February 26, 2010
I am thinking about a beautiful place at the top of Canada, and missing the people who live there.
For the first ten days of February, I lived and worked in Old Crow. The village of about 300 people is located north of the Arctic Circle on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 800 kilometres north of Whitehorse. It is the only fly-in community in the Yukon, tucked inside the immense territory of the Van Tat Gwich’in. [If you’re looking for the community online, the other recognized spelling is Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Their traditional lands spread into Alaska, up to Herschel Island on the Arctic coast, and across the mountains to Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories.]
I arrived at a sad but important time in Old Crow’s winter.
The northern Yukon’s best-loved and most famous writer, Edith Josie died on January 31st at the age of 88. Edith devoted her long life to documenting daily happenings in Old Crow. Her column, Here Are the News, appeared in the Whitehorse Star for forty years and was syndicated to newspapers in Edmonton and Toronto. Edith’s stories appeared in translation around the world in languages as diverse as Finnish and Italian. The people of Old Crow cancelled all other activities to prepare a traditional funeral.
I had admired Edith from a distance for many years, and so I felt honoured to meet her family, attend her funeral in the old log Anglican church, and celebrate her life at a community feast with people from all over the Yukon, Alaska and the Northwest Territories. I’ve been writing a story about the moving way that people in Old Crow say goodbye to elders, and to Edith Josie in particular. I will never forget our long walk to her gravesite, or the loving words at her feast.
Community members gathered again a week later to celebrate the publication of People of The Lakes: Stories of Our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders an impressive oral history collection, carefully assembled through interviews with elders out on the land, exhaustive transcription and translation into English.
This comprehensive project began in January, 1999. The book is a significant achievement for Old Crow elders and the heritage team that delivered their stories to readers. Full of colour photographs, it covers 150 years of Van Tat Gwich’in history and overflows with fascinating yeenoo dai’ googwandak or “long ago stories” about traditional knowledge of every kind.
If 150 years sounds like a long time, it is a spark in the lifetime of this community.
Archaeological evidence suggests the land of the Van Tat Gwich’in might be the site of the earliest human occupation in North America. The record of ancestors in the area can be traced back about 15,000 years.
I came here to find not-so-long-ago stories about children’s experiences in Old Crow. I loved talking with kids at Chief Zzeh Gittlit School and everywhere else in town. I also interviewed adults who had a special childhood story to tell, people like Marla Charlie and her mother Elizabeth Kaye ~ who create exquisite beaded clothing and crafts ~ and Florence Netro who is planning to take school kids and their teachers out on the land this spring for Gwichi’in culture camp.
Inheriting the same love of storytelling, a seven-year-old girl named Madison Lord sat down beside me and invented the funny story of The Baby Moose With the Fake Broken Leg.
I would love to fill this blog with pictures of the great people I met in Old Crow, but I need permission first to publish their photographs. Their stories and pictures will surface in the book I’m writing. Right now I’ll share a few pictures of Marla Charlie’s beadwork, and snapshots of the community, the river and the infinite expanse of land around it.
If you want to visit one beautiful place in Canada beyond the reach of your imagination, find your way to Old Crow. It won’t disappoint you.
January 21, 2010
I am back in the Yukon, travelling north.
For the next six weeks, I’ll be in Whitehorse, Dawson City, Old Crow, Inuvik, Norman Wells and Yellowknife, looking for stories and writing them, too.
I’m travelling light ~ just one little suitcase; a laptop computer named Ma’am, [she grumbles when people call her Mac]; a digital audio recorder; and a favourite notebook that goes everywhere with me.
My friend Kirby gave me the notebook just before I left Edmonton last September. By now it’s full of scribbled interview notes; story leads; long lists of photo possibilities from two different archives; phone numbers and email addresses; a mini-dictionary of the seasons and animals in the Tlingit and Han languages; and a thousand questions for northerners I haven’t met yet. I’ve glued two fold-out indexes to the inside of the back and front covers so that I can find everything.
Hoping the notebook will last a little longer, I’ve even started to write in tiny script.
