Yukon, Whitehorse, May 26-May 30, 2008

9 06 2008

MIles Canyon in Spring

At the junction we added a hitch hiker named Brian to our Boogie Bus. Brian was headed for Alaska to do some prospecting and hopefully make a bit of money for his girlfriend in Charlotte, North Carolina (My brother lives in North Carolina!). He rode with us all the way to Whitehorse.

The road was definitely an easier drive, although there were a few slow spots with road crews. For graffiti, people write their names and other things in rocks on the side of the highway, instead of using paint. I don’t know if that’s because they have more respect for their territory or if it’s just because there’s nothing to paint on to, but I think that’s nice. Propane wasn’t so easy to come by because there’s just one guy who delivers north of Telsin and he can charge whatever he wants and he does. We stopped at a place called Rancheria which had a kind of antique tank and 3 guys and a dozen tries later we had our propane. They have an old rickety picnic table by the lake we ate lunch at. They also have WiFi and the best butter tarts I ever had. I didn’t find this out on the way there, but rather on the way back. On the way there I was eying the butter tarts and had just decided to have one when a trucker in front of me bought them all! This is a common occurrence at Rancheria and sometimes people phone and order them in advance. Rancheria also has resident mooses who visit daily (at “moose o’clock”) but we were too early in the year for that.

Terre Sauvage, by A.Y. Jackson, 1913

As we had driven north I noticed the trees becoming more dense, thin and spindly. I had always thought that those paintings by Emily Carr and the Group of 7 where the trees are tall and skinny and swirly at the top were stylized, but now I found out that the forests really look like that! Having visited the north I now have a renewed interest in these paintings. They are an accurate representation of Northern Canada.

Another thing I noticed was the further north we got the more often we would see boarded up businesses and decrepit buildings, as well as old rusty vehicles. Level floors in bathrooms, when we were lucky enough to get a flush one and not an outhouse, became just a concept. The cost of having something hauled is so expensive and there’s so much space I guess when vehicles stop running it’s easier just to leave them somewhere off the road for the rest of eternity, to become forever part of the landscape, or at least until they completely rust away. The closed businesses were more mysterious. Everywhere we went there was a labour shortage with ‘Help Wanted’ signs and jobs to be had for the asking, and the people of the north love the north, so how come these jobs can’t be filled? Step thinks it’s because people get better paying jobs. In the north, people are one of the biggest commodities.

Nicole and Dean behind their house

Nicole and Dean Behind Their House

By evening we had dropped Brian off on the Alaska Highway and made our way to Dean and Nicole’s house. A lot of the houses in Whitehorse are in pockets of residences outside of town. Dean and Nicole had bought one of the duplexes on the edge of town that had been built during the second world war for army residences. Once not long ago someone had reason to phone the factory where they were made and the factory was shocked to find out people still live in them. Their house is made of steel! Behind it is a forest of poplar and spruce and a big pond with frogs. Nicole said Whitehorse has a lot of foliage but only 5 different varieties. I think that was a bit of an exaggeration; I counted at least 8.  Apparently there is a large variety of wild berries, only one of which is poisonous. (We were served a lot of “wild cranberries” which were actually lingon berries and very delicious). The evening we arrived we went for a walk in the woods (since night never really falls) and Nicole recited from memory “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, the macabre Robert Service poem about a man who falls in a circumstance where he has to drag a frozen corpse around the north with him.

Midnight in the Forest and It's Still Light!

Main Street, Whitehorse

White Horse is Funky

After seeing all the dinky little footholds marked as towns on the map I wasn’t expecting much of Whitehorse, so I was surprised to find out it’s quite large (relatively speaking). The population of the Yukon is about 30,000 and over 2/3 of those people live in Whitehorse. Not only is it largish but it’s quite funky, too. The edge of the town has the usual big box crap you find anywhere like Super Store and Wal-Mart (and a lot of RVs park there. What the….? There are several beautiful wooded full service RV parks right in town. People are parking their $200,000 RVs at WalMart instead of forking over the $15 to be in the wilderness, and some of them are dumping their waste on the side of the road because WalMart doesn’t have dump stations….drrrr), but the downtown area is really charming with lots of art galleries and a couple of theatres and various cafes and restaurants. Nothing in the town is over 3 stories high and there’s a lot of mixed commercial/residential action going on, so right in town there will be a street of houses where half have people living in them and the other half are record stores and bike shops and the like.

