Archive for August, 2009

Finding Religion

Destinations in the Yukon are still in the realm of newness as I have lived here for only fifteen months. In that time I have had the opportunity to follow each of the cardinal directions, north, south, east and west. In each region I have found new favorites. The excitement of a Christmas morning happens on a regular basis rather than once a year.

My criteria to qualify as a “favorite” are really quite simple. The site must evoke either a hearty or hushed “Wow!” Or if not a note of admiration, it must result in a humble bow and an inner stirring of my heart. And if you experience both you have experienced a genuine place of magic. I tend to have those experiences in remote areas where bumping into the trappings of human civilization are unlikely.

I strive to find newness and beauty on each of my outings on the land. To do so forces me to look through
cheechako (rookie) eyes. . . as if seeing it for the first time. The challenge is not to take any hike or paddle for granted. It is my job to be observant, to see what others have missed.

The other night, a glance out the window from the Outpost on the Watson River, provided a blushing sky with the sun was flirting with bedding behind distant Goat Mountain. I pushed my chair away from the task of sorting through digital photographs and hurried outdoors for evening vespers. Racing the very orbit of the earth as it tucked the sun in for the night, I scrambled up a steep knob of land directly behind the Outpost. I have come to call this small,grass-topped bump, Pulpit Hill. While I don’t consider myself a particularly religious sort, I have my best conversations with any listening gods and goddesses from the summit of Pulpit. Here, I become the congregation rather than the orator of fire and brimstone.

It is here, at this ‘near wilderness’ that I am most often humbled. Here I am reminded that ultimately my very survival depends on the integrity and health of natural systems. Here I can breathe big and whisper “thanks” for the gifts of stunning views and sweet gulps of air made possible by plant chemistry. Each time I come up here is like a first visit. The big sky is never the same. Even a canvas of unclouded blue sky is made different by the tumbling of a pair of ravens. And the briskly moving, sinuous river below Pulpit Hill delivers new, tireless hymns. And if I study, really study the river surface I can always find a new ripple or eddy for me to wonder about. Here I can imagine new adventures when I gaze up the watery aisle towards a river bend that beckons exploration. It is here that I am reminded how very small I am. And it is here that I want to bring others seeking insight into what is truly important.

The 98

“An empty bar is a sad place.”
-Nancy Conger, July, 2009

And that is what the newly renovated Capital Bar in downtown Whitehorse is, a sad place. Once a favorite watering hole for Yukon government workers, politicians, miners, trappers, guides, and most other Yukoners, the Capital recently reopened after a long closure and a major renovation. Beers on tap include locally brewed favorites but a mug will cost you more than most bars and the place was entirely too hygienic and sterile with newly painted sheetrock. Without years of stories, laughs, stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer, I would expect only hollow echoes.

Other enshrined bars that have a colorful Whitehorse and Yukon history include the Kopper King. Once much larger, it hosted live bands and bouncers. Now most of the action is playing on the giant television screens.

For nearly a year, I have been joining newfound men friends at the Kopper King late every Thursday afternoon to revel in brotherhood and take advantage of $2.50 pints of beer on “Thirsty Thursday”. We enjoy a beer or two, polish off a platter of honey garlic chicken wings, talk green building practices, politics, exchange jokes,  discuss waxing strategies and combinations of waxes for cross country skiing. They are particularly fond of Sven and Ole jokes, one of the better Midwest exports.

Until last week I had never been to the third historical bar, ‘Hotel 98.’ Indeed this is the most historical of the three. It is also a common destination for the Whitehorse paramedics and ambulance. A close Yukon friend, who until recently worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, claimed that every weekend and many a weeknight they make an ambulance run to pick up a very pickled human being. On the rare occasion they have to deal with leavings of a fist fight or, rarer yet, a knifing.

So on a day where the mercury climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I boldly entered the bar with my wife Nancy, her visiting brother Bill and his wife Cindy.

The bar, once a popular dance hall, claims to have pulled the second liquor license in ALL of Canada well over a century ago. And if you don’t believe it, look on the wall just to the right as you enter the sanctum, and you will see the bar’s framed Yukon Liquor Cocktail License. Right next to it, also trimmed in a nice 8×10 wood frame is the following declaration, “If it has tits, wheels or a propeller, it will give you problems.”

