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Smoky Skies: From Old Crow to Faro

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
five plus hours baking along the Robert Campbell Highway.
five plus hours baking along the Robert Campbell Highway.

Smoky Skies: From Old Crow to Faro
July 22-29, 2009.

This was written in several different parts, all happening in different places. That may become apparent while reading. Reader discretion is advised.


The dogs are howling away. It's understandable, the poor critters are sled dogs-- they aren't supposed to be tied up to a tree all day. When I hear what amounts to a cacophony of squeals, I translate it as “I'd really rather be working my tail off, dragging hundreds of pounds many miles!” and don't find it all that annoying. In fact, it's hard to find much here to get under my skin at all. I'm in Old Crow, and it is so serene I swear I must be hypnotizing myself.

Let me describe where I am currently seated. I'm on a step in front of the Old Crow Health Centre, or Old Crow Alts'ik K'atr'anahtii zheh to be a little more precise. I am stealing the power off an outdoor plug. It is so quiet at times, until a child's cry of excitement breaks the silence. There is the odd traffic noise-- the sound of the Quads that run through town; there are almost no active vehicles beyond the truck that the RCMP use. Everyone, all ages, shapes-- uses an ATV.

I am as tired as I am content. The air is crisp and the sun glistens-- if there was a less trite word that was even close to as correct as 'glistens' I would use it, but there is not-- off the river, where on the other side run endless miles of healthy, undisturbed forests. The Porcupine River—the same river that gives the namesake to the famous Porcupine caribou herd-- gives the town its sense of geographical self-identity. Support for permanently protecting ANWR-- instead of the endless tug of war between ENGO's and others who raise funds, vs. ideological idiots like Stevens and Palin-- is about a 100 percent given throughout Old Crow. The herd comes within a few hundred metres of the village in the Fall.

There is a picnic table that sits in front of the Northern store, right above the river. The edge of the riverbank is the definition of the front street by the community hall, and for much of the day people were gathered there drinking pops, smoking cigarettes and talking of the news of the day. And today, that's the cougar that's been spotted about 10 times so far. There will be a public meeting about it soon. Cougars are not supposed to be as far north as YT, let alone well north of the Arctic Circle.

The sun is extremely bright and likely will for several hours yet-- in fact, it will only hover around the horizon later on at this angle. Upon arriving I went to put up my tent, but not before I was given a ride into town from the airport. I didn't ask for it. I merely had to step outside from the tiny airport & Peter (who is a Josie)-- who was giving a ride to this other man who had just stepped off the same plane as myself-- announced he would be “right back”. He dropped off this other man and then drove me, on the back of his Quad with my backpack on. I was already having a wonderful time and I hadn't even done anything yet.

Once I was at the spot where people camp in town-- just like Fort Good Hope, it's on a grass field in front of the Anglican Church, overlooking the river-- and got my backpack untangled from the ATV I talked to the other man who had also come here. He is from Japan and is learning English by living in Old Crow in a tent for a month. What the Hell! His name is Koji. I also went for an immediate walk to see who around town I could yammer tar sands with. I ended up talking to a man named Robert in the Renewable Resource Centre. He told me of gas drilling plans for the area around Eagle Plains.

Is there nowhere beautiful that doesn't contain some fucking gas, uranium or oil? I began uttering nasty things under my breath-- at who, I'm not sure since I don't know who wants to develop this gas. Nonetheless, I love roads but hate the access they provide to these abusive, vicious planet and culture destroyers. The Joe Henry is the best road for beauty I have ever seen-- ten driving hours of three amazing mountain ranges, incredible rivers, almost inter galactic like views. There is nowhere I have ever seen like it. Threatening that just plain hurts, and hurts a lot.

Another day I spent climbing the Crow Mountain. It was laborious as one might expect, but very beautiful in its own right-- and allowed for some really amazing feelings to get under the skin looking as far into the distance as such a climb provides. It's a place that lives with me now, and that is something to protect.

