Friday, December 25, 2009

A Natural History of Sphenisciformes, Spheniscidae in the Northern Hemisphere

As my daughter is currently incommunicado in Antarctica, my mind is sensitive to southern polar notes that cross my path. Penguins (Sphenisciformes, Spheniscidae) in particular have exercised my imagination while thinking about her present location. As I am located at latitude 61 N occurrences of penguin are unusual. Therefore I decided to pull together a brief, and perhaps somewhat eclectic, natural history of the penguin in the far northern hemisphere.

In my reference to the
magnum opus of Yukon ornithology, Birds of the Yukon Territory (2003, ed. Sinclair, Nixon, Eckert and Hughes) there are no specific references to penguins. The closest alphabetic relative, Sphyrapicus ruber, is noted. However, the prostrate form (having died after hitting a residential window in Judas Creek) illustrated bears little resemblance to the penguin. Perhaps Linnaeus pursued fowl in a non-alphabetic form. Regardless I decided to pursue my own research in the vicinity to confirm the absence of penguins. Photo 1 in my backyard indicates the complete non-presence of penguins. However research on the web and through this year's Christmas cards proved more fruitful.

Niles Olav (Photo 2), knighted by the King of Norway in 2008, has worked his way up through the ranks of the King's Guard of the Royal Norwegian Army, through a combination of diligence and several acts of reincarnation, since his recruitment as a lance corporal in 1972. So while rare in northern climes, penguins exhibit the kind of gritty determination to make something of themselves that characterizes most successful northerners.

Scotland, newly independent from England and fearful of a possible American military invasion, has followed the Iranian lead in the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. Unlike the Iranians however, the Scots have successfully developed a "Tactical Nuclear Penguin" and are currently in the process of setting up this weapon system. Available for purchase on the web, the Tactical Nuclear Penguin leds the world in beery alcohol content. (Photo 3) The full details are available in an absurd video at

Finally, my niece Alexa in London, England provides incontrovertible proof that penguins have been introduced to the North Pole (Photo 4) Associated with this dramatic relocation experiment are some startling technological advances. Should the Scots get a hold of this information, even the Norwegian army will quake at the sight of Gaelic Atomic Penguins.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Being Seafood

Wandering through rural Manitoba offers some great surprises. Today my Dad and I visited Bruce the Mosasaur in the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. Morden was, some 80 million years ago, in the centre of the Western Interior Seaway, a large shallow sea dividing North America. Unique to the region was a later land uplift that brought the deeply buried remains of the sea bottom to the surface. While fossils were occassionaly found earlier, real interest started only in the early 1970s when workers in open pit Bentonite mines found large sea creatures. Among them was Bruce, a fierce - carnivorous predators are always fierce - sea snake - especially if they're a snake - 13 metres long. As Kevin, the museum administrator, explained, "he could swallow a cow whole if he came by today!" And inspite of Bruce's festive hat we found this statement completely believeable.

Not only did we have our Christmas picture taken with Bruce, but we also toured the fossil storage and display preparation areas. The pleasures of a smaller museum include the chance to meet the people, Anita-Maria, palentoleogist and Linda the display technician, who make these places work and to get a close-up look at the fascinating collection of fossils they have in the lab.

Visit the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre at

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mining Gold without getting your dress dirty

The Yukon Hospital Foundation runs an annual fund raiser to purchase new equipment. Last year they raised about a million dollars for a CT Scanner, this year they want a digital x-ray machine, especially helpful in emailing x-rays for consultation with specialists outside. The primary event is the auctioning of "special" Christmas Trees. Different businesses, government departments and community groups extravagently decorate a tree and assemble a set of associated presents.

