Subscribe to this blog

Thursday, 28 July 2016

A Month in the Yukon

I’ve been in Canada for a month – specifically, the Yukon Territory – even more specifically, my family and I have been dividing our time between the town of Dawson City and a mining camp two hours on dirt roads away.

It’s been a good month, even great sometimes. The best moments have generally involved good friends, campfires, fascinating conversations, coffee-in-bed mornings, long walks, and the ever-amazing, always-changing Yukon skies.

Every photo I’ve taken this month has featured the sky. It is unavoidable and magnificent, and is in a state of constant change. When we arrived at the end of June, there were about two hours of dimness between 2-4am. Now, at the end of July, it’s almost dark by midnight, and in a couple of weeks, the Northern Lights might even be visible.

We’ll be gone then. Gone back to the land of Pokemon Go, which, in this country where our cell phones don’t work, has been fabulously impossible. Gone back to the world of effortless internet, where streaming political speeches compete with streaming YouTube videos for airtime in our house. Gone away from moose sightings at the pond, daily rainstorms, unguarded cook shack conversations about politics with like-minded Canadians and British, long walks with bear-spray in hand, the ever-present noise of a generator just down the hill from the four-wall tent we call home, and from the Yukon sky.

I carry my cell phone in my back pocket even on walks from the tent to the toilets because of that sky. My husband despairs of my paparazzi-like phone-whip - out of the pocket, held up vertically because it’s always on “square,” and click. Done. He’s a proper photographer, with the right camera and a great eye. I’m a photographer who knows how to crop, and I delight in the “drama” feature of Snapseed to add a little silver gelatin look to that sky.

Because it’s truly all about the sky in the Yukon.

The mountains here are old and the trees are young. Gold mining scars the landscape for a year or two before spruce and birch trees reclaim the topsoil, and settling ponds become new habitats for beaver, ducks, and the occasional moose. Annual lightning-strike fires turn hillsides into fields of blackened twigs through which bear sometimes wander, and fireweed splashes the landscape with glorious hot pink flowers.

The mountains here aren’t majestic like the ones in Alaska: the bear are harder to spot, the eagles fly higher, and the ravens scavenge the town of Dawson like ominous portends of the winter to come. Mammoths once lived here, and their bones and tusks are unearthed by gold miners more often than by archeologists. Whole, undamaged tusks are rare in this place where excavators carve the permafrost, and bulldozers push the earth to reveal the gold-rich bedrock below. Evidence of mining is everywhere, but in this land of midnight sun and afternoon rain, life returns to the landscape in years rather than decades to transform the earth, just like the cloud patterns alter the sky.

Our weekends have been spent in Dawson City, the tiny town at the convergence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers, where 30,000 people once lived in a swampy tent camp, fevered by gold. The highway that skirts the river ends at a ferry boat where cars line up to cross the Yukon River eight at a time to continue their journey to the Top of the World Highway on the other side. All other streets in Dawson are made of dirt, and get slick with greasy mud after heavy rains. There are some wooden sidewalks, but they must be rebuilt every few years after minus forty degree winters freeze and shift the ground beneath them.

Nothing feels permanent in this town where 3,000 people spend summers lit by the midnight sun – where a music festival draws thousands of visitors, an arts festival and a literary contest draw hundreds, and a photo contest with the hashtag #ilovedawson highlights the beauty and fun of living here.

Only 1,800 or so people remain after the first ice on the river to endure dark and frozen winters. Survivalists like Caveman Bill in his cave, and the residents of West Dawson in their off-grid houses are trapped on the other side of the Yukon River for weeks each year until the ice is thick enough traverse, while the Dawsonites can spend $3,000 a month in electricity, and keep block heaters in their engine compartments to withstand the brutal cold. It’s a place where Winter Pretty is when twos turn into tens, Spring Break-up doesn’t always refer to the river ice, and some relationships can be made or broken by available reading material or a taste in movies.

In our Dawson City, Saturday dinner is at the Drunken Goat with calamari, lamb, and a Greek Salad, and Sunday is spent eating schnitzel at the Aurora. A person can easily be found by their drinking habits, and the midnight show at Gerties is almost always a sure bet. There are nearly as many gold shops as there are restaurants, but the best finds are always at the thrift store.

The summer farmer’s market by the river yields stunning vegetables every Saturday, while the produce in the grocery stores can be anemic and limp by the time it makes the journey this far north. Cheechako’s Bake Shop makes amazing slow-cooked pork and onion jam sandwiches, and their chocolate brownie has crack in the recipe, I’m sure of it.

There is a play structure in Dawson City that my boys have dubbed The Portal. In their perfect world, the tire tunnel between the second and third floors is really a teleportation device, and would allow us regular Sunday roasts with Ed when he works in the Yukon. We could also invite their friends to come to the Moosehide Festival with us, and to help us invent new hiding places for the Parks Canada geocaches that are tucked into historical landmarks around town. It takes us two days and three flights to travel here from Los Angeles, but if the portal worked, we could bring our dog, Natasha, to play with Rio and Finley in camp.

I have written here – a short story for the Authors on Eighth contest, some pitches for programming at NerdCon: Stories, and some work on Cheating Death. I told the story of the Yukon legend, Joe Boyle, to his gravedigger, through the eyes of the people who mourned him, and spent a week digging for quotes of his lover’s letters. I pitched a panel called “Writing Geek Girls in a Genre Rife with Mary Sue Stereotypes,” and spent a day researching Mary Sues. I’ve re-read my notebooks for Cheating Death, edited the parts I have notes for, and I’ve given myself permission to just recharge.
That’s what this trip has been: a chance to recharge myself, my family, and my creativity.

There’s inspiration here, and a person seeking creativity can find it in the stories, the scenery, the history, the wildlife, and the people who make art.

The sky is the limit in the Yukon.

And have you seen that sky?