At the height I would go was this place that had two caribou racks together to hold their place. Sitting there for sometime was a chance to almost leave general thought-- good, very good. It was one of those ridges where you can see all the valleys of mountains impose themselves upon the next mountains-- rows of earth so long, deep and vast that light itself seems to run out, as you simply can't see anymore. There are few places that make me feel small like this-- one is actually near the gas discovery-- near Eagle Plains. Another is where I felt small in a most disturbing, gut-wrenching, make-you-feel-ill kind of way that being upon top of the tar pits is like. Seeing damage and destruction on a scale like that is hard to take-- but sometimes, so is beauty. It can overwhelm. I resisted the urge to clamber into a little ball, new to the universe. The walk back, on my own as Koji went the other way around, and I found myself in a new kind of peace. I then wrote the following on a notepad (edited but honored for intent) that eventually turned into this:

Perhaps one of the great literary diversions is also one of the most rewarding-- the statement: “There are no words to describe how I feel.” A cop out and sincere statement, all wrapped into one.

The same night as having shown a film on tar sands and chatted with a few people about gas, etc I was relaxing at a fire by my tent when a man named Carl joined the fireplace area and chatted with me for about half an hour. He then went back to his house and then came over, giving myself and Koji caribou sausages, spaghetti (x2), biscuits, caribou sandwiches and instructions to eat them all. I started to sort this stuff out when some guy who never gave us his name and never stopped as he sped by on his ATV before or after the following-- he drive up in his ATV, handed me a bag with two chopped up chinook salmon and said “you two need to eat better” and then drove away. The entire fish run had been closed until the day before, so they must have been very fresh.

I did a little gig before cooking the salmon, eating the biscuits and planning with Koji the next days worth of meals. This was neither the first nor last of the people who dropped by with food. I was eating ridiculously well. So much caribou.

Another day I went for a ride with Peter on his boat out to check his nets for salmon, a chance two days running to get on the Porcupine. Can't argue with that.

After the end of the trip the first day, I went for a walk around the island in about an hour. I noticed how smoky it was from what people tell me were likely Alaskan forest fires, and how that smoke might settle in on the ground elsewhere, and that the burned carbon would likely help the growth of where it landed and settled. I then noticed how odd it was to be operating at a speed where one could think through something like that and it felt good.

Arriving back at the camp, inside a tent flap was an anonymous caribou sandwich, complete with pickle.

There were many activities, but the best thing to stand out for me was sitting on the unfinished gazebo, overlooking the Porcupine River-- slightly smoky, but life itself very clear. I knew a relaxation, calmness and peace I had not known for at least a couple of years. Time doesn't have to matter. Grinning softly, I watched Koji try to explain to Peter and Allan why he was cooking weeds he had picked while walking around earlier. It causes me further smile, and time slightly slips into nothing. In fact, at this point writing this all down was the greatest stress of all.

Why would that be stressful? See, I was leaning back, and I was holding this instant coffee. Three-four parts instant hot chocolate-- one part instant coffee. It's the new, best drink. It flows down the tongue. Allan shows me his shoes, on the wrong feet. He makes a joke and I laugh. And I mean it. I don't just mean it, I feel it.

And now I return to where I was before the transcribe.

I left Crow on Monday morning, it's now Wed night. The first day I was hitchhiking along the edge of the Klondike well away from town, by the airport. It seemed like it should help a bunch but it didn't-- you know, to start already out of town. I battled my dizziness as I waited for a ride and ducked into the ditch periodically to avoid getting sunstroke. It was now about 28 degrees and climbing. After two and a half hours, I was starting to go over my main nag these days. I have simply no desire to ever end this form of travel, it's where I am happiest. But my prior analogy of the athlete continues to haunt me-- what if I cannot find a suitable replacement as I seek to keep my spirit alight in such a manner? Is there not a youthful belief in the world that will go asunder and take my travel with it?

These images continue to haunt. What is the magic of the road diminishes to the place where this can't take place-- with all the attendant reassurances of the nature of why things happen, and when? Don't we all need to be reminded of the greatness of space, at least now and then?

Then, finally, a car pulled over and got me off my thinking. I immediately told her how long I had been there, once I looked at the clock on her dash (it's forbidden for me to look at my clock unless absolutely needed-- it only leads to anxiety, a total waste of time). The woman replied that she could get me to Dempster Corner, and that was great for me as I was a long way from there even if that was only 40 clicks outside of Dawson. She looked at me asked if I was hungry, and I said “yes, I'm getting there,” assuming she was about to offer me a bag of chips or something. She invited me over to her house for some quick food and then immediately back on the highway she said. “Hey, that sounds great,” I responded. She said if her son was hitchhiking she would want someone to feed him.