The trees come in two classes. There are about a dozen trees prepared with a value of between $400 to $1200. These are set up in a downtown public space and for a week people write increasing bids to take them home. A couple of years ago we purchased the Energy, Mines and Resources tree. It was beautifully decorated with stained glass ornaments made and donated by one of the staff and included a cord of firewood, 50 pounds of Yukon grown potatoes, and 20 pounds of Yukon elk

A second group of trees is also prepared. These, more expensive items, are auctioned at the Hospital's Grand Ball in early December. It is fun. It was one of two formal dress events in the Yukon calendar. Each table gets glow wands to wave around to action their bids. Bidding is generally limited to the lawyers, the doctors and the business tycoons. The Canadian Tire tree this year included a mountain of small appliances, power tools and gadgets that would choke a half-ton truck on a sunny day. Two couples at our table started bidding against each other but quickly itemized which things they were after and ganged up on somebody across the room. Fortunately, the somebody had a bigger wallet so we didn't have to witness the squabble over the espresso machine. The women doctors were just beat out for the five day fly-in fishing trip, but the sponsor, a local construction company, offered to buy two of the trips and so double the bid money going to the Foundation. It appears the bite of the recession in the Yukon has been little more than a gentle nibbling on the earlobe. All together the trees raised over $150,000 for the x-ray machine.

There was also a raffle. Joy bought three tickets. While we missed the spa retreat and the grand prize of a free pass on Air North, Joy did come away with an ounce of raw gold. When she went to pick up her prize she received a plastic film canister with about two dozen good-sized nuggets from a placer mine south of Dawson. Probably the easiest way to mine gold around here. The litle beauties have been sent off to the jeweller to be made into a Christmas ornament.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fall River Camping - Crisp Day

The great thing about fall camping is the late sunrise. Sleeping in during a Yukon summer is impossible, but by mid-October it is easy to stay snuggled down in your sleeping bag, at least until your wife pokes you and tells you to start a fire in the stove.

After a hot breakfast and many cups of coffee we readied the boat for a trip further down river. The Yukon River valley opens up as it approaches Lake Laberge and we stop at a large sandbar to stretch our legs, examine the ice on puddles and watch Trumpeter swans flying in elongated Vs overhead. The crisp air and the freshness of being on the water in below freezing temperatures is exhilarating. By afternoon we're sleepy and take a snooze on the sunny side of the river.

Fall River Camping - Set up

We set up camp on Egg Island only a short run through the sleet down the Yukon River. The river level drops through the fall so we have to land on the opposite side of the island from our favorite camp site. Everything is unloaded and while Erin and Marina set up the tarp and move the gear, Andrew and I boat to the mainland where we cut firewood. On our return we set up the wall tent (a little patience, a lot of trial and error but eventually it stands on its own), saw and split our wood and set a campfire. By now it's time to run back upriver to pick up Joy after work.

The snow has stopped. Jumbalia is steaming on the camp stove and we are sitting around the fire enjoying a glass of wine and some storytelling. For dessert Marina makes soft and delicious chocolate brownies in the campfire with her Dutch oven. After dinner the tent stove is lit and we sit about the campfire. The sky has cleared so it colder, but the stars are brilliant. By the time we head for bed the tent is cozy and warm.

Fall River Camping - It snows

Our daughter's visit home from New Zealand was an excuse to go camping, actually Erin said we had to do it. And it had to be river camping. Mid-October is a grey and cool time and Erin compounded the challenges by convincing her mother to come along. This significantly raised the bar on the comfort levels required for a successful trip.

We planned out meals and gathered together our gear, the biggest difference from our usual kit was the wall tent and wood stove. The wall tent is bright and spacious, 4 metres long, 3 metres wide with a 2 metre peak. However it requires eight 5 metre poles to set it up. I spent an afternoon in the woods behind the house picking out suitably straight jackpines, dead ones are much lighter and stronger than green ones but rare in our forest. We added two big tarps, miles of rope, you can never have too much rope on an outdoor trip, and the camp kitchen - stove, pots and pans, salted nuts, chocolate and a crossword puzzle book.

We had planned an early morning start but we needed a few more things from town. As I started home the snow began. Almost immediately the roads were glazed with ice and cars skidded wildly. Once home we loaded the boat and wondered if we could make it to the boat launch, 5 kilometres away. There was some discussion about why I hadn't yet put the snow tires on the truck.

