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.