Search

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. The journey of 7,386 kilometres cost me $50, made cheap by free transportation and government sponsored youth hostels. When hostels were not available, I used a rain poncho to create a makeshift tent staked out with a stick in the hood to prop it up. Sometimes I would tent out just beyond the gully on the side of the road where I was stranded. 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.

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 a 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? As a veteran of World War II, my father understood the risks of strong arm leaders and valued the freedoms of democratic norms.

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.

At Long Beach I left my virginity under the poncho tent, then hitched up the interior of British Columbia. My older brother Steve was working at Mile 160 on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, or at least he had been when last we spoke. By luck, we met at Liard Hot Springs along the Alaska Highway in northern British Colombia as he was headed south. He had earned the money he needed to go to Mexico’s Baja California, and pursue a dream. Four years older than me, Steve was having the time of his life before he eventually settled down and became a helicopter pilot. He encouraged me to continue to Dawson City, and gave me the name of a few friends he had made there. Go see the sights of the Klondike, he said.

After a few days in the historic city of 900 people, I started the journey back to Ottawa to begin my final year of High School. A hippie in a van just outside of Whitehorse took me all the way to Sudbury, Ontario, some 4,816 km in a single ride. He picked up other hitch-hikers along the way, all of us sharing the bed in the back. Home again, I told my father that Trudeau was okay, and that I wanted to study art when I finished high school. He thought it was a temporary delusion, and never stood in my way. My mother, a redhead with a flare for clothes and dancing, understood.

Two years later I returned to the Yukon, this time via the Chilkoot Pass of Gold Rush fame and down the Yukon River from Whitehorse through Lake Lebarge where Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was set. 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 length of the river alone was not difficult as I had grown up paddling canoes on lakes and rivers in Ontario with my father and brothers. Camping on the river shore, I cooked lentils and occasionally rested in the canoe, taking in the landscape as I drifted with the steady current. Eventually, I arrived in Dawson, some 740 kilometres downstream from my launch point.

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 wife Eliza, an Indigenous woman, and their children.

Every afternoon that summer I pushed the cart loaded with artwork to Robert Services’ Cabin where tourists gathered at 4 pm 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 I read them in grade school but also because both my brothers knew several by heart and recited them in tandem at family gatherings. My brothers 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. We staged The Battle of Trafalgar, one of his favourites, in our back yard with roughly hewn ships of the British Navy and the Spanish Armada.

By 7:30 pm, with the sun still high in the sky, I waited in front of the Palace Grand Theatre 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, at the time Canada’s only legal gambling casino. 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 a.m. when, doors closed, the dealers and dancers would line up at the bar. A generous shot of Kahlua, vodka or whatever else they fancied taught me the names of dozens of popular drinks of the time. Looking into the faces of each dealer and each dancer, for a few moments I heard their story: Some tired from being on their feet all night, others energized by the prospect of their own party-time around campfires.

The twilight of the midnight sun gave way to morning light at 2 a.m. Sleeping a few hours as the sun rose, by 10 am I would be at a table making paintings to replace the ones sold the day before. With that special gift of youthful energy I could complete a few paintings, make my rounds with the mobile gallery, and tend bar at Gerties all summer long. Occasionally, I partied.


Living Knowledge

That year, 1975, started a relationship with the people and the landscape of the Yukon that carried me through three winters and six summers. Trips 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 while exploring 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 Yukon. 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 observations. When working at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) 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, was to support the sustainable use of nature by local people. We said that use 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 of Dawson, wryly commented to me that today there are still lots of young men in town with unruly beards, 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.

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 Indigenous village 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. Some, 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 Han, renamed by their leaders in the 1990s as 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.


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, an indication of the unity in religions that are 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 ancestry, 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 saw mill provided cheap, ready-made material for the boardwalk and the frame structure, making it 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, including the shack I rented, and had an interest in art. My friend Eleanor Millard, a social worker in Dawson from 1965 to 1969, also 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, with a magical landscape around me for inspiration and plenty of people in town I liked and who liked me.

I set myself up for the winter with a stock of root vegetables, flour, frozen meat and a new parka, settling into a one room cabin next to the Flora Dora Hotel. 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.

My musical education was stretched in an entirely different direction by Grant Dowdell, a man of talent, grit and few words. He 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 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 a tractor to farm.

When I met Grant during the winter of 1976 he was the janitor at the Dawson school. He had recently met Karen Quinn, a school teacher from central British Columbia with a bright smile and passion for farming. They married that winter in their tiny cabin, a private ceremony I witnessed along with the Justice of the Peace. Soon after, Grant began to clear land on an island upriver from Dawson and build a two-story, eight-sided log home. While there were easier places to build, this location offered remarkably rich and deep, silt-based soils good for farming vegetable crops, which became their specialty.

I visited them often on the island, in summer and in winter. In the morning, they served strong coffee creamed with fresh goat’s milk pulled daily from the animal’s teats. In the evening, Grant played guitar and read, often with a cat on his lap. Karen played piano, knitted and sewed. I painted a portrait of Rocky, their first rooster, a picture that hung in their home for decades. I also photographed their life on the farm, including winter scenes with sled dogs and animal pelts from the trapline. The friendship was important to all of us. Karen named their first son Johnathan, after John Lodder, a mutual friend. Grant named their second son, Daniel, after me.

