Chapter 1: Dawson Days

The summer of 1973, when I was seventeen, I hitch-hiked from Ottawa to Long Beach on Vancouver Island and back, by way of Dawson City, Yukon. By then, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canada’s celebrity Prime Minister, had both inspired and shocked Canadians. My father, an Air Force Captain, was concerned about the future direction of the military. Trudeau had invoked the War Measures Act to confront the threat to the state from the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Would he use the military to curtail civil liberties in other situations too? I was more interested in answering Trudeau’s call on youth to get to know their country. I put my thumb out on the road west, taking advantage of a network of youth hostels his government set up from coast to coast.

The journey of 32 days cost me $50, made cheap by breakfast and a night in a hostel wall-tent for 50 cents. When hostels were not available, I used a large rain poncho to create a makeshift tent staked with aluminum pegs and a fresh-cut stick in the hood to prop it up. For years afterwards, I could remember the faces and names of the many people who gave me rides, bought me lunch, served me eggs fried in olive oil, read my horoscope, and interpreted the meaning of things I could see in cloud formations over the great, open prairie skies.

After Long Beach, I went up the interior of British Columbia towards my older brother Steve, who had been working at Mile 160 on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. By luck, we met at Liard Hot Springs in northern British Columbia as he was headed south. He was pursuing a dream of making enough money to travel to Mexico’s Baja California, which he did later that summer. As a supportive big brother would, he encouraged me to continue to Dawson City, and gave me the name of a friend he had made there.

I got to Dawson hitch-hiking up the length of the Alaska Highway, built by US Marines shortly after the Japanese entered the Second World War. The highway would support defence of Alaska and the rest of North America if the Japanese invaded via the Aleutian Islands. I spent a few days taking in the sights of Dawson, and started back to Ottawa to begin my final year of High School. Happily, I got a ride with a hippie in a van just outside of Whitehorse that took me all the way to Sudbury, Ontario. The journey was 4,816 km. He picked up other hitch-hikers along the way, all of us sharing the bed in the back.

I returned to Dawson City two years later, this time via the Chilkoot Pass of Klondike Gold Rush fame. The train to Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast and a ferry to Skagway on the Alaska panhandle took me to the trail head, thick with ancient Sitka spruce trees and western red cedar. It is the most-northerly portion of the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest, and the entrance to a mountain pass 1,146 metres high. I hiked it, following in the footsteps of 19th century dreamers desperate to get to the gold fields before all the claims were staked.

At Lake Bennett, the first official stop in Canada, I got on the narrow gauge train to Whitehorse, an option the early travellers did not have. They had to build their own boats to make their way through the interior lake country and down the Yukon River to the gold fields. Most teamed up with a partner to hew planks from tree trunks, using a two-person pit saw with one pulling from above and the other pulling from below. Many partnerships were frayed in this endeavour when one felt the other was not doing their part. Decades after I took the train past Bennett Lake I noticed a pit-saw at work along a backcountry road in Nagaland, in northeast India. It brought alive for me the old photographs of 19th century Yukoners sawing planks, and the true meaning of paired and partnered work relationships.

Image: View of Lake Bennet, after an 1898 photograph.

Once in Whitehorse I rented a canoe and started down the Yukon River, through Lake Lebarge where Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was set, and on to Dawson City some 740 km downstream. I sketched along the way, keen to use the art skills I had developed in my first year of a Fine Arts program at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal. Traversing the river alone was not difficult for me as it is generally placid and I had grown up paddling canoes on lakes and rivers with my father and brothers. I camped on the river shore, cooked lentils and occasionally rested in the canoe taking in the landscape as it drifted with the steady current.

After I arrived in Dawson, I met Weldon Farr, a man in his 50s known in Dawson by the nickname Windy for his penchant to verbosity. He loaned me an old-fashioned push cart with large wooden wheels that I fashioned into a mobile art gallery loaded with pictures. The cart was one of many artefacts beside the large frame house he lived in with his Native wife Eliza and their many children.

Every afternoon that summer at 4 pm I pushed the cart loaded with artwork to Robert Services’ Cabin where tourists gathered to hear the famous poems recited by an acting student — The Spell of the Yukon, the Shooting of Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee. They were familiar stories, not only because taught in grade school but also because both my brothers knew them by heart and recited them in tandem at family gatherings. They were carrying on an oral tradition learned from our father, who periodically re-enacted with his three sons the epic poems of the British Empire. The Battle of Trafalgar was one of his favourites, staged in our back yard with roughly hewn ships of the British and the Spanish Armada.

By 7:30 pm, with the sun still as high in the sky, I was in front of the Palace Grand Theatre waiting for the tourists to exit for the intermission. Period dramas and comedies, with Can Can Dancers, Honkey Tonk Piano players, and 19th Century folk songs entertained tourists from Omaha, Calgary and Berlin. I had a captive audience for 15 minutes between Acts as they tumbled out of the theatre buoyed by the music and anticipating the unfolding Klondike story. Some would gather round my cart and pepper me with questions about the landscape paintings and small portraits. “Did you paint this? What is your name? How much does it cost?” Eventually, someone would say, “I’ll buy that one,” and next thing I knew I would sell three, each for $25.

After the show finished I would make my way to Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s only legal gambling casino at the time. There I poured liquor from behind the bar for these same Omaha, Calgary and Berlin couples. Gerties was a pleasure spot, and employer for dozens of Canadian youth from across the country taking a turn at dealing Blackjack, serving drinks and, for those with the skills, dancing and singing on stage.

From behind the bar I had a bird’s eye view of everything till 1 AM when, doors closed, the dealers and dancers would line up at the bar. I would serve them all a generous shot of Kahlua, vodka or whatever else they fancied. I learned the names of dozens of popular drinks of the time, and looked into each face for a few moments. Some were tired from being on their feet all night, others energized by the start of their own party-time around campfires.

Photo: Dancers at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Dawson City, 1978. Probably, Lori Charters, Janice Smith and Debbie Winston.

