Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snowshoe Trek

My daughter Erin took today's photos. The camera froze up halfway through the hike. Earlier today she started her return trip to summery New Zealand for school.
 We got new snowshoes for Christmas. Yesterday we went to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve for a trek through the back hills of the preserve. It was a cold day (-30C) and while you get a little tired of the cold after two weeks that's no excuse to stay indoors. We felt the pinch on our cheeks when we arrived but within a few minutes of starting out we were warm and enjoying the bright sunshine.

The Preserve has lots of Yukon wildlife wandering  the preserve. We saw caribou, mule deer and a cow moose and her two year old bull calf. But the most impressive sight were the great steaming hulks of the bison. Their breath hung like a fog before their face and the height of their shoulders and thickness of their coat was most impressive. When I was little kid in Winnipeg in the 1950s (when the winters were cold) all the policemen on the beat wore full length buffalo coats. They weighed a ton but we never lost a policeman to frostbite and I suspect the coats were also bullet proof.

We took a two hour walk up the hills at the back of the preserve and enjoyed a great view of the Takhini River Valley from the top. We then wound our back down the hill and around the Preserve making the hike back to the parking lot just as the sun was setting. We could feel the temperature beginning to drop and were happy to head back home and fire up the wood stove.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Morning

On Christmas morning we open our gifts under the lights of the Christmas tree. As the sun rises we dress and head up the hill behind our house to greet the day.

It is -25'C, but the air is still. We are well dressed in parkas and double mitts so by the time we make it to the top of the ridge we are warm. A raven greets us with a caw.

Lake Laberge, frozen over now, lies off to the north at the foot of the hills.

The smoke from our chimney rises quietly in the air. In the kitchen Joy is starting dinner.

Within a hour the sun moves behind Haeckel Hill and the sun dogs become more prominent as the light starts to fade. Merry Christmas to you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010 Rituals of Love

Earlier this fall I went through old photos with Dad - his and Mum’s honeymoon, some of our family travels and their emptynester trips to music conferences around the world. We enjoyed the time together, but I suspect our thoughts were worlds’ apart. It seems impossible to put yourself in your parents’ place, that is, to think about being your own parent. We are so deeply caught in our roles - as children, adults, parents - those relationships we develop are so specific to us it is hard to imagine being someone else.

I thought of these bonds when I found this 1957 photo (I’m the one with the book of course) sitting on the lap of the Eaton’s store Santa. What was my mother thinking when this occurred, aren’t they cute? Thank goodness someone else has them for a minute? But as a child I recall the excitement of the annual Christmas visit, standing in line and then, the young elf helping us up, sitting with Santa for a few hurried words and a flash photo. This was an annual ritual, one of many which became the stuff of our family. My Dad shared hockey with us. Every Saturday we were at the rink early, watching the dads shovel the rink and then, with their encouragement, we played hard, shooting, skating, falling. Our Mum shared music. On our annual road trips, Nova Scotia, EXPO 67, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, we were taught songs, “the grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men...,” and she read books to us. Tintin, then only in French, was a favorite. Only years later I figured out that Mum knew no French, but there was no doubting her ability as minstrel. Through our childhood our parents shepherded us through a shared exploration of the world. These rituals of love linked us together, taught us how to live and gave us the morals and meanings they considered essential to a good world.

I believe this photo carries some essence linking me to my parents, it is a symbol of our link between generations that I want to share with my children. Sharing love is primal. We love our parents as they loved and nurtured us. We love our children, partly because we were loved, but also because we were taught to make children safe, happy and to watch them engage with the world. Our out flowing love brings meaning to our existence. Each ritual of love is a talisman, both creating and memorializing our relationships with each other. Somehow photos, letters and emails, even whispered prayers and special memories, become valued tokens of the love tieing us together.

Our best wishes for a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

David on a late fall river trip.

Andrew at the Mija Jima Shrine near Hiroshima, Japan.

Joy preparing the Thanksgiving turkey at Silver City, Yukon.

Erin and Stephen working together, Okain's Bay, New Zealand.

