I arrived in Dawson from Mexico days after the waters had receded from the Great Dawson Flood of 1979.
I arrived in Dawson from Mexico days after the waters had receded from the Great Dawson Flood of 1979. During spring breakup, an ice jam on the Yukon River had forced water over the riverbank and back through the sewer system into the town. Buildings that had stood on the shifting permafrost since the Gold Rush were unsettled further and board sidewalks scattered about like jumbled matchsticks. The paintings I had stored in a riverfront shack during my time in Mexico were destroyed — watercolours, drawings, oil paintings, antique frames and other brick-a-brack I planned to use in my new art, were all stained and warped beyond repair or turned to mush. I was devastated by the loss.
I had little time to grieve, however. I had art to produce for the Canada Council and preparations to make for Carole’s arrival in Whitehorse and travel to Dawson with her printmaking supplies and trunk filled with Mexican wool ponchos. To make some extra cash, I took a job as the foreman of a crew charged with jacking up the historic Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building on Front Street that was damaged by the flood. We used dozens of bottle jacks under beams forming the foundation of the building and gradually lifted the two-storey frame structure a millimetre at a time. The embossed tin sheathing attached to the outside of the wood frame made the bank look more substantial than it really was. While I had no training and only passing knowledge of such things — jacking up buildings was a common sight in Dawson due to the effects of the shifting permafrost — the contractor trusted me to show up every day for work. I was mainly responsible for keeping a watchful eye on his more capable but less reliable crew members while he attended to other jobs.
Photo: Hardware Store
Carole had a lot of adjusting of her own to do as we settled into John Lodder’s cabin when he left town to tend to his fishing eddy downriver. She was an accomplished printmaker, warmly welcomed by John Steins, who had just purchased an etching press and shipped it from Toronto to Dawson. The three of us set up a studio in a heated garage, and they got to work making wood cut prints, etchings and engravings. I focused on preparations for winter, including the purchase of a long extension cord to bring an electric light to John’s cabin from a nearby neighbour. I also partnered with a friend to set up a dark room in town, and began to print negatives brought from Mexico and new images of the approaching Dawson winter.
The light from the extension cord did not provide enough comfort to cement the relationship with Carole, however, and by mid-December she was gone. I was left with winter supplies for two. She struggled with the lack of running water or indoor toilet while I didn’t mind sponge baths and occasionally shitting in a paper bag when it was too cold to go to the outhouse. She was truly frightened, however, by a touch of frostbite on her nose and ears during a visit to Grant and Karen Dowdell’s island home up river. She said she wanted to return to Chicago for Christmas, and to get a break from the weather. After a long soak in a bath at her parent’s house, she did not return north. She wrote to me, wishing me luck with my efforts to document the life of people and landscapes of the North, and announcing that she was returning to San Miguel de Allende. She lived there at least until the early 1990s when last I heard of her.
Image: Carole in her poncho, overlooking a frozen lake near the Tombstone Mountains.
I stayed busy through the winter, skiing on the Yukon River, cutting wood, printing photographs and drawing. A stray cat arrived on my doorstep at John’s cabin, and stayed with me until spring weather coaxed it to wander off again. I joined John Steins and his partner Paula Hassard in a Bible Study offered by an evangelical minister new in town. Jack Sailor was charismatic, and led us in a close reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. John was interested in learning about the faith underlying Bruce Cockburn’s recent conversion to Christianity. The Cockburn albums “Joy Will Find A Way” and “In the Falling Dark” were played repeatedly on John’s Sansui stereo (which he had purchased from me when I went to Mexico; otherwise it would have been destroyed too by the floodwaters). I approached the Bible study with curiosity, closely reading a book I had only leafed through before despite my Scottish Presbyterian father and Irish Roman Catholic mother.
Image: Tombstone Valley.
Bible study was an opportunity for reflection. I was heartbroken by Carole’s sudden departure and unclear about my future. Paul’s letter to the Romans intrigued me. It is much loved by evangelical Christians because it offers salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The core debate about interpretation of his letter, outlined by our pastor, is the distinction between salvation through faith and salvation through righteous actions. Protestants, I learned, tend to focus strictly on the former, while Catholics balance the two paths, at least in theory. By the time we finished the reading, I came to respect the faith and intellectual rigour of Jack Sailor but did not experience Christ as John Lodder and Bruce Cockburn did.
