Growing up, Kathy Jessup was always “the yakky little sister.”
In Fort Nelson, where she was raised, she’s still known as “Kathy who likes to talk.” Her family still teases her about finding a way to turn her gift for gab into a career as a professional storyteller. When her current show starts in Canada this July though, she jokes it will be vindicating.
“This tour has given me a chance to get a little respect,” Jessup laughs.
That tour is Alaska Highway Road Show, which visits three Yukon communities in mid-July.
Jessup has been working on it for two years.
In 2013, she was scheduled to perform at a festival in Scotland. The theme of the fest was “journeys.” Jessup’s mind went immediately to the Alaska Highway, which runs through Fort Nelson. Her father was one of the first commercial truckers to drive the highway, so Jessup started calling him every Sunday to ask him to repeat the stories he’d told her when she was a kid. She then developed a show around those stories.
The response was so good (“Europe is crazy for northern Canada and they ate it up. They just couldn’t get enough of it!”), that Jessup eventually started thinking about re-working it for this 2017 – the 75th anniversary of the highway.
She got in touch with her brother, musician Bill Dolan, and they started kicking around ideas. Jessup was adamant that the First Nations experience of the highway be included, so her brother contacted author Allison Tubman, who wrote The McDonalds: The Lives & Legends of a Kaska Dena Family.
After that, Jessup says, the show wrote itself. It was like watching puzzle pieces fall into place – a puzzle made up of stories, songs and photos.
“Now it’s just rolling like a truck getting up to speed,” she says.
The Alaska Highway Road Show will kick off with a free show in Edmonton on July 5. After that, Jessup, Dolan, and Tubman will hit the highway, performing in 11 communities.
Jessup said sponsorship (including from the Peace Liard Regional Arts Council) has allowed her to plan stops in smaller communities where ticket sales won’t make or break the tour.
This includes venues in Teslin and Toad River, B.C. – places where Jessup knew there would be a personal interest in celebrating the highway’s anniversary.
“I thought to myself ‘Okay, I don’t want a show that only goes to the big centres’… if we go to Lower Post and we talk to 10 Elders and a couple little kids, I’m happy. We’re going everywhere.”
She also hopes to see some current and former truckers out in the audience.
The Alaska Highway holds a special place in the hearts of those who’ve driven it, she says, though it took her a while to realize why her dad reminisced about it so often.
Growing up on it, she didn’t notice anything remarkable about it, other than how busy it was.
“You really didn’t get why it was special, because it was long and hot and dusty and bumpy,” she says.
But touring the United Kingdom and driving highways in other countries gave her an appreciation for the beautiful scenery and the incredible wildlife that characterize the highway. And if you dig a little deeper, you can find incredible stories of the tough people who worked on it and who decided to make homes along it.
The Alaska Highway Road Show will be in Watson Lake at Morgan Chaddock Community Hall on July 17 at 7 p.m.
It will visit the Tlingit Heritage Centre on July 18 at 1 p.m.
It will come to the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse on July 19 at 7 p.m.
The show is 90-minutes.
A handful of performances are free, including in Teslin, where the Teslin Tlingit Council is hosting the show.
More information is online at AlaskaHighwayRoadshow.com.