Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Teslin Mini-Rendezvous and Community-based Research

The women's nail hammering competition. Frozen logs stiffly resist nails.
Early this month friends and I drove to Teslin, a Tlingit community about two hours east of Whitehorse for their spring mini-rendezvous. This year it was especially mini since low temperatures and a stiff onshore lake breeze meant "spring" was bitterly cold. The carnival, with its seriously local competitions, traditionally takes place on the lake. But this year they moved all the events with the exception of the ice fishing which didn't translate well to the community centre parking lot where a large bonfire provided a cheery respite to the wintery environment.

The competitions had started and we pounded nails into logs, I wasn't the fastest but at least I got mine in straight, and later heard about the tea boiling and bannock making competition. The scene looked quite odd afterwards, all traces of activity being cleaned up by dogs and ravens leaving behind only seven or eight small burnt holes sunk through the white ice down to the charred remains of wood on the gravel. Looked like a series of meteorite strikes.

In the evening there was a feast, spagetti and meat sauce, baked salmon and moose stew. About half the town showed up for the dinner in the hall with small children and parents patiently lining up and chatting while we loaded plates with warm dinner. Later there was the annoucement of the winners of the Mr and Mrs Teslin contest (a couple in their thirties with five kids who run the hotel and restautrant and volunteer for everything) and a presentation by Alison, an MA student from an Alaskan University who spent the past 18 months working with the community on a cultural tourism plan. She had brought up a Chicken Dancer from the Siksika Reserve just outside of Calgary, her home town, and a storyteller from northern Saskatchewan. The feast and the entertainment were her thanks to the community for their support of her thesis research and a chance to present her findings. Things went reasonably well, the usual diversion form the "official" plan well within the norms of Yukon communities, but Alison remained somewhat tense throughout. It was her first "show" of this kind.

 By the end of the dinner everything had gone well, the young chicken dancer performed a vigourous dance concluding with a breathless warning not to take up smoking, like he did, as it made it hard to dance. Alison's video couldn't be made to run on the computer so we skipped over that with a few words and then we all sang happy birthday to two of the Mr & Mrs Teslin children whose birthdays bracketed the feast day. Then everyone, except the dishwashers and table wipers, went next door to watch the hockey game in the just completed arena. We got a tour of the workout room with all its fancy equipment, heard about the challenges of scheduling things, some women don't like men to be in there while they're on the machines, and waded through a huge crowd of small children playing in the lounge. There was a 50-50 draw as a benefit for Rosss River, a nearby Dene community. Their arena and community centre burned down earlier in the week so there was some desolation up the CANOL Road. As people churned their pockets for coins and bills, half the money went into a large coffee can as the prize and the other half was meticulously taped onto a hockey stick that would be sent up to Ross River. It was a pretty amazing hockey stick by the end of the evening.

As we headed out to the car we ran into a concerned group standing around Alison and a group of locals in the lobby. Apparently while backing out her parking spot, Amanda tore the bumper off the front of the newly crowned Mrs Teslin's car. Amanda's experiences in community-based research was increasing expontentially. We headed outside, the wind had stopped, a cresent moon beamed through the mist and it started to snow.

The Anglican Church in old Teslin.
On Tuesday at the coffee shop back in Whitehorse I heard that Alison's Sunday morning consultation meeting had gone very well. People stayed an extra hour and congratulated her on doing such a good job. Yukon communities gain much by opening themselves to young people learning the ropes, and their generous sharing helps shape a better future.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Winter visit to the Chilkoot Trail

Bennett Railway Station. A 3 metre high snow drift reminded us unnecessarily of the strong winds that battered us on the trip into the north end of the Chilkoot Trail.
Christine and the young university student doing the visitor survey for winter users.
Carcross with Keish's (Skookum Jim) house in the centre built from the profits of his gold discovery on Bonanza Creek.
Carcross, a beautiful spot on the north beaches of Bennett Lake.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Hangi: A Maori Feast in your own kitchen

Opening the hangi and lifting out the baskets of food.
Last February our family celebrated Waitangi Day in the small village of Okains Bay on the South Island of New Zealand. Waitangi Day is the national celebration of the treaty signed by Maori Iwi (clans) and the British in 1840. At Okains Bay the day's celebrations included a replication of the original arrival of the Maori in Aotearoa, a welcome to the Marai and a hangi. "Laying a hangi" describes the preparation of this traditional feast. A large hole is filled with stones aned heated with a fire. Then large baskets of kumara, potatoes, chicken, mutton and sausages are laid in and covered with cloth and a layer of sand. Left overnight to cook the hangi was opened in early afternoon and served out to the visiting crowds.

Cadets served out the meal to the hundreds who came to celebrate.
This year we were back home in the Yukon. And a cold February seemed a good time to celebrate Waitangi Day and remember the warm weather of a New Zealand summer. With help from my daughter in New Zealand I attempted a small scale northern Canadian version of the hangi. The following recipe turned out a credible hangi, at least according to my wife.