In fact as you enter the darkened and happily smoke-free setting, one is greeted by an oily wave diversity and salt-of-the-earth Yukoners. Against the wall on the left is a row of slightly elevated tables offering the best view of bar doings. Nearly all the tables were taken, by First Nation clientele.

Directly above the wall tables, pegged on the wall, are stretched pelts of wolverine, wolf, and lynx. There are also a pair or two of old native made snowshoes. My eyes paused at a poster looking like an ad printed right out of the 1950s. The caption read “Girls in the Arctic.” At the opposite end of the wall, near the ATM cash machine are framed photos of what I surmised to be hall-of-famers to the ‘98. One of them in particular caused me to stare. I don’t know if it was the two cigarettes in his mouth, or the ones in his nostril or ears that caught my attention or if it was because I recently saw a documentary on the guy at a Yukon Film Society fest.

Between the bar and the elevated seats are scattered tables and chairs. The bar stools were mostly taken by a blend of laughing and chattering First Nation folk and whites. Most of the whites had goodly amounts of facial hair. A sign hanging at the end of the bar read, “Perverts Row”. Opposite the entry, at the far end is an old fireplace and a couple more tables. The gaunt guy sitting there, watching the bar proceedings was sharing his space with a white Cockatoo that was sitting on the railing. He was disgusted because the bird would not eat its treats, only wanted to steal his beer and was shitting on the floor, missing the pieces of paper hand towels that had been placed in line of the parrot’s release-aperture.

My lovely wife Nancy, always the engaging one, got up and walked over to the grizzled, man and bird and asked questions about his feathered companion. While his eyes appeared like a summer Yukon sky, hazy with wildfire smoke, he had an amicable manner.

In the far right corner are the two restrooms labeled “Pointers” and “Setters”. Seems pretty casual here as I watched two men come out of the washroom minutes apart and each was still zipping up his pants.

At a table next to us, a very thin, well-tanned man, in camouflaged pants leaned towards us and asked in his distinct French accent, “Where are you from?” His eyebrows rose dramatically when we told him Minnesota. Soon we were all chatting. We discovered that the 62-year-old man was one of 24 children, yes, that’s an even two dozen, and that he was originally from Montreal. Somehow the discussion slurred all over and soon we learned that by not eating meat we could prevent the cobbling of one’s face with wrinkles. “Moose meat is not so bad. . .no chemicals in the meat.”

There was background music playing and I knew we were someplace special when I heard a sudden loud outburst, “Hey I wrote this song!” I didn’t recognize the guy but he had a happy smile and a raven-haired lady draped to his waist.

Another boisterous bellow behind us, begged for us to turn as he yelled across the room to the bartender, “Hey Mary! How’s your love life?”

She glanced up at him as she simultaneously poured two bottles, one in each hand, impishly smiled and called back, “Much better since you left!”
The mustached inquirer waved her away with his hand and countered, “Yeah, well I’ve had lots of sex lately.” A second or two passed and then he added more quietly, “By myself.”

Bill looked at his watch and realized we had to leave in ten minutes for supper. We had reservations at the Cantina. Supposedly the best Mexican food in town and voted to have the best patio dining in all of Whitehorse. At that moment the waitress showed up at our table and with a toss of her head towards the Cockatoo, said that the guy with the bird wanted to buy the four of us a round.

With the lure of Mexico pulling us from the roots of Canadian history and another cold beer, we expressed our gratitude and thanks but had to decline. With a wave of his fingers and an unlit cigarette, he smiled and said, “Maybe another time.”

The odds are good there will be another time. Besides I want to come back and hear more on the discussion the neighboring table. They were boldly stating that was having about next winter will be the worst in 100 years and that according to the Bible or Koran no one can live past 127 years.

We did not have forty years in the wilderness but we did have forty minutes of wildness.

Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race

In the absence of real darkness, the long summer days continually beckon us and pacing is critical. Having had weeks on the treadmill of fun, I feel a need for a refresher course in keyboard skills.

We have been busy. Way too busy. . .but in a good way. We have managed to summit the mountains titled: Caribou, Tally Ho, Anderson, Mount Lorne, and Perkins. We aborted an attempt on Red Ridge when we were driven back by legions of mosquitoes.

Then there were the two three-day music festivals and accompanying dancing. At the Atlin Music Festival a new energy source was revealed in the music of Vancouver-based band Delhi 2 Dublin <>. Don’t even try to resist your body’s urge to move and dance.

