In memory: The Western Commander

It’s possible to mourn a boat.

Once the gale has passed, the rains have stopped, and skipper and crew have been accounted for, it is possible to mourn for the sunken ship. This is especially true for those old, wooden ships that have been plying the waters so long no one really remembers them when they still smelled of fresh-hewn wood.

The Western Commander was a ship that will be mourned. Built in New Westminster’s bustling wartime boatyards in 1943 and lost on April 9, 2018, the 70-foot wooden packer was among the last of her kind still actively fishing B.C.’s waters.

“She was a really dandy boat, and a favourite boat for a lot of people,” recalled Dave Lansdowne, who owned and skippered the Western Commander for a season, seining salmon in the late 1990s.

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Eat well, live well

Steam swirls off tuktu stew and around Anna Lambe as she pulls a tray of golden-brown biscuits from the oven in Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School. It’s 11:55 a.m. on a Wednesday. Lunch is served at noon—and there’s a queue snaking out of the cafeteria.

This is just another regular Wednesday for Lambe. The Grade 12 student is part of a five-student team which, along with food studies teacher Lael Kronick, has spent the last year planning and cooking free school lunches three times a week. On Monday it was quesadillas with fresh salsa. Today it’s boiled caribou with salad and biscuits.

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Apricity

I’m back in Vancouver after a visit home to Nova Scotia. For the first time in years, the holidays were seasonal: hoar frost crunched underfoot; wood-smoke wafted horizontally in air too cold for it to rise. Winter, true winter, had arrived in Antigonish County, and that, in a way different from the past, was something to celebrate.

I was reminded of my previous visit home in April, of opening my town’s weekly newspaper to find an old photo republished. In the picture was a house, eaves covered by powdery drifts, front door lurking at the end of a tunnel through the snow. Two men stood outside leaning on shovels. Steam swirled up from the mug they shared and mixed with the cloud rising off their sweaty bodies. The smear of a dog filled the image’s lower left-hand corner; it wasn’t patient enough for the archaic camera to hold it in the frame. A date was scrawled at the bottom of the picture: April 28, 1918.

Beneath the image the newspaper editor cheerfully noted that — a hundred years later to the day — Antigonish County was snowless and the winter had been warm. “Aren’t we lucky?” he seemed to imply.

“Is the ground nostalgic for snow?”

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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)