We got to her place at Henderson Corner. She had three great dogs who all said hello, in different ways. Then her family came out-- what seemed to be her partner, and her granddaughter (so it seemed). She sent to making food, and got the young girl to make a bag. Meanwhile I'm playing with these awesome dogs and drinking the best juice of the summer by far (cran-raspberry). Then I've got eggs, bacon, brown toast and potatoes in front of me. Yeehaw! They are even over-easy eggs-- and I can do my dipping best with my toast and them together! I ate this all so fast that I actually got the hiccups from eating for the first time in memory. They handed me the bag of the “snacks for the road” and we were all headed to the road this time, as we went on to Dempster Corner as promised.

The 'snacks' consisted of about 30 cookies, two sandwiches not-quite-together so they would last longer on the road, several bites of gorgeous goat cheese, apples and fruit cups and puddings and pepperoni sticks. I was eating well tonight, I knew that. On the way to the vehicle to embark on the road back to Dempster Corner I was given a glimpse of the life of the woman who initiated this whole incredibly giving side show: “This is actually my second family, a few years ago I became a widow from my first family...” and then went into a bit about the new relationship. The whole scene I was looking at took on an entirely new meaning. I was feeling myself learn. I sure didn't have much to say.

When I got out I was effusive to make certain the point was made, this was a very appreciated stop-- and not just from the food. I got on the edge of the road, and wondered what was up with all of that. I was shaken and startled, and it was about an hour and a half before the next ride came along. I decided to not smoke any weed for like an hour, just in case that 'second family' saw me and it ruined their night. I got a ride right to the corner of where the Campbell highway meets the Klondike, on the edge of Carmacks. Here I walked down to the spot I stayed here roughly three years ago, and ended up having a long night interacting with foxes in 06. This time would be different.

I have already dealt with foxes and their help this summer-- such as when I nearly missed getting to Dawson City in time. This time, I was only given a long concerted stare as one walked by, letting me know I was seen and not being very intense about it. There would be no conflict, leading to better things I hope. I felt amazement at a day of realignment, of restoration, of direct importance and a general reminder of how things are. Never forget, or they slip away.

A few hours of snacking still and watching these two or three beavers swim up and down the shoreline where I was camping along the Yukon River and I was pretty spent. I was ready for a night before a long day for the first time hitchhiking down the Robert Campbell. Turns out this Campbell guy is a white guy who went around renaming things and drinking their new name “to her majesty and the Hudson's Bay Company”. Fuck him, let's rename this road.

I awoke and went very slow, and kept that pace up the entire day. The weather went into the thirties and it was hard to deal with directly, I needed to find shade as often as possible and that wasn't often at all when I went for walks along the side of the road. I ended up doing most of he roughly five or so clicks of walking at the high point of the day, which wasn't all that clever. I noticed that my water was running down, based on what my body was telling me being in constant conflict with my supply.

I held on for several hours. The sun and the either nothing or ploding on through the sun was the first real dose of Northern hitchhiking I have had this year, and it was a test. I gues I got through, low on water is not a good headspace. I got a ride about six o'clock. Two plus hours later and they were letting me out here: Faro, Yukon.

Faro is fascinating: A massive mine-- lead and zinc-- caused this town to spring up, and it was definitely a company town. I have decided that mines are like psychologically abusive parents, except they inevitably make good of their most damning threat to the community: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!”

This town, of a couple of hundred people today, was 'taken out'. Faro was originally built for thousands, and was expected to last quite some time. Today, the rows upon rows of abandoned box housing that was imported quickly only decades ago are empty and boarded up, along with pretty much every business. But there will be much more to talk about on that level later, for now I have enjoyed a day in this place almost in limbo. I have played a little, wandered a little, washed thoroughly and noticed a 30 plus day again, as the whole valley is covered by a dark shroud of smoke-- on both sides of Faro. No fires may be lit, for now. What an utterly contrasting visual image to how I feel, after a day of simple peace. Onward soon. For now, some lines I wrote the other night sitting at the edge of a picnic table in Old Crow, overlooking the Porcupine River. Now, I sit in Faro and transcribe, again at a picnic table-- this time in the centre of town. But with way better ground for a tent, a sleep and a ready day tomorrow. Always tomorrow.

My soul is afraid
when my body stops moving
my heart is afraid
when limits set in

I think like a child
to keep my eyes open
knowledge is driven
by questions all asked

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