I never met their youngest child, 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 in the winter tend a remote trapline on the Chandindu River.

We also met Karen Digby, Grant’s later 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 the history of farming in the Yukon. Despite the short season, farming was feasible in many parts of the territory because of the exceptionally long days in summer and relatively warm temperatures. Their farm, with its neat rows of mammoth vegetables, greenhouses and log outbuildings, is the most remarkable I have seen over decades visiting farms around the world. For more than 40 years, the land produced 10 tons of vegetables annually, feeding the people of Dawson healthy, local food until their 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 is most dear to me is an appreciation for the power and beauty of “voluntary simplicity.” He was living it, as was I, long before either of us had heard the phrase. 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 the pursuit of more as a priority in life.

Years later, when Multiple Sclerosis had forced him to town, Grant said he loved every moment of his life on the island, and would change nothing. His choice to focus on lived experience, a choice his oldest son Jonathan is making today with his own family, makes it evident that high levels of material consumption are not important to a happy and high quality life. To want and to plan to fulfil wants is not the same as to enjoy what is. As evolutionary biologists now say with piercing clarity, for humankind to survive we must learn to appreciate the fullness of life instead of forever craving for what we lack.

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. In the spring of 1977, these drawings, and an ambitious oil painting of Karen, bare breasted like Gauguin’s natives of Tahiti and cradling Jonathan in her arms, made their way 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. Looking back, that work was the most vital and original I ever did as a painter. Many were framed in a novel way, with weathered windows and doors, battered gilded frames from Gold Rush days, ornate mirrors and even a mahogany pool cue rack that carried Karen’s portrait like a religious icon with candles in the holder for the cue sticks.

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 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, hung in the gallery or on a door jam. The painting portrayed my daily life, and was also inspired by a Rembrandt self-portrait I had seen 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.

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. I listed my occupation in 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 assemblage artist Joseph Cornell and POP art icon 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 1976, 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, tiny door and only one window. The hobbit house, Casey called it.

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.

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. I still have Issue #1 of his illustrated booklet Yukon Komix, 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. When Casey and I left his cabin a few days later 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.

A few years later, a life-changing event pulled John 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, he 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 for a Christian life. After spring breakup, he moved to Dawson and joined the pentecostal church pastored by Jack Sailor, where John has remained a central figure for four decades.

Throughout 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.

A hike into the Tombstone Mountains in the late summer of 1976, after the Dawson tourist season and work at Gerties had finished, was another highlight for Casey and I. We made a great outdoors team, buoyed by the deep trust of brothers very close in age. Our fisticuffs as teenagers were long past, mainly because he could now whoop me.

To get to the mountain range, 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. In 1896 the discovery of gold there 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.”

When Casey and I started out on our hike 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 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 magical 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 understood 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 low 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 today, 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 tailings from these early open-pit mines still littered the landscape all along Bonanza Creek.

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. Tim, James and Bryson had scrambled along it 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 had 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, and with his bush and business partner James. I also frequently visited the cabin he built a few years later with his wife, Andrée, a French-Canadian. They had two boys together, one of whom was named Spruce, after the trees surrounding their cabin.

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 considered Tim 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. The two statements converge around the idea of behaviour being guided first and foremost by an ethical framework.

Tim, Grant and John also helped me understand the practice of self-sufficiency. To make muffins in the morning Tim would grind flour 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.

I mimicked the bush 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 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. Grant helped me coax the raft into the right spot so I didn’t overshoot the town and end up on the shore of the downstream village of Moosehide. The sand on the logs was hell on the chain saw, but it made excellent firewood to stuff into a heavy steel barrel stove in John’s cabin.

John’s log cabin in town was eight-sided, with one room and a root cellar beneath a trap door in the middle. 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 cross the road on their migration route to calving grounds at the Beaufort Sea, at 2,400 km the longest migration of any land mammal on earth. We had 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 hoof prints, 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 band-saw in the school shop.

To broaden my diet, I traded some caribou meat for moose and black bear. 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 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, so I cooked it all.

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 would take his three sons into the woods of Ontario, 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 the hair started to fall out and my mother complained 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.

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 Yukon 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 another 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 from under the bear, Bob fired off a few more shots to be sure 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. He drank coffee, hot or cold, with a dollop of condensed milk from a can, and we talked 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,” the musical event has displaced the Klondike “Discovery Days” as the time and place to be in Dawson. It is known around the world.

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 and James selling salmon salad sandwiches on white bread for $1 out of the back of their station wagon. While I had the better ambience, 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.

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.

A clan of bush hippies known as The Slugs set a low 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, his partner Paula and I hung with a different crowd, and went into business together in 1977. We opened 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.

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 Stein’s art, including the “Midnight Sun” lino cut that graced his album cover, was prominently displayed in the Gaslight Gallery. The gallery also featured my tourist art, different in style and tone from the pieces created for my earlier 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.

I drew on turn-of-the century photographs and my own experience climbing the pass to retell the historic journey, selling several hundred of these small paintings. They 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.

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.

John’s forte was not in gambling or 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 had gone 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.

Years later John gained artistic notoriety 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.

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 a.m., 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 northern regions have some of 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 had been working 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.

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. So I gave away my remaining 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.



547 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All