As I travel through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, I never worry about January weather, or winter flying conditions, or whether I’ll find a place to stay in the next town, or whether I’ll finish the book in time for my deadline. Never. I only worry about losing my green notebook.
Like everyone else in the world, I take notes on my laptop, too, and file cold facts into little, blue folders on my desktop. I am an obedient citizen of the digital universe although I often curse the wizards who invented Microsoft Word. With a minimum of tapping on the keyboard, I recently found cool new software that creates digital notebooks; and no, this is not an ad, but if you want to take a look, here’s a link to Thoughts. Two Austrian web designers created these notebooks to look like real books on a shelf, but you can search the contents and organize research notes in interesting ways. The program is a godsend for researchers and writers who once had to sift through stacks of scrap paper as high as Mount Logan to find the middle initial of the thirteenth mountain climber to climb Mount Logan. That kind of research work was exasperating. I am not nostalgic for the era before laptops.
Did you hear that, Ma’am? I mean it.
So why do I carry my green notebook? After all it has no search function, no alphabetized index, no font choices. I can’t erase pages with a simple click, and I can’t even read my handwriting half the time. Paper notebooks are becoming as obsolete as Underwood typewriter ribbons, and yet they have redeeming qualities. Like this one . . .
I can touch it. I can scribble little maps of Tuktoyaktuk in it. When I’m bored, or lonesome, I can doodle blue triangles in it. I can write notes to myself in it that will never find their way into proper books or fact-filled digital files: for instance, a recipe for candied oranges from Tiss in Dawson City, page 82; The List of Odd Bumper Stickers On Northern Pickup Trucks [ Eat Moose, 8,296 wolves can’t be wrong ]; The List of Unusual Signs Outside Northern Restaurants, [ Road Kill Cafe. You kill it, we grill it. ] The list of northern animals I’ve seen so far. [Two grizzlies; seven black bears; two porcupine, waddling; two moose, swimming; one bull moose, dining; a herd of buffalo sitting on the road between Toad River and Liard River Hot Springs; first four caribou . . .]
The green notebook is never intrusive. When I’m sitting with a northerner at a kitchen table, especially a shy person, I don’t want to type his spoken words into my laptop as he speaks. With a tiny audio recorder beside my elbow, I can take out my notebook, and silently bring his ideas to paper.
The speaker feels free to talk. The listener is so busy writing, writing, writing words, with her head down, that she doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story, except for very short questions.
I keep my notebook because it inspires me to listen, to ask one more question, to explore the vast northern places that can fill an open page.
January 1, 2010
Early on New Year’s Eve, I’m looking over my shoulder at four beautiful months in the Yukon.
With my residency at Berton House at an end, I came home to Edmonton just in time to share a magical Christmas holiday with family, friends and two rambunctious puppies named Franny and Zooey. It was a happy reunion on all fronts. Yet this morning, I’m looking north again: out my kitchen window, over the roof of the Buddhist temple next door, beyond downtown office towers, and past Edmonton’s northern suburbs to a distant town that beckons me back.
If I’m missing Dawson, I have plenty of company. I like to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people around the world occasionally look north and remember a long walk up the same trail.
I will remember the walk down the hill, too, descending into the town through deep snow, to a small, warm house on Eighth Avenue.
I loved the pattern of my days in that house. I will remember quiet breakfasts, peering through the window into the midnight darkness of a December morning, and listening to the Yukon weather reports on CBC radio to acquire a new geography. Old Crow. Haines Junction. Pelly Crossing. Beaver Creek. Burwash Landing. I liked to imagine the hundreds of caribou crossing the open territory up the Dempster as I began each day.
Every morning my partner Allan would go out walking, along the river and through the town, then up the Dome Road, while I settled down to a day’s work. He returned at noon with stories to tell about the people he’d encountered, and with new pictures to show me of his walking route. He took photographs at the same places every day, and yet not one picture was ever the same. The remarkable light in the Yukon can transform a trail, a hilltop, a northern river into something fresh and unfamiliar—day after day after day.