The twilight of the midnight sun gave way to morning light at 2 AM. I would take to bed at my brother’s friend’s house and by 10 AM be at a table making paintings to replace the ones sold the day before. The special gift of youthful energy meant that I could complete a few paintings, make my rounds with the mobile gallery, and tend bar at Gerties all summer long. Occasionally, I partied. “Everything in moderation,” I said to my friends, “including moderation itself.”

Living Knowledge

That year started a relationship with the people and the landscape of the Yukon that carried me through three winters and six summers, finally ending in 1982. Trips during that period to what Yukoners call “the Outside” where simply time away from my Dawson home. I acquired so many stories I could entertain interested Outside friends for hours. Eventually, the stories no longer seemed so close to me and fell away like the brown corduroy pants I used to wear everywhere. Now these stories can be recalled as I explore the arc of my professional life from artist to academic to activist, and perceptions of the transition Dawson City was going through too.

The 1970s and early 1980s was a time when new blood from the south invigorated Dawson with novel ideas, entrepreneurship and creative professionalism virtually unseen in the town since 1953 when it lost out to Whitehorse as the capital of the Gold Rush territory. Some young people drifted into and sometimes took over placer gold mining operations from the sourdoughs of Dawson and members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers who had endured many winters and fluctuating gold prices. Others brought an international sophistication to the town’s growing tourism industry, buoyed by steady investment from Parks Canada and early signs of today’s booming interest in eco-tourism. The two economies – active placer mining and both historical and outdoor tourism – mingled and merged even as the people involved stayed largely apart from each other.

The late 1970s was also the height of the “back-to-the-land” movement, when young men and women from as far away as Hamburg, New York and Montreal arrived in Dawson to carve out a simple life in the bush. Traplines, fishing eddies and farmland throughout the Klondike were occupied and revived after decades of laying untended or fallow. Cabins sprung up deep in the woods and along the tributaries of the Yukon River. While some of these “bush hippies” and idealists stayed and integrated with town life, many eventually moved on. According to the author Dan O’Neil, by the late 1990s the land along the Yukon River from Whitehorse past Dawson City and into Alaska had few people left to care for it. This meant a loss of local knowledge as the creeks, ridges, mountain slopes and creatures on both sides of this great river were separated from caring human eyes and gentle uses. He called his account of the decline “A Land Gone Lonesome.”

I witnessed and participated in a few years of the Yukon bush boom long before I had an anthropological interest in the issues underlying O’Neil’s later observations. At the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) where I worked in the late 90s and early 2000s, I helped develop an approach to nature conservation that argued against the separation of parks and people. A better response to the challenge, we said, would be to support the sustainable use of nature by local people. We found that utility can act as an incentive for conservation, not only of the resource but also of the local knowledge associated with it.

Knowledge of the medicinal uses of plants in wild places, the best crops for particular soils, the movement of animals and the seasonal patterns of water and wind are part of what keeps places healthy and overuse in check. My friend Grant Dowdell, a bush pioneer now retired in Dawson, wryly commented to me that today there are still lots of young men with unruly beards in town, but few who know what lies beyond the town’s edge. This means there is a knowledge and vigilance gap likely to erode long term protection and promotion of sustainable uses of the land.

Photo: Tim sledding on the frozen Yukon River, 1978.

While new arrivals and established White families thrived during the 1970s and early 1980s, the Dawson that I knew was a difficult time for the Han Indians. By then, First Nation families had moved into North Dawson from the downriver village and Indian Reserve of Moosehide. Life in Moosehide was isolated, and marked by the same kinds of abuses faced by indigenous peoples elsewhere in Canada — the Methodist minister who ran the school in Moosehide was forced to leave after reports of sexual abuse. By the late 1950s, the indigenous language was under severe pressure, according to Julie Cruikshank, an anthropologist of Yukon oral traditions I met in Whitehorse.

Many youth and adults of the indigenous community were swept up in the boisterous and sometimes raucous drinking culture of Dawson, and housing was in disarray. Natives I knew, including the highly respected elders Joe and Annie Henry, talked about the “better days” in Moosehide. Fortunately, by the time I completed my 1983 Master’s Thesis on a commercial salmon fishery set up by the Indian Band, a new life was beginning to emerge among the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. Eventually, a land claim settlement and a shift in thinking connected them to the economic life of Dawson and the Indigenous revival movement that swept across Canada in the 1990s. Today, they are thriving.

Photo: House interior, Moosehide, 1977.

Danny, the artist

Something I like about my name is that is has three forms: Dan, Danny and Daniel. The last form, which I used for academic publishing, is also found in the foundational texts of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Daniel was a prophet for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. This reminds me of the unity in religions often pitted against each other.

While I normally introduce myself as Daniel, the name chosen by others has varied by time and place. My mother called me Dan but my aunts, all of Irish extraction, called me Danny. So too did my friends in Dawson City.

At the end of my second year of art studies in Montreal I returned to Dawson for the summer and rented a shack off Third Avenue across from the El Dorado Hotel. It was tucked between Ruby’s Place (a former bordello) and The Westminster Hotel (a drinking place of local fame). The shack was set back from the street’s wooden boardwalk so I built my own to convey tourists to my first gallery with walls and a roof. Rough slabs of trees from the local mill provided cheap, ready-made material for the boardwalk, and they lined the inside of the frame structure to make it look like a log cabin. I called it Cheechako Cache, a reference to the Gold Rush term for newcomers.

That summer I met Margaret Vera Dorval, known famously as Bombay Peggy. She had lived in Hong Kong before World War II, been in the Australian women’s army corps and in the 1950s ran a bordello in the Yukon mining towns of Keno and Elsa. She also owned a Dawson hotel in the 1960s where she rented rooms to clients one hour at a time. She owned other buildings too, and had an interest in art. My Cheechako Cache was one of her buildings.

According to local historian Mifi Purvis, Margaret's hotel competed with Ruby’s Place for federal money that started to pour into Dawson in the 1970s for the purchase and renovation of historic buildings. When Ruby won out, perhaps because her bordello had been busier, Peg’s building was sold privately and eventually became today’s Bombay Peggy’s Inn and Pub. My friend Eleanor Millard, a social worker in Dawson from 1965 to 1969, knew Peg as one of her senior clients. Eleanor visited Peg in Vancouver’s Chinatown toward the end of her life, and learned that she had arranged to have her ashes spread on the graveyard hill behind Dawson.