Family above Okain's Bay, New Zealand on Waitangi Day 2010. I think it's great when the national holiday celebrates the moment when Newcomers made a deal with the Indigenous people to build a country together.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Perfect Christmas Tree

Erin directs Stephen, across the valley, to check out a tree. Fish Lake just visible in right distance.
Every winter, in the week before Christmas, our daughter organizes the search for the perfect Christmas tree. Generally this means a major expedition, with axe, saw, lots of rope, a hearty breakfast and deep winter gear, snow paks, three layers of parka and double mitts even in the mild -26'C temperatures. We will be gone for several hours. This year we head for Fish Lake, an alpine lake not far from Whitehorse.

Andrew with the heavy equipment.
The road to the lake is steep and winding. Along the way we can see scattered pine and spruce boughs where others have found their tree and hoisted it to the roof of their car. We pass a father and son grinning as they load their tree for the ride home. At a likely spot we pull over and climb over the snow drifts alongside the track. We are quickly up to our hips in soft snow as we break trail into the woods. Andrew carries the equipment, while Stephen and Erin fan out to check out the trees. I follow along in the deep trench through the snow.

We stop and check out a tree, give it a good shake to release the snow and see if the perfect Christmas tree is hiding beneath it. No, too many broken branches, no, that one has an open space. Next time I say no, its way too big, it'd fill the whole living room, never mind not fit through the door. We trail on, winding through the woods, looking up at snow covered trees. As we come down to the lake we come across a group of mushers heading down the lake with their dog teams.We can hear the dogs barking and yelping with excitement as they speed across the snow covered ice.

We turn back into the bush and continue our search. Eventually we narrow the choice to two trees, both tall but not too broad. Erin finally decides and the saw quickly drops it. It is a big and thick spruce. Looking at the stump we see that the first ten to fifteen years were slow growth, very tight rings. But then the branches must've spread and for the next fifteen to twenty years the tree shot up with fat wide rings showing dry, warm summers and mild winters. At home the tree warms and drops its stiff branches. Decorations come out and we have our perfect Christmas tree. Our best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season .

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Skiing Little Takhini Creek

Headed out early this morning (sunrise is at a decent 10AM so lots of time for breakfast and coffee before departing) to ski Little Takhini Creek near our home. Lots of fresh snow and -11C, a perfect day. Low clouds and continuing snow kept Haeckel Hill in the mists during my trip. Frederick Schwatka, an American army officer who rafted down the Yukon River in the summer of 1883, named the hill after the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel actively promoted Charles Darwin's work in Germany and developed the concept of ecology. Haeckel's fame has made him a geographical toponym in the United States where Mount Haeckel overlooks the Evolution Basin in the Sierra Nevada and in New Zealand where there is a shorter mountain apparently not overlooking much worth noting.. There is also an asteroid named after him. I do not think anyone has named a car or a rock and roll band after him so obviously he is no longer that important. All the Haeckels aside the local Southern Tutchone name for the hill, with its four wide spread ridges, is Eagle Claw mountain.

The trail has been a favorite with our family for twenty years. It winds along the edge of the deeply incised valley of the creek and gradually drops down to a lovely picnic spot on the Yukon River. Where the trail first hits the creek there is a large beaver pond with three of four dams and lodges. Now its frozen over and the beavers have a lethargic winter occasionally swimming under the ice to retrieve another of the juicy and nourishing popular branches they've stored underwater near their lodge. Further down the trail there is a blow out where, in summer, kids can hurl themselves over a cliff and tumble down the soft sand some 20 meters to the creek, sort of a near vertical beach. Always a pack of tired kids for the walk back home on those days.

Spruce tree seeds on the trail
In the distance I can see this Semenoff Hills, another of Schwatka's place names, this time the president of the Imperial Geographical Society of Russia. It's a good thing there are lots of hills, mountains and lakes in the Yukon because Schwatka seems to have had a lot of friends. But not everything went his way. He annoyed one of the Tlingit chiefs on the Pacific coast by failing to deliver a promised payment for some service. Subsequently the chief took his name stating that he wouldn't give it back until he was paid. A final irony for the man who named everything that already had a name was the naming of Schwatka Lake, a water body "made up" by the construction of the Whitehorse dam.