The road was giddy and the windshield plastered with slush. Slow speed and empty highway, we made it to the river and launched the boat. With great relief I locked up the truck and we pushed off. Once underway I relaxed, we were so much safer on the river and it was way more fun.

Coffee on the Dashboard

We live in an odd world. The other day as we drove into town, I pondered the reality of my sitting in a warm vehicle traveling at a marvelously high speed - which allows me to live some 15 kilometres out of town in the bush and still commute to an urban workplace. This thinking arose from my ability to sit in a comfortable seat, read my international newspaper and balance a china cup of gourmet coffee from another continent on the dashboard of the car. How is it that our culture can lay down thousands of tons of crushed rock and oil impregnated asphalt in the midst of the Yukon forest so that I can do this? Is this the most important thing we could do with all these resources - a smooth ride so my coffee don't spill? The belief in constant accelerating economic growth may feel comfortable in the moment, but taking a step sideways makes the whole thing look pretty crazy. I stand ready to give up the smooth ride, the comfy seat in a car and the work. I still need coffee and news.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Walking to Beringia

Just north of Dawson it is possible to walk back in time. Last weekend a three hour walk up Grizzly Creek in Tombstone Park took us back some 500 million years, back before we were born, back before the Klondike gold rush, back before the arrival of Cartier, back before the fall of the Roman Empire, back before fire cooked meat, back before dinosaurs, back to a tropical lake bottom. And through the eyes of Charlie Roots, a Yukon geologist, we watched this lake bottom fold and lift into mountains, we saw mammoths and caribou clamber the hills and witnessed sheets of ice, heavy enough to sink continents, come and go,scraping a half dozen kilometres or more of lake sediment away to the south and finally we shivered as the glaciers of the last ice age, reaching north into Beringia, stalled at this point as a five thousand year drought barred further advance. And gradually the ice withdrew, willows arrived, later dwarf birch and spruce followed, First Nation hunters appeared to hunt the caribou and pale-skinned newcomers came to find gold, drink beer and go camping in a territorial park.

While the awesome span of geological time dwarfs the span of our visit, it is a warm and congenial group strung out along the trail to the long ago. On the way I chat with Nicole Bauberger, artist laurete of the Ogilvie Mountains, about the selection of reality that transforms experience into art. With old friends I trade stories of our childrens' adventures as they venture into the wide world. Time may intellectually outspan Earth's modest geography, but it bears no comparison to the distance from loved ones that only the heart understands. At stops beside the creek and at rocky eruptions beside the trail, Charlie unfolds the story told by the stones.

We arrive at a flat just before the last steep pitch and stop for lunch. A young woman has no lunch and Camembert cheese with jalapeno jelly on wheat thins, an apple, chocolate and nuts rise from the packs and pockets of those around her. We see a rain shower across the valley, drifting slowly towards us like a giant jellyfish in the ancient lake here hundreds of millions ago and six kilometres over our heads. We pack up, some return to the cars far below, the rest of us continue to the top, leaving behind the modern spruce and arriving in the old Beringian landscape of dwarf golden willows and stunted crimson birch. At the top we are rewarded by a magnificent valley view closed off beyond by Monolith and Tombstone mountains.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - End

The final leg of the hike is scenic and pleasant. We hear bear stories from other travellers, relax beside Bare Loon Lake for a snack and enjoy our lunch at a spectacular lookout over the ghost town of Bennett. We catch the train back to Skagway, drive the three blocks to the Thai restaurant where we enjoy tasty, hot curries. The rain begins again to make the world wet and cold. We don't care, our hike is over.

For almost 40 years, Parks Canada and the United States National Park Service have operated the Chilkoot Trail as an international historic park. The success of the trail depends on the diligence and passion of the staff and volunteers that make the Chilkoot both a safe backcountry experience and an engaging historic landscape. Wardens and Rangers, archeologists and curators, trail crew and managers, support staff in urban offices all contribute to the pleasures of the trail. Thanks to them all.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Sunshine

The morning shows bits of blue sky, "sucker holes" according to our rainforest companions from Juneau. However, the rain has stopped and there is a chance we can dry out at Lindeman. Lindeman has cabins with wood stoves, the very idea is wonderful. Each group slowly gets organized and heads out towards the sunshine.