Looking back on it now, I realize that the memory of Paul’s letter may have stuck with me all these years for reasons of both religion and life purpose. My parents had resolved the contradiction between their contrasting religious upbringings, a tension so severe they eloped to marry, by raising their three sons in the Anglican Church. Scholars of religion will find satisfaction in this choice because Anglicanism, the religion launched by Henry VIII because he couldn’t get the Pope to allow him to divorce, is the closest Protestants can get to the rituals of Catholicism and “the ancient church.” A church literally up the street from where I live today in Ottawa describes itself an Anglican faith within the Catholic Church. It straddles traditions by offering a distinctively Anglican ritual of Communion that satisfies Sunday obligations for Catholics set out by the Pope. I was a choir boy as a child, and swung the incense burner during the church service. As I joked recently with my wife, I regularly drank the blood of Christ.
When I was a young man living alone through the Dawson winter, Paul the Apostle’s core question about the path of faith and the path of deeds might have weighed on me. To be honest, I don’t remember any details now that give a hint of how conscious I was of this tension at the time. I do know, however, that I was unhappy and uncertain about my life purpose. Making political art was simply an idea I had written into a proposal to the Canada Council, with no clear notion of how to turn that into good deeds. Surely politics, and art, are for something?
In the spring, John Lodder returned to town and his cabin, so I bought a white camper van and started to explore parts of the Yukon I had never visited, taking photographs of the Burian family farm, the Schmidt farm goats on the Stewart River, the mining town of Faro and mountains around Carcross, south of Whitehorse. An acquaintance saw opportunity in my wheels and invited me to join him in a visit to a friend living in a tepee on the outskirts of Atlin in northern British Columbia. We drove the long, dead-end road to this isolated community and spent a few nights in the tepee, marvelling at the beauty and grace that surrounded us. His friend, a blonde woman who to me looked more like an Amazon warrior than a 1980s era hippie, had recently given birth. In the tepee.
One sunny afternoon I photographed her, the baby and the dog, naked against bare rock, water and the mountains behind. While all of us lounged around a spring that bubbled up at the camp, a male moose emerged suddenly from the nearby woods. Its large upper body and full spread of horns balanced improbably on long, spindly legs as it casually loped towards the baby sleeping on a blanket. It stopped a few paces short, surveying the baby from high above. The moment still lingers in my mind, as does the image of the mother slowly but resolutely moving towards her child and the moose turning and walking away. From that time to now I identify more with the moose than any other animal of the northern forest. It is a comical beast to some, but clearly at home on land and in the shallow waters of lakes and streams across Boreal Canada. I see them from time to time at Temagami, our family cottage in northern Ontario, and am always thrilled by their quiet power and grace.
Image: Atlin Madonna.
After returning to the Alaska Highway from Atlin, I came to a crossroads. Turn north and I would head to Dawson, a place with friends but also sadness over Carole’s departure. It would also isolate me from a broad and thriving artistic community like the one I had experienced in San Miguel. Turning south would take me to new and familiar places — a folk festival on Vancouver Island I’d heard about, my brother Steve now in Edmonton, and universities at my parent’s home in Ottawa. While my decision was not of religious inspiration as John Lodder experienced standing on the Yukon River shoreline around the same time, the question was similar: what shall I do with this one wild and precious life? With no clear answer, I turned south. For weeks I toured around British Columbia, travelling through Lillooet and down the coast by ferry to Vancouver Island. I arrived in Edmonton in time to mount an exhibition of photographs at the Edmonton Public Photography Gallery and fulfill my charge to the Canada Council. I then stored the van and flew to Ottawa. By September I was enrolled in a photography course at the University of Ottawa with Robert Bourdeau, the famous Canadian expert in large format photography. By January I was doing a qualifying term to get into a Masters program in Canadian Studies at Carleton University. When later I returned to the Yukon for a summer job, it was to Whitehorse and a clear turn from art to anthropology. This field of study, not art, eventually became my vehicle for worldly deeds and meaningful action.
Image: Artist at a festival, 1980.
Spell of the Yukon
The Director of Canadian Studies at Carleton University said he was impressed by my good grades from both Sir George Williams University and the San Miguel Institute, and by my experiences in the Canadian North. He arranged for a teaching assistant’s position with the elderly George Swinton, an art historian of Austrian origin specialized in the sculptures of the ancient Dorset and the contemporary Inuit. My job was to organize his mammoth collection of slides of artwork, carefully coding each slide, slipping it into sleeves of plastic and preparing a paper record. Dr. Swinton, as I called him, seemed to be in a hurry to put in order his life’s work and appreciated the attention to detail I brought to my part of the task.
