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Stephen Scourfield Writing

Yukon days

Tommy Taylor lets the fishwheel spin into action, and its two giant, woven scoops start to dip down into the water, the river’s current driving its paddles. The wheel itself is birch, and the floats it sits on are spruce. Once it is unlocked, the wheel turns, scooping up the salmon which are passing along the Yukon River – a massive, glacier-fed body of cold, fast-moving water that snakes across the Yukon, in north-west Canada, and the isolated US State of Alaska, and out to the Bering Sea. From the scoops, the fish pour down a wooden channel and into a holding trough. This is a traditional fishing method for the First Nation Han tribes along the river near Dawson City who, for generations, have built fishwheels that vary from being the size of a compact car to the size of a house, and which last for between three and five years. It was the way of Tommy Taylor’s father, and his grandfather.
“This is my father, David Taylor,” Tommy says, pointing at a photograph on a pin-board at his summer camp. “This is my mother, Martha Taylor. There were 16 of us kids. My father retired from the fishwheel when he was 92. He lived until he was 95. My mother lived until she was 108.” Tommy Taylor puts this longevity down to “healthy living, healthy food and hard work.” Their food staples were moose, caribou, berries, and the salmon. The fast-flowing Yukon, which drops on average 20cm every kilometre, can be a plentiful food source, especially when king salmon and chum salmon are running. “The biggest fish caught by the fishwheel is 31.5kg. It will catch between one and 1000 fish every 24 hours,” says Tommy, who was born in Dawson City but grew up on nearby Dog Island, which is set in the Yukon River. He grew up on the island and on the river itself, he says.
We travel, now in a fast aluminium boat, past Moosehide, traditional territory of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in people, where artifacts dating back 8000 years have been found, then on to Dog Island, where huskies yap on the end of their chains as we enjoy iced tea and bannock, a traditional cake.
To prepare for the winter, in which he has personally experienced temperatures as low as –72C, Tommy must also catch and air-dry up to 1800 pieces of fish to get the dogs through. They are his vital sled pullers from when the river freezes in October and November to the break-up early in May. By the time the river becomes his hard, white highway, Tommy will have moved from Dog Island to his winter house, on the bank a little further downstream. It is here that he shows me his homemade moosehide mittens with beaver fur trim, and how the house is heated by wood and oil. He has a big collection of caps hung along one beam, a shotgun propped by the television set, a pile of moccasins and Wellington boots.
But Tommy’s camp doesn’t seem so different from the years past, when there were 250 steamships on the river here, or even long before that, from the time of the ancestors before his grandparents, who lived in family groups, passing their story from one generation to the next. Among the people of the Yukon, past and present, there is a strong affinity for, and love of, stories and storytellers. The telling and retelling of tales binds the place and warms the winters, and probably no-one in the Western world is more famous for the stories from this place than Jack London.

For four days in 1965, the three men mushed five sled dogs through the snow-covered wilderness. When the dogs had to break the trail through virgin snow, researcher and Yukon author Dick North struggled alongside in snowshoes. But the men were not searching for gold, which brought 30,000 people to this area just over 100 years ago, making Dawson the biggest city in Canada north of Seattle. They were not even looking for remains of its history. They were braving the great, white blanket looking for the cabin of Jack London, the author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and other tales like the haunting To Build a Fire, published between 1903 and 1908. The cabin had been used by a trapliner as far back as 1936, and he had seen the words “Jack London, miner author, Jan. 27, 1898” written on the inside of the cabin. But where was it?
Dick North and the team crossed frozen streams and slept on spruce boughs in a canvas tent. And then, after disappointments and exhaustion, they found the cabin in the wilderness on the north fork of Henderson Creek, 120km from Dawson City. It was later dismantled and taken to the endearing town, which nestles in the crook of the arm of the Yukon River. Today the cabin is on Eighth Avenue, in the northern heart of the “true north of Canada”, and is the home of the Jack London Cabin and Interpretive Centre. 
It tells the story of a 21-year-old prospector who came to the Yukon in 1897, just before the gold-rush, and left his mark in the world of storytelling more than mining. There are photographs, newspaper reports and other memorabilia, and perhaps a lively chat with Dick North, who spends summers at the centre. London’s books sit on shelves in the local stores, alongside those of the Yukon’s other famous writer, Robert Service. Service was a renowned wilderness poet and his own log cabin sits just a block away, also overlooking the town with its timber buildings and boardwalks.