The hike today is easy, the trail is good and as the clouds fade we have warm sunshine on our faces. By the time we reach Lindeman in mid afternoon our packs are wind dried. We hang up tents, clothes, sleeping bags. Soon all is dry and everyone's temper is restored. The others continue down the trail but we overnight in Lindeman. The interpretive tent has a Klondike board game, the lack of any rules only makes the play more furious and gold-rush like.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Waterfalls and Wild Flowers

We are the first at the Summit shelter. Quickly we make hot soup and eat our lunch, sausage, cheese and expedition bread, our staples. By now the others have arrived and we gird our loins with gortex once again. The walk to Happy Camp is relaxed. More rocks to cross and more streams to ford, but there is no climb over the summit ahead. As we drop out of the fog we appreciate the waterfalls. dozens of streams of water, some feathery wisps, others raucous and noisy, marking out the crevaces and fault lines in the black rock of the mountains towering over us. Further along, the wild flowers are in riotous bloom, red dwarf fireweed, deep purple monkshood, bright blue harebells, frilly creamy white blossoms of grass of parnassus and dozens of others in yellow, white, red and blue. We walk alongside a rocky wall the flowers cascading down past us like the waterfalls.

The tent platforms at Happy Camp are soaked, the water held by surface tension in reverse puddles. I try to wipe the water off the platform for the tent but it is hopeless. The tent and fly are completely soaked, the sleeping pads are soaked. The tent floor glues itself to the wood and only reluctantly allows me to stretch it out. Thankfully the sleeping bags are still dry.

The shelter is soon filled with with wet, cold people. Soon stoves are blazing under bubbling suppers, the walls and ceiling lines festooned with wet clothing in faint hope of drying. One woman has broken her finger in a fall at the summit and is trembling with hypothermia. First aid, some hot food and she is bundled into a double sleeping bag for the night. Otherwise we've come through without major problems. If we have another wet day though there will be more serious problems tomorrow.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Summit

I was pleased to see the familiar blue walls of the tent and Andrew in his sleeping bag beside me in the morning. This bright spot was followed by the sadder realization that we were hiking through the pass in a gale. A good breakfast, oatmeal with landjager sausage, my Ibeprofan with lots of water and some good stretches got us on to the trail, the last of our group to leave Sheep Camp.

There was no rain at first. We wound upwards, scrambling over the rocks of Long Hill and gradually escaping the forest shrinking first to stunted alpine fir and then just scattered willows, and into the rain. We could feel the wind pushing us onward and upwards. We caught up to the others and worked together to cross the many fords in the barren rockscape and made our way to the Scales at the base of the final climb. By now our feet were liberated from dryness, the first ford had filled our boots, and our load heavier as the rain soaked both clothes and packs.

By this time driving rain and thick fog canceled our plans for a hot drink before tackling the summit. We found a sheltered niche, hurriedly ate chocolate, nuts and swallowed some water while pulling on our rain pants to cut the wind - we were already soaked. We started again as the chill began seeping into my bones, must keep moving to stay warm. The barren stones of the Scales slanted ahead in a dark watery soup, the dense fog cramping our view even more than thoroughly than the forest we'd left behind. We'd moved from the Brothers' Grimm to the darkest parts of the Lord of the Rings.

