Paddling North

 Dust clung to my lips, transforming the chocolate I put in my mouth into a gritty paste. I toyed the sweet between my tongue and molars. It was slightly salty, an aftertaste left by calcium carbonate poured onto the Dempster Highway to prevent the dirt road from becoming a permanent pool of muck.

“Bush-salted caramel,” I thought, looking back down the hill. The last two cyclists in the group of fifteen I was guiding the 736 kilometres from Dawson City to Inuvik were labouring to join me.  Ahead, no one was visible. I’d last seen the others several hours earlier, had waved them onwards, and they were probably at camp.

I slipped another piece of chocolate between my lips and took in the Yukon landscape. Spindly black spruce jutted from the wind-swept blueberry and juniper bushes that covered the wide plateau I had just climbed on my way north. To my left, it gradually eased off towards the west. I let my eyes follow the spruce, tracing their silhouette against sun rays that tumbled between clouds until they dissolved into a mat of green cut through with the silver strands of far-away rivers. Eastward, the Ogilvie mountains—the Rockies’ northern tail—glistened grey. I was 6,000 kilometres from home where I believed I was meant to be.

Trees. Rocks. Rivers. Mountains. Nothing.

Wilderness.

The second piece of chocolate melted away to nothing.

“But it’s not wilderness.” The thought hit me. It lingered.

“It’s a home. Not mine.”

I knew this intellectually. All the land I professionally guided people through was someone else’s home. The Dempster Highway trip I was working that day cuts through Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut and Tetlit Gwich’in, Nacho Nyak Dun, and Inuvialuit territories. It is peppered with places that have fed people, have been walked through, talked of, drank from, lived in, and dreamt about long before it was imagined to be Canada’s wilderness frontier.

I was a visitor in this land, drawn by the North’s promise of freedom and renewal. This appeal had similarly pulled from faraway homes most of the other guides I worked with. We were visitors in pursuit of wilderness, trafficking our dream to other visitors with more money, less time, and similar longings.

I knew this but hadn’t felt it until that second piece of dust-coated chocolate melted to nothing in my mouth.

“What,” I wondered, “am I doing here?”

(The full text available here. It hasn’t been published yet; please get in touch for the passcodes)

 

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