Part of the reason for Whitehorse’s surprising funk factor is there are a disproportionate number of artists living there. It really has a thriving creative community. A lot of the people who live in the north understand that art makes home good, so they buy original local stuff for their houses. Even the Ricki’s where we went for a desperation all day breakfast had original art! I don’t know what came first, the artists or the community that supports them, but less remote communities could do well by taking a cue from this, in my opinion. Anyway, we saw a lot of artwork while we were there and most of it was Yukoncentrique, all about the landscape and lifestyle of the north. Step made the observation that maybe when you live in a place with long harsh winters and crazy hot short summers you become a lot more conscious of the land and your place on it.

Nicole in Her Backyard

Nicole in her Backyard

Nicole, the friend’s we were staying at (visit her site—expect beauty!), is an accomplished and well respected artist around those parts (and others) who once painted a series of landscapes that all showed the highway. She said because that’s what people see when they go around the north, and after being in the area for a week or so I have to agree. Unless you knew the area really well or had a guide you’d be a little crazy to go off into the woods. The go on forever and ever and they’re full of bears and treacherous landscapes. There aren’t any clearcuts like you see in the south because the trees are spindly and expensive to ship, so the only reason people would cut down trees is for farm or to mine what’s underneath. The “tagline” for the Yukon is “larger than life” and it’s true they have a LOT of space. Even the aisles of the supermarkets are superwide and no one seems concerned about making efficient use of shelf space. People move around a lot and are familiar with all the surrounding communities, even though they are 100s of kilometers apart.

Roads of the North

Like their art, the Yukon people we met were very northcentrique, super proud of the place they live and what’s going on there and not as interested in the rest of the world. It’ a kind of navel gazing born out of almost obsessive love for their home and lifestyles. Like a lot of smaller communities, young people born to it are anxious to leave and everyone else showed up one day, fell in love, and never left. The first day we were there we popped by an internet café and ran into Jim, my ex-bosses brother (it doesn’t matter how far you go, you always know someone there. It’s one degree of separation), who shared the never-leaving story, and he and many others seemed to have some kind of not-so-hidden conviction that the same thing might happen to us, and maybe it could have, if we weren’t so intent on getting to Newfoundland. We spent 3 full days in Whitehorse and didn’t manage to do all we wanted. We only left because while 15 weeks seems like a leisurely amount of time to see Canada we had been gone 2 weeks and were still barely out of our backyard.

Meshell with Her Embroidered Portrait of Jim Morrison

While in Whitehorse we called on Meshell, a friend of Lee Andra and Bruces’ and an amazing artist whose medium is textiles. We had admired an appliqué landscape in Bruce and Lee Andra’s dining area which prompted them to give us her phone number. It was instant friendship! Meshell lives in a jumbled up house full of art and has one of those laughing spirits you can’t help being attracted to. To quote Step, she’s rockin’. You know she’s kind of crazy because she is currently working on making a portrait out of embroidery of every person living in the Yukon. She’s finished about 3000 so far so she’s 10% done. We also went with her to open stage night at the Gold Pan Blues Bar.