Sometimes as Allan approached the house he took a picture of me at my desk through the window.
We talked through a lunch of hot soup and bannock, and then returned to work. I interrupted my research in the late afternoon to go for a walk, and do errands in the town. As time progressed, I visited new friends and volunteered a bit in the community.
At night, back at Berton House, we read from a stack of library books about the Yukon that piled higher and higher on every tabletop in the house.
We read through the silence of winter nights without interruption or obligation. Can anything make a writer happier than this?
In my first six weeks at Berton House, I found the calm atmosphere I needed to complete a difficult manuscript. On and off for a decade, as time allowed, I had been collaborating with two Cree elders in Edmonton, Nellie Carlson and Kathleen Steinhauer, on a book about their lives as early activists in the Indian Rights for Indian Women movement. My free time in Dawson allowed me to rewrite the first draft and dig for missing research. I will remember the triumphant day that I marched down to the Post Office to mail the completed manuscript to Nellie and Kathleen in Edmonton as one of my happiest in the Yukon.
In the second half of my residency at Berton House, I concentrated on research for my next book, Northern Kids, with story interviews, and visits to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in office; the Dawson City Museum ; the Klondike Instititute of Art and Culture ; and the Dawson City Community Library where I also gave an evening reading. In a few visits to Robert Service School, I worked with the kids of Dawson on their own writing projects. One weekend in early December, I flew south to offer a workshop in non-fiction writing and publishing at the Whitehorse Public Library before returning to Dawson.
In early January and February, I will be returning to the Yukon and Northwest Territories on solo trips to continue my research for the book. I owe so much of the groundwork for this project to an early winter of hard work and contemplation at Berton House, and to the pleasure of living in Dawson City for three months.
I like to imagine far-flung travellers around the world—in Nigeria, maybe, or in Sweden or Japan or India—daydreaming simultaneously about the same view of the frozen Yukon River that twists like a white ribbon past Dawson, past Moosehide, past the abandoned buildings at Forty Mile to the little town of Eagle, Alaska and beyond to the sea. If you’ve seen that river once, you can see it in your sleep, and imagine it in all seasons.
It would be enough to be wistful for the wild northern landscape. More than the scenery, and the historic character of the old gold rush town, I will miss the interesting people I met in Dawson.
The overflowing spirit of the community surfaces on the cluttered bulletin boards in the Post Office, the Dawson City General Store and the Bonanza Market. In my last week in town, I snapped dozens of pictures of these hand-lettered messages, but this poster from Dwayne Kelly was my favourite:
I like Dwayne’s description of Dawson’s citizens as “generous and hardy.” Their creativity inspired me, too.
This week, my successor, Mylène Gilbert-Dumas, unpacked her books and files with all of the gratitude and hopefulness that I felt in October. For me, the residency was transformative: changing my attitude to my work, and the work itself. I have a hunch Mylène will be as happy in Dawson as I was.
For a decade, Berton House writers have left a note in a journal on the oak desk for their successors. I guess this is mine.
So here’s a prediction from a new friend in Alberta on New Year’s Eve, 2009. You will never leave Dawson City behind you, Mylène. The Yukon and its gifts will travel with you wherever you go.
Happy New Year to the fine people of Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada—and to all people, everywhere. I wish you happiness and northern adventures.
December 10, 2009
If Canadian English is a language of its own—and I’d say it is—we need new words to describe northern light.
I am not talking about aurora borealis, but the soft twilight that descends on northwestern Canada through the days of late December. What should we call it?
We have inherited or borrowed a language from another continent that can’t get its tongue around a northern Canadian environment. Twilight isn’t the right word for something that happens at the beginning of a day. How can we talk about sunrise when the morning sun never rises above our heads?
We need a new word for the luminous glow on the eastern horizon that reminds us of the sun’s existence two hours after breakfast.
When we’re standing inside a shadow beneath a blue sky, we need a new way to describe the daylight at noon.
We need a new word for the colour of a human shadow on the ice of the Yukon River. Is it a shade of blue? Or is it white?