When late summer came, I had to decide whether to return to Montreal to complete my Fine Arts degree or stay in Dawson. The story of the decision I told afterwards, which still makes sense to me, was that if I wanted to be an artist, then I needed to make art, not study it. By staying in Dawson, I could dedicate myself to painting and photography, with a magical landscape around me for inspiration and plenty of people in town I liked and that liked me.

Image: Bush truck, 1977.

I rented a one-room cabin used by the owners of the Flora Dora Hotel as a summer office, and set myself up for the winter with a stock of root vegetables, flour, and frozen meat. I lived for the next two years in Dawson, painting and working the summer at Gerties, hiking and skiing, and making music during the long winter nights and around summer campfires.

Lambert Curzon’s house was a hotspot for listening to the latest rock music, and for friends to gather to make music of our own. I played bongos, and occasionally the harmonica and penny whistle, to renditions of the Eagles songs skillfully played by John Finlay, the only real musician in the room. We even played a few gigs at the Chief Issac Memorial Hall, raking in $100 each. Fights would break out when the music stopped, prompting us to keep going until 3 AM. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album was all the rage, as were Carly Simon and Maria Muldaur.

Photo: Lambert Curzon, 1976.

My musical education was stretched in an entirely different direction by Grant Dowdell, a touchstone personality in Dawson and a man of talent, grit and purpose. Grant was my first mentor as an adult, teaching me to listen deeply to Bach’s The Art of the Fugue and The Easter Oratorio. He also introduced me to the book Walden, or Life in the Woods. He lived the life only dabbled in for one summer by Henry David Thoreau.

Grant was one of the first of the 70s wave of young people that changed the character of the town and set a new standard for living off the land. He arrived in Dawson from Toronto in 1970, renting a cabin in the middle of town, saving money and learning the skills he would need to buy land and machinery to farm. During his first winter, he walked the few miles downstream from Dawson to the village of Moosehide to visit an American couple living there for the winter. Bob and Rosemary Russo were from Brooklyn, New York, and had been given permission by the Chief, Percy Henry, to occupy and care for one of the cabins. There were the only people living in Moosehide at that time, a rare privilege for White people. Grant, Bob and Rosemary became close friends, and inspired each other to plan for a life on the land.

When I met Grant during the winter of 1976 he was the janitor at the Dawson school. He had met Karen Quinn, a blonde school teacher from central British Columbia with a bright smile and passion for farming. They married that winter in their tiny cabin. I was the witness, along with the Justice of the Peace.

I also picked up Grant’s janitorial duties for a few months in the late spring as they made the transition to living at the farm. The move came after several years of hard labour clearing the land of trees to establish fields and space for a home and outbuildings. What made that work all the more arduous was that the farm was located on an island in the Yukon River, eight miles upstream from town. While certainly there were easier places to build, this location offered remarkably rich and deep, silt-based soils good for farming vegetable crops, which became Grant and Karen’s specialty. Next to the fields, they built a two-story, eight-sided log house (1,400 sq ft) and together raised a family of three children there.

I visited them often on the island, in summer and in winter. They served me coffee creamed with fresh goat’s milk I would pull from the animal’s teats first thing in the morning. I listened to Grant play classical music on guitar while Karen played piano. In gratitude, I gave them a large conte drawing of a friend brushing her hair, mounted in an old mirror frame. Karen named their first born son Jonathan, after our mutual friend John Lodder. Grant named their second son Daniel, after me. I felt deeply touched by the friendship. I never met their youngest, a daughter, but my wife Debra and I met Jonathan as an adult when we visited Dawson in 2008, just after he had built his first major log home across the river from Dawson. He and his family now spend the summer months there and the winter tending a trapline on the Chandindu River.

Photo: Grant, Daniel, Karen and Jonathan at their farm, 1979.

We also met Karen Digby, Grant’s current partner in life and the farm. Karen gave us a tour of her English Garden behind the house and we talked about goats (her specialty) and farming lifestyles. The farm was the most remarkable I have seen in over thirty years visiting farms around the world. For more than 40 years, the vegetable beds fed the people of Dawson healthy, local food, until Grant’s retirement from farming in 2017. As with anything worthwhile, many hands made the magic of Grant’s farm possible.

What I learned in the late 1970s from Grant’s life that was most dear to me is an appreciation for the beauty of a simple life. Long before I’d heard the phrase “voluntary simplicity”, I was living it, as were Grant and other young men and women who came to Dawson and then moved onto the land. My motto at the time was “earn as little money as possible, and let everything else adjust.” While a half joke, it expressed my firm rejection of consumerism as a personal lifestyle.

The choices Grant and his family were making at the time, and that his son Jonathan is making today, makes it evident that high levels of consumption are not important to a happy and high-quality life. As evolutionary biologists now say with piercing clarity, for mankind to survive we must learn to appreciate the fullness of life instead of forever craving for what we lack.

Photo: Jonathan (right) and Daniel, at the farm.

Somehow the riches of my life at that point did not include a girlfriend, although I did manage to convince a number of women to sit for me as models. The drawings in black conté on paper often included patterns from the curtains in my tiny cabin. These, and an ambitious oil painting of Karen, bare breasted like Gauguin’s natives of Tahiti and cradling Jonathan in her arms, made their way in the spring of 1977 into the Whitehorse Public Art Gallery for my first one-person show. It was a hit, and even prompted the most famous of Yukon artists, Ted Harrison, to purchase one of the drawings and to tell reporters that Danny Buckles was the most interesting up-and-coming artist on the Yukon scene.

Images: Women friends, 1977.

Looking back, that work was the most vital and original I ever did as a painter. Many were framed in a novel way, with battered, gilded frames from Gold Rush days, weathered windows and doors, ornate mirrors and even a mahogany pool cue rack that carried Karen’s portrait as though she were a religious icon. The bottom holder for the cue sticks was decorated with small candles.