We moved across a field of rippled ice, every foot step sliding in a different direction, the water in our boots sloshing with the sudden jerky movements. The wind blasted us forward. I was grateful for the heavy pack which kept my back warm and dry. And then the orange trail poles guiding us through the weather began to rise one above another on a crazy cascade of smashed boulders - we were at the Golden Stairs. We scrambled over the broken surface, each of us finding our own way amongst the carnage of rock, old timbers, and abandoned cables of the gold rush tramways, the wind howling and streaming rain plastering our hoods and legs. The base of the Stairs disappeared in the fog and we push on, certain only that we are going upwards, hoping soon to see the crest.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Dreaming

"No light, but rather darkness visible" Milton, Paradise Lost

I awoke from dreaming to the noise of crashing trees and sluicing rain. I lay there with my eyes closed, then opened them - nothing. I closed them again and re-opened them. There was no difference, everything was black. I squinted and tried to see the outline of my hand, nothing. I looked for the bright white band of the tent zipper, nothing. I was blind! Curiously I didn't panic. I began to think, well, I can't go over the pass tomorrow, but how will we get back down the trail? I pondered the various projects I was working on, thinking about the blind PhD student I knew from Clare Hall working on software to summarize and read text aloud. I hoped he was finished. Then it occurred to me that it might be an opportunity to improve my German. Finally I decided it might just be really, really dark and I just couldn't see anything. I put off further thinking and went back to sleep.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Deluge

In the morning the rain had stopped. Better, the puddles on the raincoats were gone, the tent seams just needed to swell up to become waterproof after a hot dry Yukon summer. A good shake of the fly and it was almost dry. We packed up and started out at a steady pace. The woods, a Brothers Grimm type of forest, started to bug me. Dark, damp, unable to see anything but 10 metres of broken stumps, bent and shattered tree trunks, prickly devil's club and lush, thick all absorbing green.

Along the way we heard, but in the deep woods never felt, the wind rising. The large cottonwoods swaying, branches and leaves ocassionally cascading down to our level. At Sheep Camp it was noticeably cooler and the rain held until off until supper was finished. Then we dragged in what wet wood we could find to make a fire in the shelter. The cabin was hung with damp clothes and equipment, and we had a quiet evening preparing for the big climb over the summit next morning. Jeremy, the park ranger, arrived with news of an early fall gale blowing up the Taiya Inlet, heavy rain with winds up to 90 kilometres an hour were now buffetting the pass. The parks service had closed the trail behind us as the rising waters had flooded much of the trail. He also warned we would be fording several streams and the water would be cold, fast and deep.

We went to bed, our tents calm but the trees towering above us swayed violently in the noise of the freight trains flying past us on the way north - our trail tomorrow.

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail - Shelter

We're dropped at the Trailhead, heave on our packs and start the climb. An overcast day, the gloom of the coastal rainforest lowered around us but we scarcely notice - we are dry and there are no bugs. A couple of hours and we're in Canyon City. Nothing hurts. I am pleased.

The shelter cabin here is being renovated. A large wall tent however gives shelter from the light shower that started just after we got our tents up. Three other pairs are travelling with us - a Juneau mum and her 15 year old son, a German couple and, late that night, a couple from southern Alberta. Over the course of the next four days we shared the trials of the weather and the pleasures of the trail.

It was great to see work being done on the cabin. Especially auspicious was the presence of Parks Canada crew member, John. There are four of these cabins on the trail - one each at Canyon City and Sheep Camp on the American side and a pair at Lindeman in Canada. All were built by inmates from the Juneau and Whitehorse correctional institutes in the 1960s. In what may be among the earliest "community corrections" projects in North America, far sighted corrections officials committed to programs allowing low risk inmates to volunteer to reopen the Chilkoot Trail for hikers. This fulfilled a strong community interest to have a historic trail attract tourists. Over the course of almost ten years inmates cleared the trail, built bridges and the four shelter cabins to make the present trail a reality. The park services showed up later to run the trail the inmates recreated. Today there are few reminders of the dedicated and arduous work accomplished by these men. Congratulations to them! For more on the corrections work on the trail see Chilkoot Trail Cabins.