And what about sunset? How can a sun set if it hasn’t risen? Here in the Yukon, I like to take pictures of the soft red-streaked orange shadow on the hills in mid-afternoon. What should we call this?
We need an extra word for the blush in the sky in late afternoon that means a snowfall is coming the next day. Children recognize the colour of snow clouds they way they understand the texture of snow. They have their own definitions for snowball snow, tobogganing snow, stay-home-from-school snow, and snow-cave snow. We need that precise definition for different formations of light that keep us alive in winter when the sun abandons us.
Most of all we need new words for darkness.
Outside my window, it is midnight-dark at nine o’clock in the morning. Two weeks before winter solstice, we can count on about four hours of something like daylight here. I want different words for the energetic darkness of the morning and the intimate darkness of the afternoon. December is not one long night, but something more beautiful.
I came to the Yukon with hopeful expectations of aurora borealis, and wild streaks of blue and green across a night sky. As it turns out, those northern lights are hiding this year. One recent afternoon I was listening to CBC Radio from Whitehorse, and heard a geophysicist explain the mysterious disappearance of the northern lights.
Aurora borealis happens when energy particles from the sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. Solar activity runs on a 22-year cycle, with eleven positive years and eleven negative years. When the solar activity dies down, aurora borealis vanishes from the night sky in the north, and no amount of whistling can bring the lights to Earth. Scientists call this the “quiet time” for solar activity, and it disappoints a lot of people, especially international travellers who come here for the aurora alone.
I haven’t seen aurora borealis once since I arrived in the Yukon, but I can’t say I’m disappointed. Here I’ve discovered new formations of northern light and northern darkness, and the shadows that define our lives between dawn and dusk. For once I have time to think about them.
If only there were new words in English to put northern thoughts into language. If you have ideas, I’d love to hear them.
December 7, 2009
I’ve found some new friends in Dawson. They’re a bit younger than me, but they write books, too.
I met them the other day inside a colourful classroom at Robert Service School in Dawson City. Teacher Peter Menzies asked me to talk to his Grade Three class about writing. I told the kids they were lucky to find a teacher like him. Way back in ancient times I had a Grade Four teacher who told me that I could write stories as a hobby at home but I probably couldn’t earn my living as a professional writer.
“Maybe that teacher made you a bit mad,” one Dawson student suggested when I told that story. Mad, sad and determined, too.
The kids in Dawson already know they can create anything if they try hard enough.
Have you ever read a story about a moose that ate bannock?
One girl read me her book about how she followed that awesome moose through the bush just because it was interesting.
In her drawings, the moose is always smiling. Well, no wonder!
Later I sat on the floor and explored Hong Kong with a boy who had travelled all the way from the Yukon to China, and made a travel scrapbook with his family to remind him of his journey. Nearby I read a hilarious illustrated comic about a superhero named Marshmallow Man.
Another book, The Snow Machine, could be a bestseller. It began: “Once upon a time there was a little girl who drove a snowmachine and she was only one year old . . .”
If you need a new bathroom, you might like to read a helpful how-to book called Making an Outhouse. [“Usually, you will make an outhouse three feet by three feet.”]
One of the longer books was a true story about a Dawson City boy whose grandfather is teaching him how to drive heavy equipment “such as tow trucks, and loaders, and high-up trucks and 500 snowmobiles with reverse, and excavators.” This student’s family knows all about the gold mining operations around Dawson City, and they also own a gas station. The pictures showed a boy driving a gigantic yellow Cat through the mountains, a boy driving a bulldozer and lots of gas pumps.
Another book, Travel Ways, explained every single way you can travel through the Yukon, including snowmobiles and helicopters. I also enjoyed another story called My Peaceful Life because it reminded me how much I will miss peaceful Dawson when I leave it next month.
“Stand up to bullies!” wrote another author in her book. “Anti-Bully Day is Today!”
