Northern Sights: When Escapism ignores Reality

Three years ago, in late spring, Adam Shoalts started walking eastward from an isolated truck stop in northern Yukon, alone. After a few days’ hiking, he launched a canoe and kept going until reaching Baker Lake, Nunavut’s sole inland community, four months and 4,000 kilometres later. On the way, the adventurer from Ontario travelled over mountains, along (and often up) wild rivers, and across icy lakes. He waded through cold, rushing waters where a misstep could spell disaster. On occasion, “screaming gales” pinned him on shore, forcing him to wait out precious days before the first snows would start falling in September. He was in a race against winter.

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Alaska’s vanishing, floating highway

A rusting steel walkway roofed with faded plexiglass led to the ferry docked in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Sirens wailed from the container port half a mile away, cutting through the moist air, as an acrid odor rose from the pier’s tar-coated pilings. I stepped out of the chilly late-September night and climbed a labyrinthine staircase to the boat’s passenger lounge, where a dozen people, covered with blankets and sleeping bags, settled in for the six-hour trip. The ventilation system whistled loudly, muffling the ship’s engines, as the M/V Malaspina — a 450-person ferry operated by the state of Alaska — set sail for Ketchikan, Alaska, possibly for the last time. After 56 years, the state had announced it would shut down the route.

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White water

Review of: Canoe and Canvas: Life at the Encampments of the American Canoe Association, 1880-1920

Jessica Dunkin, University of Toronto Press, 2019

For me, canoeing first meant something more than wilderness when I saw a man do a handstand on the water. I was twelve, visiting the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, with my family, and I sat spellbound in front of a short film produced by the provincial government in the 1930s. It featured Reg Blomfield, a legendary early twentieth-century paddler, showing off all the tricks he could do in his skinny racing canoe — including handstands.

Thirteen years later, I remember the clip clearly because the culture it showed was at once familiar and mysterious. As a kid, I associated paddling with windy lakes on the Canadian Shield and remote rivers in the North — the kind of imagery that frequently pops up on my Instagram feed today. Canoes had always meant wilderness to me, not showing off in cottage country. Surely, Blomfield’s stunts wouldn’t be much use in remote places. It turns out the cultural difference between wilderness and cottage country might be smaller than I thought.

Jessica Dunkin’s Canoes and Canvas, a portrait of American and Canadian sport canoeing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, helps brings those two worlds together. The illuminating book details Blomfield’s era, while exposing underlying inequities that continue to shape recreational canoe culture.

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A Guide for Life

A rainbow of raincoats flashing between the spruce was a hint that something was amiss. It was a rainy late afternoon on the Yukon’s Canol Road and I was the tail guide on a 10-day cycle tour through the Yukon backcountry. By this point in the day, my clients should have all reached our camp, 10 kilometers down the road, and be warming up with biscuits and a cup of tea.

This was my third time guiding a cycle tour in the territory. On previous trips, I’d been cooped up in the support truck while one of my co-guides rode behind the group with a satellite phone and a first aid kit to help straggling clients. Now, that was my job. I rode at the back while my co-guide, Fabrice, drove ahead in the truck to set up camp before the cyclists arrived. As the most experienced guide on the trip, I was ultimately responsible for the group’s safety.

It had been a quiet week. We’d been mostly alone, having seen fewer than 10 other travellers. There was a Swiss couple living in a tiny cabin nestled in the mountains between Ross River and Johnson’s Crossing. We met two families from Ross River heading out to their camps. There was a roaming Alaskan who lived in the leaky bed of his Ford Ranger and talked ceaselessly about his rifle. And two Vancouverites on their dream road trip in a rickety van that smelled like weed.

‘Maybe, there’s another group of cyclists on this remote road,’ I thought, projecting optimism. I was wrong.

Cresting the hill, I saw our support truck—a Ford Econoline 4×4 from the late 70s—hanging between the road’s gravel embankment and two black spruce. Below it, the hillside dropped 30 feet into a dark, grey lake. Mist trickled through the smashed windshield. A German all-terrain camper was tied to our truck’s hitch.

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How we got lost in the wilderness

‘No 9-1-1 Service Beyond this Point. Call Local Community Nursing Station if Help Needed.’

It was midnight on a June evening in 2012, the sun was up, and I was fresh off a transcontinental flight from my Nova Scotia home, just in time to report to my new job with a Yukon-based wilderness outfitting company the next morning. One of my new co-workers had met me at the terminal, led me to a growling dirt-dusted pickup and we were headed to headquarters, 70 kms beyond Whitehorse.

The roadside sign jumped out of the boreal forest edging Yukon’s Highway 2, its painted letters peeling from years exposed to sunlight and highway salt. “No 9-1-1,” I thought. “This really is wilderness…”

By the end of August, after a summer criss-crossing the territory, I had begun the rethink my assumptions. The term wilderness was more complicated then I’d expected. It claimed there are spaces free of a relationship to humanity, but in that sense the Yukon—often used as a synonym for empty spaces and no people—was not wilderness. Indigenous people from fourteen First Nations have inhabited this vast region for millennia, weaving its topography, its seasons, its flora and fauna, into thriving cultures and societies.

But for that teenage me and many others, Yukon represented a dream of wilderness – one at the heart of Canada’s own identity.

This mythology is explored in The Nature of Canada, a collection of essays by Canada’s top environmental historians edited by Graham Wynn and Colin Coates.

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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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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.


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)