The books still inspire people like Beat Korner, who first came to the Yukon from Switzerland after reading The Call of the Wild and taking part in the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog Race. (He reminds me of the son of a South African friend, who declares he has only ever read two books … “White Fang, twice”, while his father still prefers Jock of the Bushveldt.)
Beat now lives far down Tagish Lake, isolated by water in the warmer weather and ice in winter. On this cold summer day, we have already been hammering down the lake in his powerboat for 50 minutes. We soon leave the last cabin behind and there are just unbroken forests leading up to dramatic ranges on either shoulder of the 110km long lake system. Quite simply, we leave behind every sign of homo sapiens. Yet in May 1898 alone, after the word reached the world of the Klondike gold find, 4735 boats, from paddle steamers to quickly homemade and distinctly dodgy-looking canoes, carried 28,000 people past the North West Mounted Police checkpoint at Tagish Post. There were sawmills along the bank, supplying fuel for the ships. The thousands of optimists headed inland from Skagway, on the Alaskan coast, toward Dawson City. And all that is gone without trace.
Today there was no-one else in sight as we headed away from the marina at Tagish, where a local had just been telling of the three 13.5kg to 18kg lake trout he had hauled up from 60m the day before. One was 122cm long.
Beat skippers us into the teeth of a stiff breeze in his aluminium boat, eventually turning in towards one bank. Even as I step onto the small jetty, I can’t see Tagish Wilderness Lodge, which Beat runs with wife Jacqueline. The four traditionally-made pine log cabins sit hidden in the forest, as remote as you can imagine. The only way here in summer, peaking in July and August, is in the boat and, once the lake has frozen to ice more than a metre thick between January and April, by snowmobile or sled. Out in the pens, 21 huskies eagerly await that day. As the temperature drops, they can almost sense the nearness of the work they love.
Beat’s love of the snowfields and dog mushing was first ignited in his native Switzerland by Jack London’s most famous book. He ran sled dogs in Europe from 1985 but got “Alaska Fever”, he says. He first competed in the renowned and gruelling 1600km Yukon Quest sled race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, in 1990. Eventually he sold his graphic design business and built the wilderness lodge. “The attraction is that the landscape is similar to Switzerland but it’s not overpopulated,” he says. “Sometimes we don’t see friends for half a year or a full year, and our one nearest neighbour is 9.5km away.” By boat, snowmobile or dog team, of course.
Staying with Beat and Jacqueline in this incredible place is memorable. I sleep in the picturesque den of logs, like a bear in the woods.
From the middle of May to the end of July, the sun never officially sets here, above the 64th parallel. You can read a book outside even at midnight, and in Dawson City, 20 to 21 hours of sunlight are usual in June and July. Even in August, it stays light until very late in the evening. The Land of the Midnight Sun, where the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – paints vivid colours across the Yukon sky. Locals say January is the coldest, and February, March and April are ideal for backcountry skiing, snowmobiling and dog sledding. From Whitehorse, there are 5km and 10km snow trails that are lit. You widely hear from locals that winters are milder than in the past.
But while the very word “Yukon” conjures up a dramatic picture of the weather here, during summer it can be very warm. During August, the days are generally sunny and quite hot, even if the dry air also seems cool. At the Dawson City music and craft festival, out on the grass, people are wearing shorts and T-shirts – a contrast to the clue given by the boardwalks which edge the streets. For the roads are dirt and cannot be sealed because the permafrost would buckle the bitumen.
Dawson City, which was declared a National Historic Site in 1960, has a charm that puts it in the category of a memorable place … the sort of town where people drop by and want to stay, somewhere to dream of returning to. While at the height of the gold-rush there were 30,000 people here, and it was capital of the Yukon, now there are less than 2000. They dip into the colourful Diamond Tooth Gertie’s casino where there are can-can cabaret shows throughout the evenings, gambling tables, poker machines. Dancers show a little – but not too much – flesh, while waitresses in laced bodices spin through the crowd, trays loaded. The card dealers, with turquoise and black garters around their biceps, deal out slickly and locals, tucked under faded caps, concentrate on the flow of cards. A table roars with a big win.
At the nearby Downtown Hotel, a human toe is added to the Sourtoe Cocktail, the drink of choice. And yes, it’s a real toe, albeit petrified (and maybe not the only thing). The log book shows more than 15,000 people from around the world are now members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, for having tried it.
The town’s buildings look much as they did in the gold-rush. Life going on. A living history. Facing the river, a traditional chant of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation comes from the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre. It drifts over the cold wedge of water pushing its fast way across the landscape, making the fishwheel spin.