All the kids at Robert Service School celebrated Anti-Bully Day with banner painting, and short plays and workshops about how to get rid of pesky bullies when they interrupt your peaceful life in Dawson City. In appreciation, the town’s volunteer firefighters served the students free hotdogs and hamburgers for lunch.
Back in Mr. Menzies’ class, the Grade Three students wrote an anti-bullying song with a great Yukon songwriter named Steve Slade. He created the tune, and they wrote the words. My favourite verse went like this:
Stand up for the world
Stand up for others
Use your wits
Stop bullying! Stop bullying!
It looks to me like the young authors in Dawson City always use their wits.
Move over, Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton! You’ve got some younger competition in this town.
In another twenty years or so, look for their award-winning books in a Canadian public library near you.
November 18, 2009
“Well, I can remember . . .I was about five years old. I remember the social worker and an RCMP come to the house and ask mom if there was anybody else five years old and older to go to school. So I was just removed . . .I remember hanging onto the door frames . . .and wherever I could hang on to. And I remember mom was screaming at them, saying ‘you don’t take him’ and that. Then the RCMP told her if she interfered that she would go to jail. And all I kept thinking was ‘what did I do wrong?’ Cause I’m going to jail. I thought I was going to jail.”
The children of Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invented a new kind of courage on the day they entered the front door of the residential school at Carcross, Yukon.
Six hundred kilometres away from home, locked by law inside an Anglican boarding school, they had to find the way home.
For some, it took a lifetime. They kept painful secrets to themselves. In 1998 a small group of former residential school students—as brave as ever—began to meet in Dawson City at the home of Dot Roberts and her daughter Krystle for “games and supper and talk.” They opened up to one another, laughing at first, and later sharing stories about homesickness, loneliness, hunger and abuse at the residential school, and the lifelong troubles that came later. They remembered small rebellions and defiance, too, and their escape attempts as runaways with a yearning for home.
In time, they formed the K’änächá support circle. They saw a need to educate younger people in their community—and in their country—about the wrenching impact of the residential schools on their lives, and on their families.
At one meeting, Frankie Blanchard, a member of the group, brought in photographs of former residential school students he’d found in the Yukon Archives.
“When we saw the pictures, we recognized how much of a story they told,” writes Kathleen Bullen, a member of the group. “We came up with the idea of a scrapbook that would tell our stories, using the photos and our words. It was scary to think about sharing our stories outside our group, but we wanted people to understand us better.”
They began to assemble a massive scrapbook with hundreds of photographs and fragments of memories. Younger people in the community, and a thoughtful counselor named Sharon Moore, offered assistance along the way. On May 17th, 2007 the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invited guests from across the Yukon to a moving Welcome Home ceremony to honour these local residential school survivors, and their hard work. Later the K’änächá support circle put the completed scrapbook on display in the Legacy of Hope exhibit at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre
Now the scrapbook is a published book, overflowing with pictures and stories in a large, full-colour format, and ready for the world to see. Last week the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin invited the community to celebrate the achievement at the cultural centre. As each former residential school student accepted a copy of the book, and said mähsi cho with evident gratitude, I began to think about the title: Tr’ëhuhch’in Näwtr’udäha/Finding Our Way Home.
Last year the prime minister of Canada apologized to former residential school students on behalf of the nation. “The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Stephen Harper said in Parliament. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”
Should that be the end of it? How can a country apologize for an error before it comprehends the full measure of the harm done?
I understand the urgency of an apology to First Nations, Metis and Inuit elders while they are still alive. But unless Canadians attended residential schools themselves, they have only glimpsed the bare surface of the students’ experiences. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will conduct public hearings next year to investigate and reveal the full impact of Canada’s residential schools through more than a century. We need to stay silent and listen, and attempt to understand, before we offer any more premature apologies.
A place to begin? Open the pages of an important book from one First Nations community in the Yukon. Look at each picture, listen to the words of each child, and take that child to heart. The K’änächá group created a scrapbook for all Canadians, to help us find our way home from our nation’s greatest mistake.
Mähsi cho, friends. Your book is powerful. Your courage endures.
