"How far is it to Klukshu?" "Oh, it's a drive." I was in Whitehorse weighing my options for a day's outing. Those who live in the Yukon see no point in measuring distances as closely as we do in the South.
I had the feeling that the distance to Vancouver would be described as "a nice drive", Toronto as "a good drive", and Halifax as "quite a drive." I knew nothing of Klukshu but had heard that there was a gathering of elders there and that anyone was welcome. I found the dot on the map that was Klukshu and measured out 250 kilometres.
Half way there I wanted to stop for the day. I wasn't tired, I was overwhelmed by a particular vista: a wide river, its green banks curling between rocky hills and disappearing into the far distance. In another direction a plain led my eye to distant mountains far enough away that they looked as if they must be the last ridge before the edge of the world. A few clouds moved overhead changing the lighting effects, reminding me of the profound change in this landscape that would come with each season.
It was beautiful, breath-taking, awe-inspiring and wonderful - but who could live here? People do, people have. Evidence of human life stretches back 30,000 years in this part of the world, but as I contemplated what meager existence could be eked out I was very aware that there was no one in sight and that the only signs of human habitation were along the narrow strip of the Alaska Highway on which I was driving. It would be a lonely existence to spend 12 months a year in this country.
There's a good bakery in Haines Junction, 160 kilometres from Whitehorse. I stopped and stocked up on cheese sticks and sticky buns thinking that this would have to last me until I got back to Whitehorse.
Haines Junction is on the edge of Kluane National Park. The Visitors' Centre opposite the bakery was advising a group of very well-equipped German tourists on the alternatives for week-long hikes in the area. In the parking lot the bear-proof garbage containers looked overbuilt - able to withstand a direct mortar attack. Behind the Visitors' Centre the peaks of the Kluane Range were collecting a few clouds around their icy tops.
No roads go west from Haines Junction. It's East to Whitehorse, North to Alaska, or South to Klukshu and the Chilkat Pass to the sea at the town of Haines on an inlet on the Panhandle. For any other direction of destination you must go on foot.
The village of Klukshu is a little off the highway, easy to miss. It has a history of habitation as long as any European capital, but rather less architecture to show for it. There is a dusty road, a few small old houses and a few small new houses. Klukshu spreads out on a bit of flat land and ends at the creek.
When I arrived all activity was down by the creek. Two large green tents were set up providing shade for the small gathering underneath.
The translucence of the green tent roof gave everyone under it an unhealthy glow. The 30 elders sitting in a circle on lawnchairs were passing around a microphone as each told his or her story. Their soft monotones boomed from speakers just loudly enough to be heard over the noisy generator that was necessary to power the sound system.
The faces of the elders were full and fleshy, showing the full force of gravity and silently speaking of long active lives. The stories they told were mostly in the vein of "When I was young...". There were complaints, triumphs, moral tales, opinions, and family histories. All were recited with some emotion but mostly as if to register them on the ears of those listening and on the air around. In this oral tradition, an elder telling a story serves about the same function as an accountant writing down numbers.
The tent glowed green and darkened occasionally as passing clouds gave a little relief from the strong sun. It was late July but it would take a few more weeks to melt the patches of snow on the surrounding hillsides.
The creek behind the village is a salmon run. The meeting of the elders was timed to coincide with the return of the spawning Chinooks. Although salmon stocks are down and spawning fish are protected, Indians are permitted to catch some fish for their own use. To pass on the catching, cleaning and drying skills is a part of the purpose of the gathering.
There was much action and hilarity as one fish in the process of being cleaned slipped from someone's hands and started to float downstream. Five boys splashed into the creek and laughingly pursued the dead but swimming fish. Those on the bank yelled encouragement. The creek sparkled with high splashes, the boys saw to it that anyone close to the banks was refreshed with a little cold clear water.
I sat on a makeshift bench beside the creek, taking it all in and thinking about getting back to Whitehorse. Mida Donnessy came and sat beside me; she was also taking it all in. I had seen her sitting with the other elders under the green tent.
She said that she was from Watson Lake and that she was going to speak to the group about traditional medicines. She said that in a few minutes I would help her carry the bag of bark and leaves she had at her feet. She saw that I was there alone. I saw that I had been adopted.
Mida gave me a short advance lesson in the plants she had brought: Horse Tail, "Caribou Horn", balsam bark, tamarack bark. These things were variously good for arthritis, effective against cancer and headaches. In the right combinations they could rid a person of ulcers and cramps in hands. Mida said that five years ago she gave up wine, returned to the traditional remedies of her mother and has since been able to help her daughter and neighbours.
I stayed at Klukshu until well after 9:00 PM. I was invited to eat at the feast that followed: salmon, moose, potatoes and vegetables, beef, pork and whitefish. Two people cordially asked my name and introduced themselves. After that everyone knew me and people I hadn't met were explaining me to their neighbours.
When it was time to leave I made sure I had Mida's address so that I could send her copies of the photos I had taken. It was still light when I drove past the spot on the highway at which I had stopped and admired the view on the way out.
The geographic beauty of the Yukon is remarkable, undeniable, truly awesome. As I was taking a few late-night, sunlit photos it occurred to me that the best of the Yukon was in the qualities that couldn't be seen, and hadn't considered on my way to Klukshu that morning. There are not many people up there, but by just being among them I had caught the beginnings of an understanding of what it would be like to live there. I don't know what it would be like, but it wouldn't be lonely.