The rivers of the Yukon carry quantities of water almost incomprehensible to those from drier climes. As the Yukon River itself journeys to the sea, it grows from 240 cubic metres a second at Whitehorse to 747 cubic metres a second at Carmacks and 2210 at Dawson. It rises from lakes not far from the coast at Skagway, a cruise ship turnstile-town set in a fjord at the end of the Inside Passage, but forges away north and west for 3540km through Canada before crossing back into Alaska and to the ocean.
The Tatshenshini River pours from a glacier, its flow helped by runoff streams from the ranges it runs through and 305mm of precipitation a year, 50 per cent as rain, 50 per cent as snow. Average temperatures here are 12.6C in July and –21.5C in January, giving an interesting annual average of –2.9C. “But there is always water underneath the glacier,” explains helicopter pilot Doug Makkonen, who has been honoured by Helicopter Association International for being the best high mountain pilot in the world. “The theory is that that’s what makes a glacier surge.” A glacier might build up for decades before setting off down the valley.
It is Mr Makkonen who flies me along the great white and grey snake of the Kaskawalsh Glacier.
After dropping over the lip of mighty Goat Mountain to give the first full-on view of the glacier, he flies us past big, blue icebergs in the silty river, and then up over the glacier’s front wall.
This is the melting point, where ice dissolves. Following the glacier further back in the Bell helicopter, we look down into myriad ravines, and the odd turquoise blue ice pool, where water has been pushed up from deep beneath. “This glacier starts at about 10,000 feet,” says Mr Makkonen, who has been flying these canyons for 30 years, and watching this glacier grow, change and live. If you were camped by a very active part of it, he says, you would hear it cracking and groaning. “It’s about 32km long and 6.5km high at the moment, and up to 1.6km deep. But the icefields themselves go on for 260km, across to the coast of Alaska.”
You can believe this, even if you can’t believe everything this big, bluff Canadian has to say. “Just one thing,” he had added as we prepared to takeoff. “When you exit, make sure we’re at ground level.” He followed up, when we were in the air, by telling me he won his helicopter licence in a poker game. (At this height you can only hope he’s joking.) Not to worry, he says, if it all goes terribly wrong, there’s a body bag in the back. And he’s not joking here, for in the Yukon you don’t need to be a doctor to be appointed coroner, so Mr Makkonen was. Handling so many high altitude rescues, it made sense. He has been involved in a scientific glacier coring research project on the upper plateau of Mount Logan, flying at more than 5000m. The problem at that height, he says, is simply that the chopper doesn’t perform very well. The air’s too thin for the engine and the blades are inefficient. If you did have a problem and come down (and survived the crash), you’d be dead in 12 hours as your body couldn’t acclimatise to the height that quickly.
Then we wheel around to see a blonde coloured mother grizzly bear with her cub and, a little further on, a huge, darker male of much more than 200kg. Then on to petrified trees of a species now only found in Tibet, so dramatic has been climatic change in the geological timescale. We land on the high Kluane alpine meadow, in true Yukon wilderness, overlooking some of the 306sqkm of fresh-water of Lake Kluane, which moves from grey to a fluorescent turquoise as the intermittent sun touches it. Kluane National Park, in which it is set, is one of the most spectacular in the Yukon, covering 21,980sqkm. Its highest peak is Mt Logan at 5959m and there are immense icefields and nunataks (small islands of life surrounded by ice). It is a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as an outstanding wilderness of global significance. There are an estimated 10,000 black bears in the Yukon, up to 7000 grizzly bears, 226,000 caribou, 65,000 moose, 4500 wolves and 19,000 dall sheep. There are also beaver, coyote, arctic fox, lynx, wolverine and muskrats, and an estimated 13,000 plant species.

It is as dramatic seeing the waterways from the air as it is standing beside them. But nothing quite prepares you for the feeling of sheer power when you are actually on a glacier-fed river. I am hit by a wall of water as I plunge down the mountainous rapids of the Tatshenshini River in a raft. It is so cold, I think it might stop my heart. 
The river flows on past 200m high walls, through bouncy rapids. At one point a big, red spotted salmon, as long as a child’s arm and as thick as your calf muscle, tracks alongside, its fins flopping through the surface as it fights the current. Four bald eagles play overhead, and then one swoops down and flies along the top of the water towards me, peeling away to give me a horizontal view straight into an eagle’s eye. I round a bend to find a mother brown bear on the bank with her two, chocolatey cubs. She pauses, raises herself on hind legs, and watches me pass 10m away as the cubs duck behind her, pop out through her legs, and begin to play again.
But this distraction offers only momentary respite. Around another bend, there is again the roar of rapids and the funnelling of the fast water, inexorably drawing me in. I plunge down a green tongue of water, between boulders and into a stopper wave the size of a small house. The water is freezing. And, by a degree celsius or two, that’s only just an exaggeration.


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