[To obtain your own copy of Tr’ëhuhch’in Näwtr’udäha/Finding Our Way Home, contact the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre]
November 18, 2009
Sunlight pours down on an old and young town after a snowfall. Winter boots squeak across sidewalks. Walking out of the Dawson City post office, and around the corner, I encounter a young man on skis zooming through the intersection of Third Avenue and King. Two strong dogs in harness are doing all the work, pulling him forward at top speed.
Five minutes later I cross Front Street and climb over a snowbank to walk along the dike beside the Yukon River. Up ahead six dogs in harness are waiting for their owner in the snow, yapping and howling a greeting as I approach.
Well, hello. I wasn’t expecting you.
Before I came to Dawson City, in that know-nothing time when I defined Edmonton as a northern city, I’d heard vaguely about the Yukon Quest, the annual dogsled race over mountain passes and along the Yukon River between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse. I’d read about dogsled excursions for tourists in the Yukon guidebooks, and I assumed . . .
I don’t know what I assumed exactly, but it was mostly wrong.
I caught a glimpse of something different in Joanne Bell’s first book, Breaking Trail, a novel I took home from the library shortly after I arrived here. The story is about a girl who travels with her own dog team to a log cabin deep in the Yukon mountains. While she is frustrated with her own awkwardness, southern readers will be astonished at her competence and comfort in the wilderness. As soon I read the story, I knew I wanted to meet its author.
About a week ago Joanne Bell launched her second novel, Juggling Fire, with a big party at the Dawson City Community Library. The story takes place in the same wild territory, but the book is for older readers. A troubled young woman hikes into the mountains to search for the truth about her father’s mysterious disappearance. Her only companion is Brooks, “a half bloodhound and half malamute/Newfoundland cross.” They save one another’s lives more than once, and in different ways. It’s a great read on a cold, winter evening.
After Joanne finished her reading at the library, an older man in the audience stood up to thank her for getting every word just right. “A lot of us have the same experiences around here, and we feel the same way about the land, but we can’t express it in words the way you do,” he said. Other people smiled and nodded.
A few days later I asked Joanne to meet me for a coffee at the Tasty Byte Internet Café. “It will have to be on Friday because we’re going out to the bush,” she said. She told me she spends as much time as possible at a cabin in the mountains above Dawson, about 30 kilometres off the Dempster Highway. Born in Britain, Joanne grew up in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia, before moving north to the Yukon to stay. She’s lived here for decades now, hiking, canoeing, and yes, running dog teams with her family. She works as a naturalist in the summer, and a substitute teacher in Dawson in the winter, and somehow she has also found time to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. After Christmas she plans a long hike in Ecuador but she’ll return in six weeks to the mountains and the dogs she loves best. Meanwhile her fine new novel will travel, too, from its origins around a campfire in the Yukon, through its publisher Orca Books in Vancouver, to Czech readers on the other side of the world in translation.
Joanne’s writing is a quiet answer to the more famous books of another century that mythologized the Canadian north for an eager international audience. Many of the authors lived here briefly, if at all, and described the land and its people with a poetic licence that can take the breath away. Distant readers accepted the stories with pleasure, and on faith, and rarely travelled north to compare fiction to fact.
And readers here? How did they feel about those books? In a recent re-examination of Farley Mowat’s writing in Up Here magazine, Tim Querengesser describes a certain local resentment. “The North has long condemned its successful writers as phonies,” he writes. “Perhaps because they spent so little time here compared to the status they gained from it, many northerners have grudges against the heavyweights—Robert Service, Jack London and even Dawson native Pierre Berton. Though they’re held in reverence elsewhere, the North assigns them an asterisk.”
I’m not sure the North speaks with a single voice, or a capital N, but I see his point. In 2009 Joanne can live and write in a log cabin up in the mountains, a rugged place without electricity or running water, while she publishes her work outside the territory, and maps her next trip to South America. She knows her readers in the Czech Republic are as likely to trek through the Ogilvie Mountains or Kluane National Park as they are to explore the Himalayas, Mount Kenya or Machu Picchu. Even if readers can’t travel north, they can peek into almost every corner of the Yukon with their fingertips on a laptop keyboard, and perhaps even find Joanne’s home mountain range in a satellite image. They crave authenticity and they know where to find it.
