Salt of the Yukon

Dwayne and Nellie Backstrom might never be listed in the pages of The Colourful Five Percent; I don’t think they would care to be.

But 2014’s Sourdough Rendezvous’ Mr. And Mrs. Yukon have a more meaningful legacy. In their own quiet way, they are quintessential Yukoners — understated, hard working, and full of love for the place they’ve called home.

For Nellie, love of Yukon was a birthright; for Dwayne it began when he was posted to Snag, Yukon as a Transport Canada air radio operator in 1960. He had heard that Snag was the coldest place in North America, and he didn’t really want to go. His feelings changed two days after he arrived when he met Nellie, a young waitress at the White River Lodge.

“She was very pleasant to me then, ” Dwayne says.

“And I still am, ” Nellie interjects.

A year later Dwayne asked for permission from Nellie’s dad, and the two were married in Beaver Creek in 1962.

Nellie was raised traditionally, on the land. Her dad was from Norway and her mom was from the Upper Tanana First Nations.

Her dad mined in the summer and they both trapped in the winter. They ate wild meat, berries, and the store-bought provisions purchased once a year from Dawson City — usually in the winter, by sleigh or dogsled.

Dwayne came from Saskatchewan. His father, also Scandinavian, was from Sweden, and his mother was from Ireland. His introduction to the wilds of the Yukon arose from his remote posting and his new family, which included hunting trips with Nellie’s brothers.

Their first few years of married life were in Snag, followed by Destruction Bay, where their kids started school.

Those early years, in small communities, hold very fond memories. They loved the lifestyle and were active in the social life of their communities.

The curling rink was the central area for entertainment — either to curl or to watch and visit.

No TV. No snowmobiles. They made their own fun.

“I felt sorry for the newcomers, especially the women,” Nellie says acknowledging that many were young wives, uprooted from their homes and families. They followed their husbands North and spent the winters stuck at home, day after day with just their kids for company.

There was a committee that would organize at least one social every month. And then there were annual bonspiels in the different communities. They were a big deal and everyone would travel to them to shake off the cabin fever.

Before Dwayne got transferred to Edmonton in 1976, Nellie got her secretarial certificate, so they both worked in Alberta.

Their life was good, but they missed the Yukon so much they travelled back pretty much every summer. Their favourite year was the one when Dwayne got transferred back to the Yukon and then took a job with the Yukon Government Aviation Branch.

“That just answered our prayers that we could stay, ” he says.

When they both retired, they moved to their home at South McClintock on Marsh Lake. Then Dwayne promptly went back to school and learned carpentry.

He worked with a local contractor for a few summers and applied his skills to their house and garage.

They keep a garden, spend time visiting family and friends, and, living gently, are grateful for their home, their good lives, and their Yukon.

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