My idea for study towards an interdisciplinary Masters degree in Canadian Studies was to examine northern Canadian views on the relationship of people to the environment. I planned to express my analysis through my own art and by documenting the lifestyle choices of others. Presentation of the idea in the winter seminar included a critique of Albrecht Dürer’s 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve, and its mix of domestic livestock and wildlife. A close look at the etching suggests the inevitable deforestation of nature to make way for open pastures, sheep, and cattle: Dominion over the earth. The mouse at the feet of Adam, wild and yet closely associated with domestic life, seems to foretell the direction of things to come.
To prepare me, I was advised to take courses in anthropology and geography, where I could learn about contemporary forces transforming the Canadian north and acquire some of the discipline of the social sciences. By the end of the term I returned to the Yukon for the summer, this time to Whitehorse where I got a summer job with the Yukon’s Department of Natural Resources. They put me to work compiling information on sport fishing in the Yukon, a task I found dull could be done without stress. In my spare time, I worked on art for another show at the Whitehorse public gallery, combining in a single frame black and white photography with sharply defined pencil drawings of the same subject. The drawings followed the “linear style” of Dürer and the Renaissance, as opposed to the “painterly” rendering of Rembrandt and the later Romantics.
Image: Stray cat I.
Image: Stray cat II.
I met a summer student of journalism working at the Whitehorse Star, and invited her to my studio in the woods. On a friends’ property outside of town, I built a plywood platform for a canvas wall tent, creating a comfy bed protected by a mosquito net. My photography mainly made use of a large box camera, which I would stand behind with a black cloth draped over my head and screen to facilitate focusing of the image. It was a camera not unlike those used by Gold Rush photographers shooting images of climbers on the Chilkoot Pass. When I shared with her rumours of graft in the Department of Natural Resources — the Director going on trips to fishing lodges with his family, paid for by lodge owners seeking competitive licenses — she decided to take the scoop to his secretary for confirmation. Blame for the leak quickly fell to a friend I had made in the department, an injustice I could not endure. I confessed. My apology was enough to save my job but it polarized others in the department. An honest fool to some. A trouble maker to others.
When I returned to Ottawa in the fall I enrolled in more anthropology and sociology courses, leaving aside the study of art history while continuing my own art practice. That winter, in my spare time, I helped other artists brainstorm towards the creation of an artist-run gallery, which was eventually named Gallery 101 after the address of its first location. Gallery101 continues to operate today and in 2021 featured an exhibit on food sovereignty, security and justice I like to think I might have contributed to had I continued to work as an artist. My own work began to combine the visual and the narrative in the form of photographs and drawings combined in small sets and bound together with other supporting material into hand-made books. I liked the craft of book making as well as the art making. A proposal I wrote for a grant to support the process, which did not receive financial support, notes that the idea came from showing pictures to people while sitting in their homes, their places of work, the park. The proposal reads, “I grew to appreciate the intimacy and directness of the relationship between the artist, the work, and the audience close viewing can attain.” Today, in this pandemic winter, I have picked up this thread of craft by turning selected black and white ink paintings on rice paper into Asian-inspired scrolls to be unrolled and viewed for a time before being put away.
Remembering, understanding, and explaining the creative shift that followed is muddled at best. Somehow, challenging Dürer’s religiously inspired vision of Nature as something to be tamed turned to the practical question of commercial salmon fishing on the Yukon River, the approved topic of my thesis. How did that happen? Like most things in life, no single answer satisfies. While a competent artist, my work did not stand out in the Ottawa scene, dominated as it was at the time by conceptual and performance art with little in the way of tactile craft. The art getting accolades was intellectual and urban, leaving me feeling anachronistic and unmoved by the experience the art created. I was also now a small fish in a big pond, no longer a student but rather competing with other talent in a creative endeavour with the historical scope of centuries and continents. My original thesis topic — northern perspectives on Nature — felt equally effervescent and challenging for someone with little training in social theory and methods. By contrast, I was still part of the bush community in Dawson, with an insiders look at life in the Canadian north. I had learned the previous summer of plans by the federal government to support construction of a fish processing plant for the Council for Yukon Indians and the Dawson Indian Band. This was a reputable topic for anthropological study. I got encouragement from my anthropology teachers and a grant from the Northern and Native Studies program at Carleton to fund the research.