Andrew and I returned to the tent after supper to find rain dripping onto our mats. Bad news! We rolled out our sleeping bags and arranged our raincoats to divert the water to the floor. Resigned to the leaks we fall asleep to the roar of the rising river beside the tent.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Trials of the Weather, Pleasures of the Trail

I relaxed, sipped the latte and flipped open my Manchester Guardian. A soothing half hour spent before beginning the earnest work of hiking the Chilkoot Trail. The first task was to wake up the crew and meet for a big breakfast at the Sweet Tooth Cafe. Then a slow trundle down to the Trail Centre where Dyea Dave met us for the shuttle over to Dyea. Dave also picked up a bear view client and, on the road, we met a German couple Dave had toured last summer. Hearty greetings and they parked their car and joined us for the drive. A grizzly was seen across the valley and the van careened down the road, across the bridge over the heads of a half dozen fly fishers, through the dark woods and out onto the ocean flats. Dave brought his van within 40 metres of the bear as it munched down on a salmon in a sidestream of the Taiya River.

While we watched Dave told us his modern day Soapy Smith story. A couple of years ago a fellow set up a dog mushing attraction in Dyea. For $30 he'd tour you through the kennel and you'd get a dog team cart ride. Local advertizing netted him a couple of dozen rides a day, mostly from cruise ship passengers. It didn't take one of the cruise ship companies long to drop by and ask for the "exclusive" right to his offering. He accepted and still gets $30 a ride, but now the company runs out busloads of passengers several times a day when they're in port and keeps him plenty busy. They market the excursion on ths ship as $119 cruise ship passenger special! I guess that's how cruise fares are cheap, not much different from the casinos in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile the bear finished his salmon. He hunched up and looked upstream, then, he jumped and started to hop forward, then sideways and once backwards and he was back on the bank with another salmon. He wasn't worried about us.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hiking Above Aishihik Lake

Over the weekend I went hiking with my God sons and their Dad. Colin planned a 2 day 20 kilometre round trip to an old crashed fighter plane. After a two hour drive and paddle across the narrows of a lake we began a steep slog uphill. After scrambling for several hours we reached a ridge top with splendid views of the surrounding lakes. During our late lunch the map showed we'd advanced a total of 1500 metres towards our 10 K goal. Things sped up a bit when we followed an old horse trail heading off in about the right direction. After a good spell of walking the trail ended up at lake with a pleasant camp site. We were now tired, the boys wanted to read their books and we'd made just short of 4 kilometres. Colin was outvoted and we camped.

Next morning, after a good solid porridge feed, we struck out along the horse trail, wound our way back to the canoe and made it home in time for a shower and glass of wine before dinner.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hot Dry Summer

Sunshine every day, we button down the house in the morning, closing the blinds and cranking the windows shut. Temperatures approach 30'C almost every day. Trying to work upstairs in the afternoons is like being in a sauna. Still, the sun shines every day, we haven't had a summer like this in years. At the other end of the country Ottawa claims only 3 weekends without rain since early May (fortunately that included one when I was there). Yukoners are pretty happy about camping this summer.

It is cool in the mornings, today it was only 4'C at 8 am so I enjoy my morning coffee out on the front porch looking out to the sun as it slants its way upwards. For weeks the skies have been clear and blue. However, the lack of rain means an extreme fire hazard rating - all open fires are banned. In the late afternoon the heat of the sun reaches its peak, the air is still and the forest fires, slowed by the cool night air find their pace and roar in the afternoon. On Thursday afternoon last week fire 29 2009 XY011, straddling the Teslin River near O'Brien's Bar just 60 km NE of Whitehorse, explodes. A mushroom cloud erupts above the mountains in front of our house - 5,000 hectares of forest spews forth smoke and flame. I watch as it rises before me.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


This past week the sinking of one corner of the bathroom opened up an exciting new enterprise at our home. In an innovative set of repairs using a spatula (created by Erin in shop) whose handle was a trifle too ornate as well as a little too large for our kitchen, we realized we had created a new arts venue "Galerai Spathula."

We wasted no time in curating the first show for the gallery working from the large private collection of bespoke tools held by a nearby kitchen. The opening night crowd was enthusiastic. "They are soooo flat." I wish I could stand up in here." "This polyethelene carpet is divine!" "David, what are you doing in there?"

