Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Paddling the Upper Yukon 1: Tàa'an Män (Lake Laberge)

Landing at the Ta'an Kwach'an Council village of Upper Laberge. We've paddled 10 km, another 50 km of flat water paddling before we have the current carrying us again..
This summer I've been working the Road Scholar program (previously know as Elder Hostel) in the Yukon. These trips are relatively small groups of older adults wanting an edu-tourism experience. Ruby Range Adventure delivers the program employing me to provide introductory talks on Yukon history to their clients, a combination of hikers and paddlers. As part of the program I was able to join the last canoe trip of the season for their trip from Whitehorse to Carmacks, some 340 kilometers down river.

Upper Laberge village is beautifully located on the eastern shore of the lake. While no longer permanently occupied, Ta'an Kwach'an people are clearly working on maintaining the buildings and the site is regularly used by youth and Elders.
In the village I was fascinated to find the remains of one of the 1950s Indian Affairs matchbox houses. These "kits" were shipped throughout the north to provide basic - an understatement of astonishing dimensions - housing. Gavin Renwick notes that "The government house creates insulation from the land... a traditional lifestyle cannot be internally accommodated. (T)he separation of workplace and homeplace symbolizes an implicit cultural contradiction, the division of land from home."
Tàa'an Män, the Southern Tutchone name for Lake Laberge, is the centre of Ta'an Kwach'an traditional territory. There are few permanent residents along the lake. The west shore has a small scattered village of houses and some cottages and one family on the east shore is only accessible by boat. However, there are traditional campsites along both shores for fishing and hunting with trails connecting to the wider territory.
I have been on the lake in bad weather - it is a whole lot of not fun. But on our three day passage the lake is quiet and passive. We have a gentle southern zephyr every day except on our final leg on day three when the wind freshens and hastens our canoes into the mouth of the Thirty Mile River. At night the skies are clear and for those in our group who do not need sleep the Perseid meteor shower entertains.
We stop for lunch in a small bay, watching the cumulus clouds billow upwards in the hot weather. Southwards, behind us, we can see thunderstorms but above us only sunshine.
Marie, our guide, like the rest of us, feels the heat. We relax and just float beneath the endless sky. The lake goes on and on, not as challenge or task, rather as an experience. We paddle, because that's what you do in a canoe, but rather than making distance we simply watch the majesty of the landscape scroll by. Perhaps this is what heaven feels like.

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