For reasons that are mundane and idiosyncratic, I had feet in two worlds, which of course is a blessing of remarkable privilege. I was also just 26, single, and without a real care in the world. Why not go north again, and see where this new practice called anthropology takes me? As Robert Service writes in The Spell of the Yukon:
They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
The Yukon River is full of silt. It makes a hissing sound as it brushes the shore at a brisk 5 and 7 km per hour, traversing the length of Yukon and Alaska some 2,000 km to the Bering Sea. The silt comes from the Saint Elias Range and Canada’s tallest peak, Mount Logan. In many places the river is over 800 metres wide and frequently braided by sand bars and islands. Some banks are very sharp rock cliffs while others are wide floodplains characterized by thickets of willow and alder and dense stands of white spruce. On the whole, it is neither a placid river nor a raging one, but rather grand, calm, and relentless. The volume of water it carries to the sea drains an area approximately 850,000 square kilometres, the fifth largest in North America.
All five species of Pacific salmon are found in the Yukon River, but only the king (a.k.a. chinook, spring) and chum (a.k.a. dog) salmon penetrate into Canadian territory on their migration from the sea to spawn in the river’s freshwater streams. Salmon stop eating as they start the migration, converting stored fats and oils into energy. Sexually mature king salmon become very red-skinned and in males the snout becomes enlarged and hooked. Not a pretty fish at that point. Both species die after spawning. Like the river, they are relentless until the end.
P.V. Satheesh, a friend in India and a man steeped in the complexity and beauty of dry land agriculture, once asked me, “How is this battle up the river to spawn even possible?” The answer I learned from working with fishers in the Yukon is, “the eddy.” Rock shoreline cliffs create slack water areas on the downstream side, and temporary respite for migrating fish. This is where people fish, using surface gill-nets in locations scattered along the length of the river.
Image: The Eddy.
I counted about 60 fishing eddies along 200 kilometres of the river upstream and downstream from Dawson City, right to the river border with Alaska. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans had loaned me a flat bottom 16 foot boat, 30 horsepower motor and drum of gas from their stores in Whitehorse, delivered to Dawson at the beginning of the summer. I spent three months motoring up and down the river visiting fish camps, chatting, taking notes of everything I saw and heard, and photographs. Sometimes, when travelling down river, I would turn off the motor and drift, taking in the landscape and listening to the hiss of the silt on the aluminum hull. Stopovers at a fish camp usually involved spending the night too, drinking tea with my “informants” till it came out of every pore and sleeping in a small tent I always carried with me. I came to understand the true meaning of hay-wiring, an art perfected by the isolated fishermen and occasional fisher woman who managed to keep their own motors running by adapting parts from one model year or another and fixing broken pieces with things on hand. Most preferred the much older models — Envinrude and Johnston motors from the 1950s and 1960s —because these had no electronic parts that once broken could not be fixed. My own good sense was tested on occasion: when motoring upstream to a camp I pulled the drain plug to let the forward movement of the boat expel the rain water that had collected in the bottom, rather than taking the time to bail it out by hand. It is an effective enough and not unheard of technique, but usually requires that the plug be put back in when stopped. I pulled up to the camp and joined the lone fisherman for tea. The two of us leaped into action 10 minutes later when he noticed the rear end of the boat sinking quickly in the water, almost taking the motor down with it.
Image: Marcy and Mel, at their fish camp.
When I was not on the river I would spend a few days among the First Nations youth cleaning and washing fish in the brand new processing plant built by First Nations hands and specialist tradesmen brought up from Whitehorse and Vancouver. The plant, built using the sturdy frame structure of the former Ladue Sawmill and former Band Hall where a few years earlier I had played drums as part of a dance band, was a source of pride for those who participated in its construction. Equipped with a state of the art flash freezer and stainless steel fish cutting trays and benches, it had the capacity to process 200,000 pounds of fish per season. Less than half of that amount was caught that year due to a poor run of fish, but the red chinook carcasses flash frozen and shipped in freezer trucks eventually made their way to a New York state facility for smoking salmon delicacies for the kosher market. It demonstrated that the potential was there. One local Indigenous leader told me that “the fishery is like an early realization of a land claim dream.” After decades of exclusion from the economic life of Dawson, the plant brought jobs and hope. The Dawson Band would have to wait another ten years before the land claim was actually settled, one of the first of the modern treaties between Indigenous peoples and the Crown.
Image: Lloyd Axworthy (left) and others opening the Han Fishery.
