Dawson City, Yukon
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.
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