The older man in the library told Joanne that she got the sound of the wind just right. When I met the dog teams in her books, I understood their place in the contemporary Yukon, right out there in the snow between Front Street and the dike, or out in the bush on a Saturday morning.
No matter how hard we try, southern writers will fumble and drop the spruce torches that a young Yukoner tosses to the sky with exuberance in Juggling Fire. Joanne Bell imagines the north, too, but she lives its truth. Lucky woman.
November 3, 2009
This is a writer’s heaven. A retreat? I’m not so sure.
When I arrived at Berton House with my laptop and notebooks, like my predecessors, I found a little note that Pierre Berton left to all of us before he died in 2004.
“My original idea was that writers could have the time to reflect, to get to know the Yukon, and if they wish to write, to complete some writing,” he said. He reminded us that his main purpose was to give us time to think. “As I well know, writers do need time off away from telephones and other people in order to collect their thoughts. This is what produces great books.”
He was right about that—and his childhood home is a perfect hideaway for contemplation—but what would Pierre say about the creative energy that begins to flow as soon as you drive around the bend into this beautiful, northern town?
I came here to work on two new collections of northern stories, one for children and one for adults. I used the first month here to complete another writing project that had followed me north from Edmonton. For some reason, the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle finally fit together.
Why here, and not in back home? I’m not sure yet.
Laura Berton, Pierre’s mother, typed and retyped her novel on an old Underwood in this little house in the 1920s. You’d have to be deaf or devoid of imagination not to hear the clickety-clack of her typewriter in the mornings. Maybe I just like her company. She loved to explore the trails along the river, and hike through the woods above the town. Me, too.
Why are there more hours in a day here? I’ve found time to read, think, re-examine old assumptions—and yet write, too.
Dawson is full of surprises. Yes, there is a town left in Canada free of über-malls, strip malls, and curlicue vinyl subdivisions. A place where urban noise is replaced by more welcome sounds – a raven’s call, a child’s laugh, a chainsaw revving in the distance, a dog’s howl and the silence of midnight. A town where you can meet a stranger on a path, who says, “Hey, you’re the new writer at Berton House. I’ve been meaning to phone you to welcome you to town.” Thank you. I already feel your friendship.
All the sidewalks in Dawson are wooden sidewalks. All the roads are gravel roads. The Klondike gold rush buildings practically speak, even though they’re mostly empty and buckling with age. Pickup trucks stop in the middle of the road, and windows roll down to allow casual conversation in mid-afternoon. I am relieved to be 550 kilometres north of the nearest Wal-Mart; 2,000 kilometres north of Alberta’s oil sands strip mines; 5,500 kilometres north of my country’s capital city. When I look out my window, I can see only the rough log cabin that once sheltered the Klondike poet Robert Service — another writer for company — and beyond that birch trees and snow. Can you tell that I love it here?
I was expecting a restored historic site – perhaps the false front on our nation’s forgetfulness – a Dawson City locked tight and trapped inside the world-famous gold rush of 1898. Instead of an artificial theme park, I found a vibrant community of placer miners, artists, road crew workers, writers, teachers, musicians, truck drivers, environmentalists, store clerks, librarians, tourism workers, seniors on bicycles and a lot of carefree kids – a town much younger than the Klondike story, and much older, too.
The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are descendants of the Hän-speaking people who have lived along the Yukon River for millennia. This is their territory, always was, and it defines beautiful. There is an easygoing way of life here, an openness to strangers, a creative edge, a surrounding wilderness—and sweet, empty hours to spare. All of these gifts encourage me to love my work again.
Retreat? No, I think I am stumbling toward the centre of life.
On The Map
This Journal entry has been “Geotagged”, which is a fancy way of saying that it's tied to a map location. View the map page to see where this entry was written.
Visit the Complete Journal Archives →