Mary Tcurchinski, a kind and matronly figure, was my supplier of bricabrac and all things old and interesting. She lived on the corner across from the leaning Guns and Ammunition shop building, the most photographed of Dawson buildings. Her yard and house were a treasure trove of old things most considered useless, including a massive mortar and pestle she acquired from a chemist that I purchased and used to grind pigments for paint. These “found objects” were converted into functional art, a fusion of utility and meaning that became central themes in my later life as an anthropologist.

Greg Skuce, a man of quiet self-confidence, modelled for a portrait of a man clothed in a winter jacket and wool hat pulling on heavy mitts before stepping outside. I set the painting in a heavy wooden door, with two narrow strips of blue stained glass along each side of the painted panel to allow light through. The back side of the painting showed the scene Greg was looking at through the door – a yard covered in snow, stacked wood and an axe stuck in a chopping stump. Hinges and an old door knob completed the picture frame.

The painting portrayed my daily life, and was also inspired by a Rembrant self-portrait I saw in an art history book. I painted in the deep blues and greens of the Yukon woods rather than the reds and brown earth colours of 15th Century Holland.

Photo: Scene from the Whitehorse Public Gallery show "What about the Moon?" 1977.

Two- and three-dimensional paintings and painted sculptures were centrepieces for my show in Whitehorse, entitled “What About the Moon?” Prolonged periods of twilight and dark winter nights were an awesome presence for me, and inspired several paintings. Another installation work was a series of six pencil sketches of the moon gradually rising, each one set in one of six small window panes. The work and the framing concept, in addition to being a successful art show, later set me up to win a Canada Council award for the Arts. The proposal was called Investigating art and craft as influenced by the Yukon culture and landscape, a nod perhaps to the bland language I associated with serious writing.

My occupation was listed on the proposal as “Painter and Yoga Teacher,” although fortunately I was never asked to provide credentials for either. My P.O. Box #366, Dawson City, Yukon must have impressed the jury, along with references in the proposal to the American artists Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenburg. Both of these modern artists blurred the distinctions between painting and sculpture. I also wrote in the proposal that, “I have many friends who are trappers, miners, farmers, bird watchers, craftspeople, businessmen and ‘modern hippies’ in search of alternative lifestyles. I will be greatly assisted by these people.”

Danny, the outdoorsman

One of the sources of inspiration I didn’t mention in the grant proposal was Casey, my brother younger-by-a-year and companion on hikes and ski trips to remote people and places that became subjects for my art. He arrived in town in 1977, and took up residence for the winter in a cabin off the road to the Dome above Dawson. The cabin, chinked with moss and roofed with sod, was half-buried in the slope. It had an overhanging porch and tiny door. The hobbit house, Casey called it. While he was under six feet tall, Casey would bump his head on the interior ceiling whenever he leaned to look out the low window.

Outdoors was an oval porcelain soaking tub that today would be a popular amenity in a luxury bathroom. As there was no running water, the tub was for summer use only when water could be delivered by truck. That first year, my place in town served as his winter pit stop.

It seemed Casey lived off trapped rabbits and graham crackers. The food must have suited him because he was strong and agile. Whenever he went into town he would carry a heavy staff to support his weight and use as a rudder as he slid down a very steep path into town. Trees helped slow his descent, with one favourite tree helping him turn sharply right towards his job as a bartender in Hank Dubois’ Sourdough Saloon, or sharply left towards the Klondike River and other parts of town.

He also worked for a time as a stock boy at Caley’s General Store, the main outlet in town for everything from food to shovels and axe handles. When stocking store shelves he would occasionally come across merchandise in the warehouse that seemed as old as the Klondike Gold Rush itself, including glass bottles of concentrated “Camp” coffee. Caley’s was the only place in the Yukon where you could find round-toed rubbers fitted to Inuit mukluks for use in the wet spring.

One day Casey woke up to find a wolverine in the vestibule of his cabin, gnawing on a rabbit he had left hanging there frozen. The outer door to the vestibule had swung shut, trapping the wolverine inside with its meal. Casey was in the cabin, with no other exit.

If you haven’t seen a live and cornered wolverine, you need only imagine the terror produced by Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the character Wolverine in the X-Men film series. Eventually, Casey used a broom handle to pry the outer door open and let the beast escape. Mountain Man would not have been a misplaced moniker for my younger brother, although he was sociable and liked enough that a young couple in town named one of their sons Casey. He, like I, feel good to be connected and remembered that way.

Photo: Casey Buckles, resting during a hike into the Tombstone Mountains, 1977.

Casey helped me learn to live with discomfort. That winter we skied 100 miles down the Yukon River to visit John Lodder at his trapline. It was tough. After two nights on the trail in -20 C. temperatures, we arrived unannounced at John’s cabin and were greeted with a grunt of surprise. “Damn”, he said, “Now I have to wash the dishes!”

John’s hospitality was warm, however. He used an axe to chop a roast from the hind quarter of a moose and put it in a pot to boil. John hadn’t had visitors for many weeks, time he spent checking his traps, reading and illustrating stories raging against the military-industrial complex. Issue #1 of the Yukon Komix, which I still have, is a scathing story about human addiction to oil and gas, and the crony capitalism behind the McKenzie Valley oil pipeline proposal of the time. Prescient, raw and thoughtful, the comic is a remarkable and fantastically illustrated example of 1970s counter-culture. Grant told me recently that “John is the most original person I’ve ever met,” and I would agree.

Casey and I arrived at his cabin a few years before a life-changing event in John’s life that pulled him out of the bush life. He told me that in the early evening of Good Friday he had been reading a book called “Basic Christianity” by the light of a tiny window in his undersized cabin. He used decades-old kerosene in his lamp from an abandoned drum he had found on the Forty Mile River, so the globe blackened easily.

A tall, thin man normally quite content with his own thoughts, John had two options for an Easter social gathering. He could travel upriver to visit with Tim and James, who had cabins and traplines of their own at Coal Creek on the east side of the Yukon River. John knew that he would be welcome there, and enjoy a few drinks and some home grown pot.

