Vancouver. The nights they cleared everything out of the cabin and danced to fiddle tunes until dawn. How Arthur used to tease Alice until she blushed, asking who the lucky man was as she sewed him new mitts. 

Alice gets off the couch and goes to sit beside her husband. They both stare out the window at their snowy front yard, and Alice reaches over to take Arthur’s hand. Suddenly, he turns to look at her, eyes twinkling.

Dorothy decides to give her question another go. “What is the secret to staying married so long, Mom?” Alice has heard her; she simply doesn’t understand the line of questioning. Dorothy tries a different tack. “What would you tell your grandson, now that he’s with a girl?” Alice answers immediately. “Don’t look at other women,” she says. “Stay married as long as us. And treat her good.”