Little Takhini Creek with the open water of the Yukon River ahead.
Finally I slide down the last hill to the confluence of the Little Takhini and the Yukon. The Yukon River is still flowing. The water is low and wide bands of ice, a little bumpy but certainly possible to skate on make an icy rink road 10 meters wide and 15 kilometers long back into downtown Whitehorse. But I've gone far enough. I eat some chocolate and start my ski back home again.

Watching ice form on moving water - how does it do it?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In November it snows

Generally Hallowe'en is the southern Yukon date for snow, sometimes a day or two before so kids are really packed into their snowsuits, or a few days afterwards. This year though snow held off for almost more three weeks. In mid-month it was still +7 C, close to a record. In the Northwest Territories they are talking about putting the ferry back into the river, the price of propane for home heating  has gone up 10X since planes have started flying it in. Here though the rivers are full of ice pans and we've been skating on ponds and small lakes for a couple of weeks.

Noon, the sun will set in about 40 minutes
Now we have snow, lots of snow. It has buried our vehicles and submerged the driveway with wheel clogging depths. Twice in a week I've run the drag plow up and down the hill to keep it cleared. I went skiing this afternoon, great to be outside sucking in fresh air. I'd put it off a few days because I was scared I couldn't do it anymore. Everything fell into place, except me, the old skills are still there just waiting to be tapped.

The absence of a yard dog has made our place more open to wildlife. In addition to the horde of birds Joy attracts with her feeders - we saw a flock of about fifty or more Bohemian waxwings the other day - we have a house fox. The fox has a regular round, circling the house and checking out the woodpile for mice and occasionally frightening the cat when she sees it through the window. It is sleek and healthy looking. With the abundance of mice and rabbits we note in the woods (and our basement to the amusement of our cat) the fox shouldn't be going hungry. It regularly feasts, and defecates in, Joy's plate of bird seed.

 For us it is a treat to see the vibrancy of the winter forest.

Raven, the one who stole the sun and brought it back to the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Bruxelles, Manitoba is another of the unique communities on the prairies. While most towns abut the railway tracks, or, if "mis-placed", moved themselves to the tracks when the train arrived, this group of Belgian Catholic immigrants settled on a small outlying knob of the Tiger Hills, centering the community on their church. 

Bruxelles never grew large. A school, run by the church Sisters and erected in the 1950s, remains on the edge of town. The grocery / hardware / post office / gas station / bank holds down the west end of town where the road ends at the old stable.

On the edge of the churchyard is small shrine of thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This solid brick shrine was built in 1931 by Remi and Therese Simoens. The shrine, moved to Bruxelles when the elderly Simoens retired from the farm, fulfilled their promise to the Virgin for her intercession in the recovery of their 26 year old daughter, Alice Hacault, from deathly illness.

Bruxelles remains a quiet, hospitable point, one of my favorite backwaters of rural Manitoba.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Late September, the geese are rising out of the ponds in the subdivision next to my Dad's apartment in Winnipeg. At 7:30 they start and in minutes the sky is full of birds flying onwards, moving south, west,  to the next open field of harvested grain (very few of those so far in this wet fall) to glean another day's energy for their move. Winnipeg is in the centre of one of the major migration flyways for geese. As a child I watched these annual visitors filling the sky.

I grew up in 1950s Winnipeg. It was then also a city of human migrants, the earliest as economic refugees from the harsh North Atlantic fringe - industrializing England, starving Iceland, Scotland and Scandinavia, later ones as refugees of the twentieth century European wars - Poles, Italians, Greeks and especially Germans in large number. My family arrived in southern Manitoba in the late 1920s, escapees from the chaos and violence of the Russian Revolution. And all of these groups hung together, retaining language, foods, faiths and social coherence.

Winnipeg was a melting pot at room temperature, chunky, indisolveable lumps bumping into each other, all aspiring to fit in, secretly wanting to become English speaking Canadians without losing themselves. And through the 1960s, my generation learned English, our faiths fit in, German was taught on Saturday mornings (and required for Christmas carols and wedding celebrations), food moved from Oma's kitchen to restaurants in the Northend (One on Pembina Highway is called Oma's Kitchen) and the tight bonds of social coherence loosened under the warm sun of multi-culturalism.When I left Winnipeg in the early 1970s I was a Canadian.

