Karen MacKay is a different kind of grandmother.
MacKay has a house back in Ottawa, where she was born, seven grandchildren and two sons. But in Dawson City, MacKay has a community family, on which she attends with surprising energy for her 60-some years.
MacKay retired six years ago from a 26-year accounting job at an outdoor outfitter’s in Ottawa.
Since then, she has made an annual return to Dawson, staying the winter as a highly-soughthousesitter, avid volunteer, dog walker, filmmaker, visual artist, hiker and hiking guide, cross countryskiier, skijorer, ping ponger, poet—and the list goes on.
Something between a local and a visitor, she is stitched into the community fabric through her various efforts, from offering her hands in distribution at the local newspaper, to taking it upon herself to welcome visiting artists and writers in residence.
She doesn’t apologize for being what her real family members have learned to accept as an oddball. Rather, she says she has found her place in Dawson, and she sets herself apart as an ageless model of vitality, independence and stewardship.
Invited for tea and home-made bread, I engage with MacKay in a discussion about the value of community participation for seniors and, in effect, younger generations as well.
The house she is currently housesitting on 8th Avenue (which she returns by request to sit year after year) is warm and smells sweet from freshly-baked bran muffin-cake.
A dog and four cats run about the place—she is looking after the home owners’ pets, too—and they settle to her stern tone.
Between sips from steaming mugs of Earl Grey tea, which we both take black, and bites of baking, she tells me her involvement began when she arrived in Dawson.
“I started volunteering because when I first came to the community I didn’t know anybody,” says MacKay.
“I thought, this is the way to fit in and find out what you want to do. And I think because of that, I got involved in a lot of places I otherwise wouldn’t have, because I wouldn’t have known about them.”
In Ottawa, MacKay volunteered periodically, but it was Dawson’s accessibility to volunteering with a mere raise of a hand, in combination with short-term, task-oriented commitments, that drew her out on a regular basis.
Her first year in town, she was surprised how quickly a gym buddy dropped keys into her hand to look after a few buildings and do cleaning. After spending her life in a big city, she found the locals’ open trust “surprising”.
“Being new, I said yes. I don’t like to turn anybody down!” MacKay laughs, recounting the experience.
“In Ottawa… you’d just not be able to volunteer the way you do here.”
Two events MacKay has been continually involved with, that excite her the most, are the Yukon Quest and the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.
Within those groups, she carves niches of active participation, too—she has raced in the Sunnydale Classic skijoring competition, and has submitted several short films in the 48 Hour Film Competition and the 1 Minute Film Challenge at the festival (the latter of which she is already brainstorming for, swirling ideas as we talk).
“I used to have withdrawal when I went home [to Ottawa],” admits MacKay of the first two years she did the winter stint.
“I got so involved in the community [in Dawson] and volunteering, and always having something to do, that when I got home, my friends were there, but it’s a different kind of community.”
What helped her get out of depression when away from Dawson was finding a new volunteer outlet in Ottawa.
“Finally, I volunteered with the [National Capital Commission (NCC)] to work in a small garden, and that helped, because that gave me something to focus on,” she says.
“Even though I had my house and there were things to be done in the house, and I had my own garden, it wasn’t quite the same thing.”
In addition, she knows now that when she leaves Dawson, she’ll be back—she’s already booked forhousesits next winter.
MacKay puts aging and keeping up to her younger friends in the back of her mind. She emphasizes that age has not slowed down notable fellow Dawsonite, Joyce Caley, who is in her 80s, from involvement in numerous boards and organizations, including the IODE, Dawson City Community Library, Thrift Shop, among others.
“You have to adjust,” she says, “If the time comes that I can’t hike to the [Midnight] Dome, then I’ll just hike 9th Avenue!
“If you can’t be out every day, then you just find something else. I think for me, I have learned that. So I try not to worry about it too much.”
Later, after a hike and a resurgence of thoughts, MacKay reflects on the essence of her contributions in an email.
“I do believe in my previous life I was one of the prospectors making their way to Dawson over theChilkoot Trail hoping to find their fortune, but didn’t make it,” she writes.
“So here I am in this life, finally in Dawson, with a fortune of friends and places that make me feel special. What more could you ask for?”
Alyssa Friesen is our co-editor in Dawson City.