In which the depths of my dorkness are revealed

It is uncharacteristically warm here. Instead of the usual January walking getup* everything stays toasty with one light set of long underwear under my jeans, a couple of wool sweaters and a down vest. Top with a toque and scarf knit by loved ones and -10 is tropical.

There are many downside to these balmy days. The river is rotting. The city ice rink is melting. And last, but not least, the Yukon and Klondike River valley, where we live, is filled with thick fog at all times. The sun taunts us from blue fields that peek out in fractions for a moment here or there. The snowy side of the Midnight Dome melts seamlessly into the blanket of fog and cloud- it looks as though the mountain itself is arching above us- a real life snow globe.

The real loss with all this grey batting above is the stars. We don’t get to see them in the summers here, blotted out by the midnight sun. But in winter, on the coldest nights, the sky is clear, clear, clear, and you can see a million of them. Orion’s left foot, Rigel, the foot of the great one, catches my eye first. A blue supergiant, the sixth brightest in our sky.

Orion’s belt leads you down, to the left and to Sirius, glowing, scorcher, the brightest star in the night sky. Only Venus, Jupiter, and our moon are more luminous.  Twice as large as our sun, it would appear on the Egyptian horizon just before dawn in the time of the Nile’s flood, part of the Canus Major Constellation, it marked what the Egyptians called the “dog days” of summer.

I spent a month one winter working far off in the bush, a full day’s trek from Dawson up river and through a maze of creeks and valleys. I lived in a wall-tent with two good men. We worked hard all day, cutting line with machetes on snowshoes, frenzied and shedding off sweaty layers at -30 only to freeze up instantly with the slightest pause. Our work days were short, mandated by available daylight.

I brought an astronomy book with star maps with me. Every night I would stand outside and listen to my eyes blink, the wolves howling over the ridge, and recite the new names I’d learned like spells, Beteguese, the house of Orion, Bellatrix the warrioress, the amazon star, the lioness & the conqueror, Alnilam, the arrangement of pearls, Alkaid,  the eldest of the bear’s daughters, the mourning maidens.

I’d stay outside until I started to chill, then go instead to keep reading, to watch a movie with the guys, to make more tea, and finally to sleep like the dead until dawn when we would stoke the small stove, fill our thermoses, start the snow machines and repeat.

When I first moved to the Yukon, had no idea where I would live or work and had spent all of my money on plane tickets and a new parka. I was frantic with unknowns. I took a walk my first morning in the Territory, pleading with my dog, Ulu, to forgive me for the hours of air travel and assuring her the next three hour leg of our journey would be the last.

I came out onto a high cliff bluff over the Yukon River, gained my bearings and realized it was flowing North. In the Maritimes, all self-respecting rivers rush South, or East. That a river could run North was a new and mind boggling consideration thrown on top of existing anxiety.

I looked down and saw Sphagnum moss, an Acadian Forest resident and Boreal Forest constant. A piece of home, a tiny bit of continuity. I continued to look down on my walk, the names came running back from my Ethnobotany classes, and they calmed me down. Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-usri, Labrador tea, Rhododendron groenlandicum,  and my grandfather’s favourite, the Highbush Cranberry, Viburnum trilobum.

The moral of this ramble, if anything, is that I am a huge dork. And also, that there is always something familiar with us, it might just be under a winter’s worth of snow, or behind the sun or a shade of clouds.I can’t wait for it to get colder.

huse at night

*Dawson City Winter Wear: Long underwear, fleece pants, gortex bib pants, merino wool undershirt, shirt, sweater, down coat, balaclava, toque, woolly socks and mukluks. In extreme temperatures this outfit can be augmented with liner mitts, more long underwear and wool pants, making for an extremely svelte and sexy figure.

the building site in winter


A wall tent with wood stove to make tea and dinner in, with wool blankets for the littlest husky to hunker down on, christmas lights for sight and cheer & four walls and a roof that we are slowly but surely adding to. It is a snug little place, the perfect base camp for building in the cold, or climbing the ridges around our home.

The river, and as a result our trail, and the temperature have been fickle. We are in the process of moving our insulation and windows, by snowmobile, across the river and a few kilometres to our future house. We’ve been waiting for the overflow on the river to settle down, and for warmer climes. Moving a 7 foot picture window by snowmobile is precarious enough without open water and bone brittling cold.

Last night, outside in the yard at our borrowed winter house, the moon was incredibly bright. Everything was light up. We looked at each other and at the same time said we can’t wait (until we are out there, next winter.)

The moon will light up the valley all the way to the Ogilvie Mountains. We will look out the picture window at the foot of our bed, from the warmth of down and wool blankets. I can picture the the wide open sky of our valley crowded with aurora, and hope the wolves will sing us to sleep, our crackling wood stove keeping time.

polar vortexes


These days all we talk about is the weather. Last week it was colder at my friends wonderful goat farm in Virginia than it was here in the Yukon.  The rest of Canada and parts of the US were comparing their weather to conditions on Mars.  I can’t hear the words “polar vortex” without picturing a whirlpool of polar bears (am I the only one?).

But, here in the Yukon, things were a balmy balmy and beautiful with the mercury hanging out around -10. After weeks of -30 or colder, long, long walks and relatively summery wear (only one pair of long underwear!) was a welcome treat.

Sometimes I feel like an old man on the porch, speculating about clouds. Will it get colder? Will it warm up? When will it snow again? We check meteorological predictions against the hairs on the backs of our necks. There is, of course, no way to know what tomorrow will bring. But when your everyday activities are  controlled and affected by the temperature, what else would you think about?

When it is 40 below wood splits like butter. Your truck needs to be plugged in to start, and needs to run for at least 15 minutes before you can shift gears or easily turn the steering wheel. The skies are clear and bright above the ice fog in the river valley bottom, and the wood smoke that hangs in one dusky layer above cabins, unable to rise through the frozen sky above. Sometimes, the cold temperatures inexplicably make the rivers burst over the ice. Warm temperatures do the same. The overflow freezes your snowmobile track, leadens your snowshoes, and coats your dog’s paws. It can be an incredibly unpleasant surprise.

If you have wood heat, your day revolves around the fire. I once lived in a small cabin with an incredible homemade barrel stove. It did not look like much, but that brilliant beast could hold a fire for 26 hours before my cabin would start to chill, the dogs water freezing solid in the bowl. I spent my first winter off grid courting my stove, burning fires too hot and to fast before I figured out how to shut it down to last a night. It is still a thrill to wake up and find a stove bottom filled with coals and embers.

People often ask what we do here in the winter, what you can do when it is -40. You can do most things, with a little extra effort. But best of all, you have a legitimate reason to sit at home beside the stove, read, knit, draw, contemplate your own toes, write, listen to the radio, learn to play an instrument. The best part of living in the bushes, in the cold, and the often dark, are the many opportunities to stop and sit and be still.