My thesis documented and compared the story of the subsistence fishery as it was in the previous decades with the promise laid out by the new commercial operation. The defended analysis had little of the life I was witnessing, however. My first draft chapter, which waxed poetic about the landscape and personalities of fisherman friends, was soundly rejected by Jacques, who sat on the committee. No structure, he said, and too descriptive to be a thesis. I pivoted quickly and competently presented the story in the language of Marxist sociology, including many references to the labour process and social relations of production. Wally Clement, my supervisor, was an icon of Canadian sociology and political economy, having turned his Master’s thesis into one of the highest selling and most influential works in Canadian sociology, The Canadian Corporate Elite. Both advisors were looking out for me, ensuring that I demonstrated the understanding required of a thesis in a discipline still new to me. Artistic expression, and unfocused description, simply wouldn’t cut it, or could wait for another time. The final thesis not only received a passing grade but also the honour of distinction. A year after it was published and circulated to all my Yukon sponsors, I came across a proposal by a consultant to the Council for Yukon Indians that lifted three and a half pages of the thesis, verbatim and unreferenced. My first, but not my last, experience of plagiarism.
Image: Loading the delivery boat at Core's camp.
My fisher friends were satisfied with the thesis, more or less. Copies were available at the local library, and I gave several to key fisher informants. They told me that I had correctly described the fish, the eddies, the fishing tools and techniques, the income earned, and the history of prior and current efforts to start up a commercial operation. Recently I learned that another Masters thesis was written about the Han Fishery from an historical perspective, and that it frequently cites my own work. One Dawson friend expressed disappointment, however, saying that he had expected the thesis to be more “political.” Despite the sharp argument that capitalism would likely subjugate and undermine the future success of this marginal and nascent local industry, and sympathetic portrait of the plans and motivations of the First Nations and White fishers involved, the thesis had missed the most consequential story. Why, after years of resisting local initiatives, had the federal and territorial governments decided to approve the investment in a commercial fishery? Why had the Department of Fisheries and Oceans loaned me, a young student with a background in art, a valuable boat, motor and 45 gallon drum of gas?
The explanation, only partially addressed in my thesis, was international politics and competing claims on the location and ownership of the fish. Pacific salmon are heavily fished by Japanese and US factory ships during their adult life in the ocean and as they congregate at the mouth of the Yukon River in preparation for the long climb against the current. They are also fished all along the many kilometres of the Yukon River in Alaska, in numbers vastly greater than in the Yukon. This long gauntlet means that fish returning to specific creeks in the upper third of the watershed, located in Canada, suffer predation at many stages in their life cycle and at numerous downstream locations. Yukon fishers are the last in line, and a final hit on fragile fish stocks.
For several years before my study, Canada and the United States had been in negotiations regarding the allocation of Yukon River salmon between fishers in each country. The Americans played hardball, enjoying the de facto advantage of a well developed industrial fleet in the Bering Sea and hundreds of inshore and river fishers with a long history of taking large numbers of fish. I interviewed some of these officials in Fairbanks, and a few Alaskan fishers in places like Eagle on the river just across the Yukon border. My white van was handy for getting to these locations over the “Top of the World Highway” between Dawson and points north and west in Alaska. I do not recall, however, asking any hard questions or being even remotely belligerent about the unfairness of the situation. They were willing to talk to me, and I was a polite and inexperienced Canadian student. It became much clearer to me, however, after I completed my thesis and learned what happened to the fishery in the years after my study that the shift in Canadian policy, and my boat gas, was an attempt to leverage concessions from the Americans. The investment showed that the fish, and the fishing capacity, existed in Canada. It worked, kind of, because Canada did eventually get acknowledgement from the Americans of the theoretical share. The agreement, however, was immediately followed by a sudden and long term collapse of the Yukon River salmon population. While the causal linkages were coincidental — over fishing for decades by the Japanese and Americans industrial fleets had gradually ground down the fish population — the fish plant was a threat to the fish making it up the long Yukon River, and was shut down after only three years of operation. The freezers rusted and the collector boat was sold for scrap. Fishing around Dawson returned to a minor subsistence practice of a handful of First Nations and White fishers living on the land.
Image: Weldon Farr, Dawson fisher, with gill net.
My photographs from the summer, included in the thesis, were, with only a few exceptions, unremarkable. They do not depict nature as grand and imposing, as Romanticism of the 19th Century did. Nor do they evoke the quiet spirituality of American Luminist paintings of the same era. My photographs are straight forward and plain in their observation of people and nature. This seems right for the time and place, and make for a relevant collection in the Dawson historical archives where some now sit. Mostly, however, I take pride in having faithfully witnessed a foray into local economic development that, although a failure, marked the beginning of a new era for First Nations in Dawson. While my story parted ways with the Yukon after that summer, I can still feel the steady pulse of the river and hiss of the silt.