The backyard being both frozen and under a metre of snow I decided to use our slow cooker to lay the hangi. I started by marinating boneless chicken thighs overnight in a mix of tamari sauce, peppered olive oil, a generous splash of liquid smoke to try and replicate the hangi fire, smashed garlics and thin leaves of fresh ginger. In the morning I went outside and cut a number of clean willow stalks placing a layer on the bottom of the cooker to keep the meat out of the water. I figured these would also give it a Yukon flavor. I covered the willows with a layer of smoked side bacon and then I dumped in seared medallions of veal and reindeer / jalapeno sausages.

Then came the vegetables. Kumara not being a common item in Yukon gardens I substituted large chunks of squash - skin on, sweet potatoes, onions -  peeled and quartered, and two hand fulls of garlic cloves, skin on. The whole is covered with a thick layer of finely chopped cabbage, salt and pepper and an abundance of smoked paprika. I added a cup of water laced with more liquid smoke and popped on the lid of the slow cooker. Set at 200'F I let it cook for eight hours, but six probably would have been fine, and ten wouldn't have hurt it either. Slow cooking is a forgiving art and makes a great hangi.

You may also want to check my 2011 November visit to Maori sites of importance in Taranaki.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Winter Views from our Bedroom

Aurora March 1, 2011
Spring begins with the arrival of lengthening days. Arctic high pressure systems have pushed out the low cloud of the Pacific and we have cold temperatures but beautiful clear skies. We live on the east side of an eskar rising out of the Takhini River valley. Our second floor bedroom provides spectacular views. Recent sunspot activity has revived the Aurora which we haven't seen much of in recent years.

Late afternoon clouds blowing off the mountains across the nearby Yukon River valley provide a dramatic canvas for the setting sun. It is easy to slip into romantic notions of the "savage wilderness" that surrounds us.

However, the storied egg rock at the upper reaches of Lake Laberge reminds us of the long human presence here. It is on banks of the Yukon River just below the rock where Tachokaii, the hero figure of the Northern Athapaskan people, invented the birch bark canoe and began his journey through the world.

Total Eclipse of the Sun

In ancient days an eclipse of the sun was a dramatic, frightening experience. Many cultures worshiped the sun, others had stories of the hard days before the sun made its daily track across the sky. The sudden waning of the sun was thus not only terrifying during the two hour shadowing, the event also seemed an evil omen, the sun might fail and life would cease. The Greek word ékleipsis conveys this terror of “the abandonment.” These celestial portents were the earliest targets of intellectual endeavor. Not because they were easy questions, rather they were questions essential to human survival. Today we look forward to these solar phenomena with interest. However, there are still aspects of our world that cause the same trauma and lasting fear.

After a day in town I came home and clicked on the radio for the 4 o'clock news. The leader was the just occurring earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, the home of our daughter Erin and her husband Stephen. Only last fall they went through the large earthquake that rattled Christchurch during the first notes of dawn. The 7.1 scale quake was deep and 40 km from the city. Water and sewer lines in Christchurch ruptured, electricity supplies were quickly reestablished and except for a number of the older brick buildings downtown most structures needed only relatively minor repairs.

I quickly went up stairs and put up our internet ears – skype, email and facebook – waiting for a note from the kids. Last fall Erin called within an hour, she'd had to ride her bike to some friends across town as their phone and power were out. In the following days there had been a solid community camaraderie as people shared their stories and helped each other. However as the time of limited water supplies and ongoing aftershocks continued, dozens every day, the excitement wore off and everyone just got crabby with the privations. However by Christmas everything was pretty much back to normal. Even the cat, Smoag, began to relax as the aftershocks diminished.

Last week was different. The internet ears heard nothing. I checked Erin's facebook page, not feeling well this morning so relaxing on the couch at home, maybe going to uni for lunch. Time: 2 hours before the quake. I sent a note to our son, then opened the New Zealand Herald. My throat choked and my eyes teared as I saw the first photos and started to read the minute by minute blogging by journalists. The quake, though only a half of last fall's was near the surface and right under Christchurch. It occurred just at the end of lunch, downtown was crowded, buses full of people had been crushed by falling debris, the steeple of the large stone cathedral downtown had collapsed, two large office buildings were utterly destroyed. There were people being killed.


The phone rang! but only with solicitous calls from friends. Facebook started to buzz with queries. We watched the evening news, a TV screen of collapsing buildings, and wrecked cars and bloodied people was too much. I started to think of dead children.

After a restless night we decided to go to work. Anything out of the ordinary would have been an admission of the not possible. There were encouraging notes from Erin's friends in Christchurch, hadn't seen her but sure she's all right. At work Joy got a call, a friend's daughter in Christchurch had twittered home within an hour of the quake. Two hours later, twenty four hours in the shadow, another twitter, Erin and Stephen were okay. Relief, but no relaxation.

Like an eclipse, the sun shines again. What has not returned however are casual assumptions of life. The unthinkable abandonment remains uneasily present.