Alternatively, he could go 20 km downriver to Eagle, Alaska, where he could participate in a Christian Easter service. Eagle was a tiny town, mainly populated at the time by a close-knit Christian community, some First Nations and a few back-to-the-land devotees.

John struggled intensely with his thoughts through the night, finding himself desiring to become a Christian but still not willing to give up the solitary bush life. Early the next morning, something drew him powerfully into making a commitment. “When God calls you, you don’t turn Him down — and you can’t,” John wrote to me recently. “Instantly upon my commitment, He took away all my desire to remain in the bush.” After breakfast, John hitched up the dogs and mushed downriver to attend Easter Sunday church in Eagle, returning a number of times over the following weeks to receive instruction and be in the fellowship necessary to a Christian life. After spring breakup, he moved to Dawson and joined the pentecostal church pastored by Jack Sailor, where he has been a central figure for almost four decades.

In my life, I have often experienced a deep connection to and unity with Creation, what I understand to be the whole of nature from the tiniest earthly creature to the farthest star. It is a feeling I can conjure with a moment’s attention. Living for a time in the Yukon sparked that capacity, prompting me to refer to the Yukon as “God’s Country.”

The Creator, however, is a concept that remains beyond my personal comprehension. The who behind the Creation we all witness directly is a mystery I live with, comfortably for now.

When John and I saw each other last, in 2008, I took a photo of him in his tiny studio outside of the cabin I once lived in. He had returned to drawing and painting, making colourful landscapes of his own. I could see in him the joy, inner peace, hope, and purpose he receives from a personal relationship with the Creator. It is beautiful. Recently, he wrote to me to say, “What I have comes from Him, and without Him I’d probably still be in the bush, spiritually blind and dead as before — or else in town, blind and spiritually dead as I soaked up beers in the Pit (the nickname for a local bar).” Kindness also shines in his eyes.

Photo: John Lodder in his studio, Dawson City, 2008.

When Casey and I left his cabin in 1977 for our return trip to Dawson, John rustled up a breakfast of rolled oats fried in lard and peanut butter, which we washed down with boiled coffee. We didn’t need to stop for lunch that day.

Casey and I made a great outdoors team, buoyed by the deep trust of brothers very close in age. Our fisticuffs as teenagers were long past, partly because he could now whoop me.

A hike into the Tombstone Mountains in the early summer of 1976, before the Dawson tourist season and work at Gerties began, was a highlight for us. We hitched a ride up the Dempster Highway to a place overlooking Tombstone Valley, now one of Canada’s most spectacular wilderness parks. The North Klondike River drains the valley towards the east and then south to the main trunk of the Klondike River and tributaries such as Bonanza Creek where in 1896 gold had been discovered in abundance and launched a human stampede that shook the economies of San Francisco and London.

The fall colours of the valley are spectacular, with black spruce, alders and willows combining with mosses and muskeg, creating a palette like no other. On the horizon, Mount Monolith stands like an inverted canine tooth, forming a jagged ridge against the sky. These are signs of what the poet Robert Service was seeing when he wrote “The Spell of the Yukon.”

Photos: Tombstone Mountains, Yukon, 1977.

When Casey and I started out on our hike in 1976, there were no human-made trails into the valley. An English couple, Rick and Louise, had been to a point on the highway the previous winter where they ran their dogs up and down the snow-covered hillside as training for the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This trail-blazing didn’t help us much once the snow melted. The valley towards our destination was a thick briar of alder and willows tall enough to block our view and passage. We quickly learned, however, to think like a moose, following what Casey dubbed the magic meandering moose track. It was a trail created by centuries of animals moving up the valley, carving a very narrow track six or more inches deep in the boggy, wet moss.

We followed these animal pathways only to have them peter out suddenly and for no humanly relatable reason. Eventually, thinking like a moose would help us pick up the trail again, an act of trans-humanism we got quite good at as we approached Summit Lake and the base of Mount Monolith. Along the way, we marvelled at the colour of the “blueberry pies” (scat) deposited here and there by Grizzly bears. While we had no rifle and bear spray was not common in those days, we did put dents in our pots making noise as we slowly made our way along.

Several days deep into the mountains we saw a furl of smoke rising from ahead, and could smell fish cooking. Casey remembers it as Grayling, perhaps from the upper reaches of the Tombstone River or Talus Lake, but I recall it as hard-smoked salmon strips. A woman was alone at the campfire. Sitting somewhat nervously on a small bolder, Bryson told us that her companions, Tim and James, were off for the day to climb up part of Mount Monolith.

She gave us some of her salmon strips to supplement our own meagre rations which were running out at that point. We needed the fat energy desperately, and managed to turn the good fortune of meeting her into several more days of hiking down the Tombstone River before returning to the Dempster. A wooden cross on one of the hills, still there by all accounts, reminded us of the dangers of being so poorly prepared and into the wild so far.

Bryson had travelled to the campsite where we found her on a route much more difficult than our own. Together, she, Tim and James had started up the Twelve Mile Creek on the Yukon River and then up the Little Twelve Mile and over to the Tombstone River where we encountered her. For part of their trip, they followed an abandoned water pipeline built during the early years of industrial gold mining in Dawson, when huge dredges were used to churn up creek beds looking for gold. Large amounts of water were needed to sift the gravel and separate out the heavy metal. The pipeline, built in part with redwood from British Columbia, brought water from the upper reaches of the Twelve Mile to the Yukon Ditch and then Bonanza Creek.

The tailings from these early open-pit mines still littered the landscape all along the Bonanza section of the Klondike tributary. Tim, James and Bryson had scrambled along that pipeline for kilometres to get to where Casey and I came across their camp, and then exited the way we had come in, along the North Klondike River to the Dempster Highway. In effect, they had traversed what would later become the Tombstone Territorial Park established under the Yukon First Nations Final Agreement.

Many years later, Tim played a central role in establishing Tombstone Territorial Park, working as one of two negotiators for the Council of Yukon Indians. When I knew him, however, he was a trapper, fisherman and dog musher living at Coal Creek, not far from John Lodders’ trapline.

