POLITICS

Dennis Bell, creator of a cussing bird legend, dies at 69 after long career

07/05/2012 12:50 EDT | Updated 09/04/2012 05:12 EDT
Dennis Bell, a gifted writer and veteran newsman who gave birth to the rollicking story of the Carcross parrot, has died at the age of 69.

Bell worked at a half-dozen news outlets during his career, but it was while he was at the Vancouver bureau of The Canadian Press in 1972 that he wrote the parrot story and spawned a legend.

He was a master of his craft who ignored standard "formulas" for writing and he spared nothing in his tale of a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, ill-tempered bird that lived in the tiny Caribou Hotel in the hamlet of Carcross in the Yukon.

It was "probably the oldest, meanest, ugliest, dirtiest bird north of the 60th parallel."

The parrot had supposedly come north to the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century and was left at the hotel by its owners while they took a trip south to Vancouver. But they died when the steamer Princess Sophia struck a rock in the Lynn Canal south of Skagway and went down with all her passengers and crew.

The bird haunted the hotel, with miners and locals keeping him in beer and shots of booze. It was said the parrot would get so drunk it would fall off its perch. Then, with a new owner, came a change of heart. The bird learned to sing Onward Christian Soldiers and went off alcohol.

But it remained an ornery critter, except that it seemed to enjoy chatting with children.

Kevin Doyle, another former CP writer, recounted the legend of Bell and the parrot in the 1980 book, Canadian Newspapers, the Inside Story.

"No editor in his right mind could resist it, and few did," Doyle wrote. "It was all there: a cantankerous, lovable bird, the always threatening danger of booze, life at the frontier. A newspaperman's dream story."

The story took off in the '70's version of going viral: newspapers and TV networks wanted their own coverage.

But did the Carcross parrot even exist? The legend says no. It says when Bell saw the attention given to the tale, he made a quick call to the sympathetic hotel manager and the next story told the sad tale of the bird's demise.

In Doyle's account, though, Bell said the original story was substantially correct.

"If so, it's too bad," Doyle wrote. "For many former CP staffers, the legend has more legitimacy than the dead parrot."

As it happens, Yukoners insist there was a Carcross parrot.

"It definitely existed," said Jim Robb of Whitehorse, who writes about Yukon life. "I must have seen the original one years ago, I can't remember much about it."

But was it the roughest, toughest, meanest bird in the Klondike, as Bell described?

Well the tale may have been embroidered around the edges, says Leighann Chalykoff of the MacBride Museum of Yukon History in Whitehorse.

"As far as I know, there was a parrot, but stories of the parrot were greatly exaggerated."

Dorothy Gibbon of the Carcross Visitor Information Centre says there was some embellishment of the bird's temper and vocabulary.

"You know, I think it swore a little

But Gibbon said the parrot's death in 1972 was mourned by the community.

"It had a little funeral procession through town," she said. "They sang songs, laid it to rest and probably went over to the hotel and drank."

The parrot's grave is marked with a bronze plaque.

Bell would turn his remarkable writing skills to hundreds of other stories, but it was the parrot story that always brought a knowing smile to any of his contemporaries.

Phil Adler, a retired Canadian Press journalist who was Bell's boss in Vancouver in the 1970's, doesn't believe the bird was mythical.

"Dennis was creative and the parrot story fit his writing strength," Adler said. "However, I always felt that Dennis did not create the creature — the Carcross parrot was just waiting for Dennis."

Bell started his news career at the Calgary Herald. He also worked for the Calgary Albertan, the Vancouver Times, the Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, MacMillan Bloedel, the Vancouver Province and BCTV.

He died in Vancouver on June 27. He is survived by his wife Margaret, son Ian and his mother, Jean Hunter.