This weekend, as we await repairs to the wall tiles that shifted before the rescue spatula arrived we noticed water dripping from the bathroom ceiling. A few blows from the ax opened up a whole new gallery space above our very heads. The excitement of another new venue is palpable. We just need to replace the plumbing line before the show.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Family Photo

A few weeks ago Joy noticed a new variant of Erin's college days. After her second year at Yukon College Erin volunteered to be part of a student recruitment campaign. We became used to seeing her face in the newspaper, along with several other young people we knew in town. This time was a surprise for Joy. As she came out of the coffee shop on Main street she ran into her life sized daughter at the doorway. It took us awhile to get organized but last weekend we got together for a family photo.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Planning the Back Garden

This morning Joy and I ambled the backyard wasteland above the new septic field, pounding in pegs for the new garden. Late I took a photo and laid on the planned work, which should start next week. Here's the present and the forecast, watch for the outcome.

Call and Response - A Visit to the Chilkoot Trail

In late June, 1847, Alexander Murray of the Hudson's Bay Company camped at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers with his small party of voyageurs. In his journal he noted the arrival of a welcoming party;

late in the evening [a] salute of 5 guns were heard from the point below. I ordered none to fire, but the Indians here said it was always the custom with them when they came in peace to discharge their pieces, and if we did not return the salute they would consider us to be enemies. We then fired 5 guns in answer to theirs, which was responded to from the fleet of canoes, now close at hand, by a shout that might be heard for miles, ...they hauled up their canoes ... and formed on the bank in single file, with their Chief in front, women + Children in the rear. and danced forward by degrees until in front of my tent when they continued at it for upwards of half an hour without intercession.

Murray’s account of this meeting, the exchange of gun shots, the dance and subsequent “speechifying,” were all part of a well known Yukon River call and response ritual. A formal structure of meeting, the ritual reduced the chance of misunderstanding. Call and response allows the determination of intentions and fosters good, or at least unambiguous, relations. The call and response, as a part of dance, as a way of removing ambiguity, was, and remains, more than a diplomatic nicety, it is in fact a philosophical fundamental of northwestern Indigenous culture.

The founding myth of northwestern cultures is the voyage down the Yukon River of a hero figure known as “The Traveller.” During his journey, The Traveller closed off primordial chaos - a time of uncertain relations and unstable forms - and established an ordered world of right relations. His teachings included the assignment of responsibilities to all Creation for the maintenance of this ordered world, of right relations. Call and response is the contemporary version of ensuring that visitors know their responsibilities and are prepared to engage in right relations.

Earlier in June, I and several work colleagues, flew out to the Chilkoot Trail, a historic site in the northern coastal mountains of British Columbia. When our float plane landed at Lindeman, the main camp of the park staff on the trail, we were met by two wardens, Christine and Heather. Heather is Tlingit, her ancestors travelled the Chilkoot Trail, trading trips to the Yukon interior, exchanging fish oil and dentalia shells for moosehide clothing and dried meat. She greeted us on the beach where we landed.

She introduced herself with her Tlingit name. She reminded us of the long history of her people's, her family's, use of the trail. More than that she noted their ownership of the trail. She spoke about how important their connection with this place was, and remains. She emphasized how the Tlingit still felt responsible for visitors to the trail. This is why she is a warden on the trail. It's not a job, it's a family duty to look after travellers using their trail. Then she began to sing.

In a powerful alto she sang inTlingit, her ululations reaching out to us and eddying across the lake behind us. A song of welcome, a song of connection, a song of responsibility, a song calling on us to recognize the long history of this place and the Tlingit relationship with it. It was a song of pride, ownership, stewardship. It was a song of who she and her people were. And it was a call to us - who are you, what do you want here? Are you coming in peace or are you enemies?

She completed her song, she waited. Finally I responded. I identifed our group as helpers coming to assist her and the park staff in their stewardship of the trail. We came with good will, open hearts and a willingness to work cooperatively and with respect on a place which we all cherished, if for different reasons. With that we were welcomed into camp and began our work together.

As Canadians we need to continuously engage in call and response, a reminder of what differences we have, what values we share and how we need respect the former and work together on the latter. Only then can we continue to live in a country that allows us the freedom and peace we enjoy together.