Tim arrived in Dawson from Colorado in the mid 1970s, when draft dodging and getting back-to-the-land was a political stance for young Americans. Both Casey and I hiked with him a number of times, and with his bush and business partner James. I also visited in summer and in winter the cabin he built with a French-Canadian woman, Andrée. They had two boys together, one of whom was named Spruce, after the trees surrounding their cabin.

Photo: Tim Gerberding and Andreé Gaulin at their Coal Creek cabin with their two boys, Spruce and Louis, 1985.

Only years later did I learn Tim became the “implementation guru” for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, helping to transform the First Nation into the thriving organization and people they are today.

I saw Tim as a bush intellectual. “Just because something is legal,” he said to me one time, “doesn’t make it ethical.” This distinction stuck with me. Many years later I heard a similar idea attributed to Lalon Shah, a prominent spiritual leader in British Bengal. He said that there was no need for a policeman if you carried one inside. In my view, the two statements converge around the idea of behaviour being guided first and foremost by an ethical framework.

Tim and other bush friends also helped me understand the practice of self-sufficiency. To make muffins in the morning he would grind floor with a hand mill and mix it with sourdough starter remaining from the previous day. Doing this every day gave him powerful arms, although this didn’t stop him from asking guests expecting breakfast to do the honours. He hunted, fished and cut wood from standing dead trees affected by fire or the changing water table along creek beds. He and Andreé built a cabin that was a functional work of art, with a food cache on tall poles providing protection against bears.

I mimicked the skills by devising my own method for gathering the wood supply I needed to stay warm in the cabin on the edge of town I rented the winter of 1978 from John Lodder. On my trips to Grant’s island farm on the Yukon River, I had noticed massive piles of driftwood along the shoreline. I borrowed a chain saw, cut logs into 6 metre lengths and stacked them to make a raft. Once it was several layers deep I nudged it into the Yukon River and rode like a bearded king down to the waterfront at Dawson. The sand on the logs was hell on the chain saw, but it made excellent firewood to stuff in a barrel stove in John’s cabin made from a heavy steel oil barrel.

Photo: Danny Buckles, king of the raft, fall 1976.

John’s log cabin in town was eight-sided, with one room and a root cellar beneath a trap door in the middle of the floor. That winter, I filled the root cellar with carrots, potatoes, and parsnips from Grant’s farm, along with bags of rice, beans and other grains. I also tried hunting moose with Casey, but we were unsuccessful that year.

I did get an opportunity to go up the Dempster in the fall with two school teachers keen to hunt for caribou. The Porcupine and Forty Mile barren ground Caribou have the longest migration route of any land mammal on earth, more than 2,400 km on their way to calving grounds at the Beaufort Sea. We were stopped on the side of the road, looking across a nearby stretch of frozen river, when a small herd suddenly emerged from the bush. A couple of females were followed by a male with a prominent rack of horns and then eight or nine other younger animals moving with grace through the snow along the shoreline and out onto the frozen river.

Our rifles made so much noise we attracted hunters from up and down the highway. By the time they arrived the herd had fled. The male with the rack of horns lay panting and then died on the blood stained snow. A wounded female that had fallen leapt up and ran into the woods as we approached. We waited for it to stop running, and then tried to track it. I was deeply troubled by the thought of the animal dying out of sight and separated from the rest of the herd. Soon we lost any sign of blood or hoofprints, and could do nothing but return to our first kill. We agreed to share the caribou meat equally between the three of us, and eventually butchered the animal using the ban saw in the school shop.

I later traded some caribou meat for moose and black bear, to broaden my diet. I knew that to be active during the winter to come I would need energy from animal fat. Eating plant-based food only and being active in temperatures often below minus 20 C was simply not practical. My ethical framework, reinforced by Tim, John and others, meant that if I were prepared to eat an animal then I should also be prepared to take its life. While I have been a strict vegetarian for most of my life, taking an animal’s life to feed people that both need and appreciate the food is not an ethical dilemma I’m concerned about.

Knowing where my food comes from, and contributing what I can to provisioning it, was inspired by life in the Yukon, but also by a man I met in a Montreal bar a few years earlier. While studying art at Concordia University I lived on a run-down section of Crescent Street. Even then, the street was nightlife central in the heart of downtown Montreal and only a few blocks from the university. The man in the bar told me about a book called Food is Your Best Medicine, which promoted a plant-based diet but also made room for meat. It just had to be eaten raw. Raw liver, in particular, was highlighted in the book as the best source of vitamin B6, key to immune system function and cognitive development.

I experimented with raw beef liver a few times in Montreal, cutting it into small pieces and swallowing without chewing. Eating caribou liver raw seemed riskier. The pelt was pitted by tiny parasitic worms. Still, I saved and cooked most of the offal from the caribou carcass.

The bush skills I acquired that year added to what was already a high level of comfort with the outdoors built up during my childhood. My father took his three sons into the woods of Ontario many times, to hunt for partridge and rabbits with a single gauge shot gun. We walked slowly along dirt roads and across open scrublands, looking for clumps of juniper where animals might hide. We only shot when it was safe and we had a very good chance of succeeding. My father was frugal, having grown up during the Great Depression, and tried to make the most of what presented itself.

On one outing he spotted an animal killed at the side of the road. It was a raccoon, with a long fluffy tail and soft fur. He skinned it, and I spent hours fleshing the skin to make a Davy Crocket hat. As an eight or nine year old, I was excited by the prospect of going into the bush with my father sporting the best hat ever. The hide didn’t tan well, however, and had to be tossed out when my mother started complaining about the smell.

Our father taught other bush skills at our family cottage on a remote part of Lake Temagami, a celebrated near-north wilderness environment. We fished, practiced target shooting with a small calibre rifle, and split firewood. He also encouraged his sons to think carefully about what is right and wrong, and to live up to our convictions. Whenever we broke a rule or broke an object of some sort or another, he gave us the option of speaking the truth and taking the punishment (a hard smack on an open hand with a wooden paddle) or keeping quiet in our room. All of us learned to take the paddle.

As a young man my father made the hard choice to join the Canadian war effort in 1942, lying about his age and signing up a few months shy of his 18th birthday. He became a Spitfire pilot just after the Battle of Britain, was shot down on a foray into France, and spent almost two years in a prisoner of war camp.

