Leaving Berton House
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.