Canoeing excursions have resulted in battling headwinds on the Yukon River, discovering a lovely skinny dipping point on Annie Lake and successfully navigating the Takhini River rapids called “ The Jaws of Death.” And we managed to concentrate on the path of continual whitewater for over two hours while descending a section of the Wheaton River.

Cycling has been minimal but we did get out on our road bikes and have explored more trails on our mountain bikes.

Yesterday I came in second in the first ever, Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race. Really.

I loaded up a mid-size backpack with a folding saw, a long handled lopping shears, a can of bear spray and a bottle of water and waved goodbye to Nancy as I pedaled my old black and mostly muddy, bike away from the Outpost. Unable to participate, Nancy is wearing a neoprene knee brace. Nearly a week ago she had twisted her knee after stepping on a loose boulder and falling during a hike last week in the high country near Fraser Lake in British Columbia. She is patiently playing patient at home dining on occasional Ibuprofen while her propped leg balances an ice pack.

My intent was to warm up by pedaling the race course in reverse to check out the dips, drops, edges, tree roots and tight turns. I stopped periodically to saw dead lodgepole pines that fallen across the race trail during the past couple months. Using the lopping shears, I removed eye-and-head-threatening. On parts of the trail I wished I had a stowed a shovel to fill in the multitude of holes. My bike is of a vintage that predates newer models that come equipped with disc brakes and shock absorbing front forks or seat posts.

By the time I got to the race start, I had cut and cleared eight trees out of the way. I never did see the other contestants as we started in staggered starts.

I carefully packed the trail clearing tools, tightened the backpack waist belt and snugged up the chinstrap on my helmet. Taking a big swallow of water, I mentally pedaled the racecourse, remembering various obstacles and tricky sections. Drawing in a deep breath, I took off down the trail.

I swear the wind blowing through the tops of the pines sounded like ecstatic spectators.

With the bear spray buried deep in the bowels of my pack, I chose to provide a fairly loud commentary of my race progress. I figured that my loquacious nature might make any bears aware of my racing down the trail.

A friend had a close encounter with a large grizzly bear on this very trail system. She simply stopped her bike, twenty feet from the bear, had a few quiet words with it and it walked away.

Like the thirty-seven-year-old road cycing legend, Lance Armstrong, I wanted to show the world that a fifty-eight-year-old boy still has the legs and the drive. In going for a chance to step up on the podium, I did not want to stop for anything so I managed to find loud superlatives in my race strategy and bike handling.

“Look at the line Anderson has chosen on this tricky descent! He seems totally oblivious to the drop off on his right and the raking shrubs on his left!”

All was going well and I knew I was ahead of the pace of the racer who was holding the lead position. I knew he would be very tough to beat, as the twenty-two-year-old thick-thighed stud had not lost a race all spring and summer.

A second before I crashed I knew I was going to crash. I was weaving through a section of young lodgepole pine, no thicker than my slender arms. The trail slalomed in tight turns and it was the top of the lopping shears, projecting out of the top of my pack that hooked one of the pine trunks. It was as if the rooted tree simply grabbed the back of my collar and said, “That’s far enough Champ!” The momentum of the bike sprang forward and I was spun to the ground. My commentary was cut. The unseen crowd of horrified spectators watched in silence.

Believe it or not I managed a silly smile as I sat in the thankfully soft pine needle duff. I got to my feet, made a slight adjustment to the skewed pack and swung back into my seat. The crowd cheered with the same intensity as they did when Lance got up and went on to win a memorable Pyrenees Mountain stage of the 2003 Tour de France after he crashed. Like Armstrong, I was back in the race.

I had lost some valuable time and found myself taking some very tight corners, turning my shoulders to twist by trees, not unlike a skier negotiating each gate on a giant slalom course.

With the most treacherous part of the course behind me, I sped up my pedaling revolutions. My thighs burned and the commentary was absent as I had to efficiently use the fuel of oxygen reaching my lungs. Leaning downward into the finish I knew I had not won the race. Six seconds separated me from the guy with oaken thighs.

Catching my breath, I pedaled more slowly home. “There will be another day young man.”

With a squiggle of blood tapering down my leg, I put the bike in the shed and made my way to the awards podium. Today the podium was in a small pool behind a large boulder in the rapids of the Watson River. I shed my sweaty clothes and slipped into the caressing stream. The brisk water was pure bliss and the shot of Yukon Jack and lime juice over ice helped etch my smile to a greater span.

And the crowd went wild. Another task turned into play.