When the owners of an eco-tourism start-up in Dawson needed someone to guide a group of four New York lawyers down the Stewart River and then along the Yukon River to Dawson, they asked me. It didn’t seem to matter that I had never been on the Stewart, although I had already traversed the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. A few days after we set out, we came to Bob and Rosemary Russo’s cabin at Rosebud Creek about 40 miles upriver from the mouth of the Stewart. These Brooklyn natives, now with many winters living in the bush, welcomed us inside and invited us to pitch our tents for the night.

I asked Bob about the Grizzly bear pelt staked to an interior wall. He told me that he had seen the bear near their boat launch at Rosebud Creek rolling away one of his 45-gallon drums of fuel. After Bob shot at it, the bear took off wounded into the thick willows. Bob was tracking it in the bush, a very foolish thing to do, when suddenly the bear leapt up in front of him. He only had time to lift his gun half way up and get a shot off. The bear fell on him and in its death agony bit Bob in the arm. Then it died on top of him.

Rosemary recounted that from the cabin she could hear Bob’s screams during this encounter. After extricating himself, Bob fired off a few more shots to be sure the bear was dead and then went with Rosemary to Dawson, many hours away by boat, to have his wound tended. No one ever knew what the bear planned to do with the drum of fuel.

Bush stories gone wrong were inevitable in a context where young people were arriving in Dawson from all over the world, most with less savvy than Bob and Rosemary. A German man whose name I now forget told me about a problem he was having with noise inside the cabin he had built for the winter. It was constructed in a hurry with green logs, spurred on by a fast approaching winter. He chinked the imperfect joints of logs with moss but didn’t bother to strip the bark off the trunks before putting up the walls and roof. Come the middle of winter, bark beetles were enjoying the heated space enough to keep themselves busy all winter gnawing away at the wood cellulose. The man could hardly sleep for the noise.

He also lost his truck to a fire. With no electricity to warm the oil pan in the deep cold, he built a small fire underneath the truck, which got away when residual oil caught fire. No truck and a noisy cabin at 40 C. below did not seem to dampen his spirits, however. I remember him as a man with good humour in the face of difficulties. In fact, he was having the time of his life. Germans were the biggest source of tourists in Dawson, after the Americans, thanks in part to the mythological status in post-war Germany of Jack London, Indians and the wilds of Canada. Escaping to a place where the nuclear holocaust, a widespread expectation during the 1970s, might be survived offered something unique, and attracted both the skilled and the hapless.

Danny, the townie

Young people arriving in Dawson during the 1970s learned what they could about the bush life. Many, however, focused on town life, bringing creativity and a counter-culture entrepreneurial spirit that ultimately refreshed and transformed the town’s economic and cultural life. While visual art was part of that process, music became the biggest contributor to an emerging Dawson culture beyond the gold rush stereotypes.

John Steins was my window into the intimate nature of music making, different from the wildness of my drumming at Lambert’s house and the other-worldly fugues and choral music I heard at Grant’s farmhouse. John and I spent many hours at his cabin drinking coffee (he drank it with condensed milk, hot or cold) and talking about the latest news and politics brought to us across the airwaves every morning by CBC’s Peter Gzowski.

The twelve-string guitar riffs I heard him play over and over again later made their way into an amazing album called Midnight Light with Scott Sheerin, produced by the folk music icon David Essig. John worked with other locals in 1979 to organize and play in the first Dawson City Music Festival, described on the official website as “an intimate, two-day affair among friends, comprising a jam session on a West Dawson farm and a dance at Diamond Tooth Gerties.” Dubbed by Vancouver’s Georgia Straight magazine as “Canada’s tiny, perfect Festival,” today’s musical event has displaced the Klondike “Discovery Days” as the time and place to be in Dawson. It is known around the world, employs a year-round Producer, and is booked up to a year ahead.

Creativity wedded to entrepreneurship helped transform Dawson’s tourism experience long before the “big city” of Whitehorse eventually abandoned tired, colonial tropes like the Sourdough Festival and rebranded as Yukon Rendezvous. John and I were among the new entrepreneurs in town.

For the Klondike “Discovery Days” long weekend, I sold smoked salmon sandwiches on rye bread for $2, using a freshly painted covered wagon (without the cover) I rented from the El Dorado Hotel. Meanwhile, down the street I was being under-cut by Tim Gerberding and his friends selling salmon salad sandwiches on white bread for $1 out of the back of his station wagon. I had to reduce my prices dramatically. Clients were more interested in creating a base for drinking than enjoying fine cuisine. Even at a lower price, I lost most of the rye bread to mold. Such is venture capitalism.

Photo: Danny Buckles, selling smoked salmon sandwiches, Discovery Days, Dawson City, Yukon, 1975.

Debauchery was also part and parcel of town life. People could drink on the street without breaking any municipal by-laws. Off-sales of beer started at 9 am, followed by jugs starting at 11 am at the Westminster Hotel, a.k.a The Pit. I got drunk there occasionally, but never falling down drunk.

A clan of bush hippies known as The Slugs set a different standard, sleeping on the wooden boardwalks or wherever they found themselves when the doors to the Pit were closed. Scabies, a contagious skin infestation caused by a species of mite, swept through their extended family of men, women and children one summer. Town folk were scandalized. “Slug Fests” organized by their “Irish” leader brought little to the economic life of the town and may very well have ruined a few lives.

John Steins and I hung with a different crowd, and went into business together in 1977 when I closed the Cheechako Cache. We reopened an arts and crafts business — the Gaslight Gallery — in a Dawson City Museum and Historical Society building (the old Hardware Store) near the Palace Grand Theatre. For two summers, the gallery was a home at different times for painters and print makers, a silver smith, trappers with furs to sell and First Nations craft women.

Painting: Interior of the Downtown Hotel.