Crazy Carpet at the Gold Pan Blues Bar

On Sandor\'s deck

On Sandor's Deck

I also took the opportunity to visit my old work and party mate Sandor, who owns and operates Sandor’s the clothing store across from the Wal-Mart. Because he is of Hungarian descent the “S” of his name is soft, pronounced “Sh”—Shan-door—a circumstance he always took pains to explain when I hung out with him in the 90’s, so I had to laugh when I heard him answer the phone “Sand-ors!”. I guess after years of explaining he got tired of it and the hard S won through attrition. Sandor is married to Dionne, who works for Indian and Northern Affairs, and they have two darling children, Sadie and Kyuss. Sandor took us to his house for lunch, which was in a freshly minted subdivision so new their house had no driveway or yards yet, just dry dusty expanses of dirt that turn into mud if it rains. The inside of the house was really nice and Sandor is making a “Man Room” with an entertainment centre and a pool table in it. He’s living the good life. He served us BBQ hamburgers, fries, corn and beans. Sandor is one of those really energetic guys with lots of good stories, like how he crashed a motorcycle in Thailand and how he partied all night while waiting in line for tickets to the White Stripes Whitehorse concert and got the last 7 (there was a magic number of tickets: 420). We had a great time at lunch and I promised to give him a heads up next time we got north so we could go camping.

Dean at Philippe\'s bike repair

Dean at Philippe's Bike Repair

We visited Dean at Philippe’s Bike Repair where he works and it turned out Philippe LeBlond is another crazy Yukon artist who makes intricate kinetic sculptures out of old motors and bikes. In the yard of his shop, which is in a house, there is a stainless steel trailer and a bus, and as we watched a short documentary about him on our laptops in that yard, we learned he had a dream to make the steel trailer into a skylit gallery and pull it across the country in the bus which would be his home and traveling workshop. Right now he’s doing his bike repair thing, though. The Yukon has one seat in parliament and he also ran, but Larry won. (Larry is a popular guy in those parts).

Philippe at his shop

Dean told us Whitehorse had the best corner grocery in the world. I haven’t been to every other grocery in the world, but Dean may be right about Riverside Groceries, Open 20 Hours. Housed in a split level triangular building right downtown on 2nd and Main, it has surprising “other” areas, focuses on organic and green products, and has some odd shelf allocations. For example, there’s quite a large cake decorating section which dominates one whole shelf and two of the many walls. If you want to decorate a cake in the Yukon Riverside Groceries, Open 20 Hours, is for you! It also has that totally full, jumbled together presentation I enjoy (those that know me well know how much I enjoy clutter). We purchased a pumice stone and some assorted organic products to stock the van, and found the service very friendly.

Shopping at Riverside Groceries, Open 20 Hours

Another one of the many highlights of our visit was going to opening night of “Varietease”, a burlesque show put on in the local 60 seat black box theatre by the local actors. While the level of stagecraft and performance was quite high and the show extremely amusing, and the performers involved all very attractive, it wasn’t that titillating. That didn’t stop anyone from enjoying it, or the Twinkies served before and the sushi after. I always expect burlesque to be more humourous than sexy anyway.

Step at Yukon Brewing Company

If you have a Beer-o-phile for a boyfriend, you also have to visit Yukon Brewing Company, who make ‘Beer Worth Freezing For’ and take their free tour and generous tasting session. Yukon Brewery was started by a couple of guys who decided to ignore the feasibility study that said the north couldn’t support a brewery and went on to make award winning beers and have a successful brewery with a keener staff of 9. One beer that garnered many awards was “Arctic Red”. Imagine their surprise when they went to register the name to find Molson had already trademarked it! Molson generously offered the use of the name until some unspecified time when they would take it back, but for some reason Yukon Brewing Company decided not to put the time, money and work into making a reputation for the beer for Molson to capitalise on at a later date and instead simply changed the name to “Yukon Red”, changed the packaging and sales of the beer soared. Yes, these guys have a horseshoe up their beer bottle, as well as a sincere love for fine beer.

It’s true, Whitehorse has a lot to offer. After 3 days we reluctantly decided we had better move on since we still had most of the country to see. But first, we had to go south back to BC because so many people told us we HAD to go to Atlin, so we had to. Atlin is two hours down a pretty good dirt road from Jake’s Crossing. Atlin is a place of stunning beauty. The 400 year-round residents are loving and proud of Atlin. The 1000s of visitors that come every summer for the hunting, boating, hiking and glacier gazing also love Atlin and return year after year.

Seen on the Way to Atlin