On this trip my Dad and I made a Sunday afternoon trip to City Park. We visited the English Garden, long a centre piece of the park, and sat down on one of the benches circling the garden fountain. It was a busy place.

My Dad was two when my Oma and Opa escaped the chaos of post-revolutionary Russia in 1926.
The garden was full of high school students on a photo shoot. Cree, second and third generation eastern European, they probably came form the Northend if the city's demographic geography remained unchanged from my youth. They scattered through the garden running, laughing, looking for the perfect shot, apparently only to be found through movement. One young woman shared her images of the chickadees feeding from the hands of two young children.

On the bench next to us a young and beaming Iranian couple proudly celebrated the obviously recent arrival of their infant son. An aged terrier sat stiffly alert beside them as its very English mistress cooed to the baby and smiled warm thoughts to the parents. The intimacy of this exchange was trumped by the arrival of the lively Japanese wedding party. The bride, wearing a tight fitting red Uchikake (the traditional bridal outfit donned for the post-ceremony reception) and impossibly high heeled shoes, giggled as her smiling husband trotted obediently alongside. A group of tiny aunties and large, jovial uncles boisterously ordered the couple, here, then there, for the perfect photo.Where were all the young photographers now? The bride charmed the little boy with her bouquet, a tight arrangement of small blossoms with Miss Kitty grinning benignly outwards.On our way out we met a family, Mother and Father in Sunday black with two teen daughters with long dark hair. They were earnestly engaged in conversation, speaking Serbo-Croatian, probably not wishing they were English but probably also understanding that they were Canadian.

We went to Dawnings for supper. It is the best Mennonite food restaurant in the Westend. As always I order the Verenki and Baurenwurst (perogies and farmer sausage), delicious with sauce just the way I remember my Oma making. The family who runs it is Phillipino.

The idea of the unitary nation state has migrated into the past, Canada is a pluralist country that seems to be working well this Sunday.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Christchurch, New Zealand Earthquake

A photo of the street near Erin and Stephen's house after the 7.1 earthquake near Christchurch this morning. We had a couple of hours of worry until they walked to a friend's place that still had power, phone and water! Parents are happy and a little more relaxed, though NZ news saws many people will be evacuated out of the city.

For more on the fortunes of Christchurch a year after the quakes see my updates in January, 2012.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chilkoot Pass

Last week I had the chance to work with the patrol wardens at the Chilkoot Pass Summit. After taking the train from Carcross we boated to Lindeman. The next morning we packed our gear and some extra material for cabin repairs along the way. It was the first sunshine in days and the hikers we met coming from the pass were all enthusiastic about their trail time and pleased to be past the steep climb and the rain on the coastal side.

My job is to prepare a backgrounder on the historic resources on the trail. Trail staff will gain more knowledge of the things they are protecting and learn stories they can pass on to hikers. Our focus on this trip is the Pass itself. During the day we revisit the sites, out of the snow for a few weeks this time of year. We do some repeat photography, reshooting gold rush photos to see what changes may have taken place. One striking element was the lack of vegetation in the old images compared to now. Perhaps the thousands of stampeders tracked in enough dirt, left behind enough organics and seeds to dramatically change the ecology of the Pass?

It is mid summer at this high altitude. The snow has only finally melted a few weeks past and the plants are frantically racing through their life cycle, sprouting blossoming and bearing seed in the very short time before the snow returns. The hillsides are a rich garden of pinks, whites, blues, and yellows. A hike along the shores of Crater Lake reveals old canoe landing spots and we can trace the old winter roads that dropped the tramway freight down to the lake. Further we find secret coves and delightful waterfalls. This is a lovely place on the rare days that the sun shines.

Evening is announced by the fog. A misty greyness settles on the pass and stays until well into the next day, the sun and wind eventually clearing the sky by early afternoon. We stay at the Summit Warden cabin, compact, efficient, warm and dry. It is a privilege to serve Canadians and visitors at a place such as the Chilkoot Pass.