The inclusive space prompted my friendship with Ray Titus, a Native man who worked as an electrician in town. He invited me and my brother Casey to his home for dinner on a few occasions, with his wife and two boys. The friendship grew, and Ray commissioned me to make a small landscape painting for an anniversary of his dad’s death. He then added it to the grave marker of his dad up the hill in the town cemetery. I protected the painting as best I could with layers of shellac, but was chagrined to realize a year or so later that the watercolour had faded away completely, leaving only an ink outline of mountain ridges and shoreline rocks as a reminder of the painting and of the land.

John’s own art, including the “Midnight Sun” lino cut that would later grace and name an album recording of his musical work, was prominently displayed in the Gaslight Gallery. The gallery also featured my tourist art, different in style and tone from the pieces created for the “What About the Moon?” show at the Whitehorse Public Gallery. I sold a six-pack of reproductions from a series of rather crudely drawn pen and ink illustrations of Robert Services’ poems. These added to what were already tourist staples for me — pen and ink drawings with watercolour highlights of scenes from the Gold Rush, such as climbing the Chilkoot Pass and rafting down the Yukon River.

For the drawing I drew on turn-of-the century photographs and my own experience climbing the pass to retell the historic journey. I sold several hundred of these small paintings, which paid the rent and put enough cash in my pocket to quit work at Gerties and spend more time getting to know the rivers, creeks, towns and people of the Yukon. Still, I regret not hanging on to more of my art from this period. Without realizing it at the time, my career as a professional artist was short lived, as were my entrepreneurial experiments.

Image: My rendering of the heart of the Klondike, for a municipal brochure.

John had his own bush adventure in 1974 when he made the trip from Whitehorse to Circle Alaska on a raft built with friends. The following year he moved to Dawson from Toronto to take up a job as a dealer in Diamond Tooth Gerties. After several years at the Black Jack Table and the Roulette Wheel, he decided to quit a week before the end of the season and try his luck. John knew the game inside out, and thought he could come out ahead. Over the course of a week, however, the odds are firmly in favour of the house, costing John a pretty penny.

Photo: John Steins at the Roulette Wheel at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Dawson City, Yukon, 1978.

He placed a better bet on securing a food supply for the winter, however, when he asked Grant to raise a pig for him and his partner Paula. He gave it a name (Louise), which I thought at the time was a mistake, and sure enough killing and butchering time was more difficult than he thought. He missed the shot to the head. Grant quickly stepped in and finished the job.

John’s forte was not in the bush life but rather in music, printmaking, and politics. His father had been an artist and teacher. According to John’s website, early on he developed an enduring aesthetic for “simplicity, unity and harmony,” which he brought to his wood engravings and other prints. He beat me handily in an open competition for a commission from the Dawson Tourism Office of a special edition poster celebrating 80 years since the discovery of gold at Bonanza creek. I went for a traditional image of the gold pan used by prospectors, jazzed up, I thought, with jubilee diamonds instead of gold nuggets. John’s design was more original, using a profile of the classic sternwheeler S.S. Keno that stood on Dawson’s Front Street to create an image of a giant 80th birthday cake.

John also gained artistic notoriety years later for a political series of linocuts called Axis of Weasels. These were a protest against George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and the “Axis of Evil,” and a challenge to the playing cards developed by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency to help troops identify the most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government. John’s deck of cards included the American propagandists of the unethical and disastrous war, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the President himself. The prints sold briskly by mail to the USA, but also got John banned from eBay, at least until his fans managed to overturn the ruling. His prowess as an artist and musician, sharp political views, and cheerful personality helped him to become Dawson’s Mayor in the 2000s.

Walking to the post office a few times a week to check for mail was a good pastime in the dark days of a Dawson winter. In early December, the sun would barely streak the sky at ten AM, and be gone by three in the afternoon. Long spells of - 30 C could be punctuated by a drop to - 45 C for a few days, only to rise again to - 30 C. Those warmer temperatures prompted me and other townspeople to come out of our homes, half-dressed, to enjoy the clement weather.

I enjoyed the winter night skies immensely, even when the spectacular Northern Lights were not dancing. The darkness was difficult for many, however, and is the driver behind the northern experience of cabin fever. Along with excessive alcohol consumption, it is a factor explaining why Russia and Lithuania have the highest per capita male suicide rates in the world.

The second winter I spent in Dawson a young White man took his own life. He was part of a family with a long history of placer mining, and worked his own claim. Front end loaders were a big part of the operation, and he was a capable mechanic. I recall seeing him in town occasionally with grease from working on the machines smeared away in a reverse black-face. Youth suicide among members of the First Nation community was also a fact in Dawson. The dark and the cold were compounded by poverty and disorientation from alcohol, drugs and the dissonance of a shifting culture.

The sorrow and pain left behind for the living is difficult to fathom, and probably hard to forgive as well. My father struggled to understand when his best friend, a budding pilot in the Canadian Air Force after World War II, shot himself because he had flunked out of an elite flying program. He left behind a son and wife who were devastated for many years. When I think of these tragedies I understand the warning a death councillor gave during a lecture I attended. He said, speaking directly to the people in the audience, “Anyone here contemplating suicide should think long and hard about whoever might find your dead body. They probably love you.” I recognize now that the experience of love is a guidepost for a moral life.

One day in December, 1977 I received a parcel in the mail from my parents with a colourful brochure describing an art school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Their letter suggested I finish my studies there, and they offered to fly me to Ottawa for Christmas, enroute to Mexico.

I still had plenty of winter provisions, and was happy enough painting and playing music in Dawson, but winter in Mexico sounded like an adventure. By that time there wasn’t a hope in hell I would find a woman in town free from other obligations and keen to share my vittles. So I gave away my frozen caribou meat, bags of parsnips and bushel of short-grain brown rice and set off, excited by the prospect of being around other artists under the Mexican sun.

An exodus like this was not unusual for people in Dawson, many of whom had seasonal jobs anyway. I thought it was temporary, but I didn’t return to Dawson from Mexico for over a year. When I did, in the spring of Dawson’s Great Flood of ’79, I was still committed to an artist’s life and fully trained with a completed Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Guanajuato in Mexico. Seeds of change had been planted, however, by contact with the field of anthropology and Mexico’s revolutionary mural painters. These influences would eventually guide me from art to anthropology.

Image: Night sky over the Dawson Dome.


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