I’ve been living in a cabin downtown this past week, near the Pioneer Cemetery. It’s a little one-room shack with hot water and electricity. Not exactly the bush life, but still.
This cabin belongs to a Swiss couple, Felix and Astrid Vogt, who have been living in the Yukon for more than 20 years. Thanks to them, traveling has never been so comfortable.
How I got in touch with Felix and Astrid in the first place, I can’t exactly remember. But I do remember they planned to go on a hunting trip somewhere north on the Dempster Highway during the first week of November. I was supposed to housesit at their place, but that never happened.
On Wednesday morning, Felix knocked at the cabin’s door. He and Astrid were taking me to Teslin for Claudia Huber’s Celebration of Life. Everybody knows the story: Mathias and Claudia were home when an old grizzly bear broke into the house and took the poor woman’s life before she could make it out to the car. The Vogts were friends of the couple. I did not know either Mathias or Claudia.
We were on our way to the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre, driving slowly over the icy highway across the spruce covered country, and I was wondering if it made any sense for me to be part of this. Felix and Astrid had brought bread to the ceremony as a remembrance of their last meeting with Claudia at a summer beer festival.
I had nothing. No flowers, no food, no parting gift, not even memories of her. I was meeting Claudia’s path at a very desolate time and I wasn’t sure this was any reason to celebrate. Maybe I should’ve stayed in Whitehorse.
The Tlingit Heritage Centre was full. People were standing along the walls to be part of the celebration. One man was leading the Tlingit prayer. Eyes closed, his sight fixed far beyond the world, he chanted and counted on his fingers the repetitions. Two women stood by his side, echoing his voice. Some of us chanted alongside them, some kept silent, muted by sadness or grief. There was also a little acoustic choir and a German prayer at one point.
We sang what we could, in one language or another, laughing at Mathias making monkey noises during the singing of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
After the songs, everybody silently lined up in front of the long table pushed against the wall. Many had brought something to eat: caribou and moose stews, soups, smoked salmon, fried salmon, bannock, sweets, cakes, and coffee. We filled our plates and started speaking again, whispering at first, and then laughing.
After, Felix and Astrid took me to their house in the Lewes Lake area, where I got to spend a few peaceful days. Felix showed me around while we were walking the dogs. They own 25 beautiful acres, covered with all kinds of spruce, pine, and birch. I spent most of my time there writing with Luna, their female husky, lying at my feet. To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting at a table for hours, scratching on paper whatever is to be written. Whenever I needed a break, I stood up and looked outside the windows in the kitchen. I looked at Gray Ridge, with its snowy caps and spruce covered roots. I saw Lewes Lake near the house and, beyond the half-frozen water, Red Ridge stretching northwest out of sight. Behind all this is the wilder Annie Lake and the beautiful Coast Mountain Range.
Or at least, I was told it’s beautiful.
I looked through the window long enough to see a bald eagle make its approach over the water and land on top of a narrow tree, bending the tip under its weight. During the longer and longer winter evenings, all three of us spoke until the stars were up, drinking tea and enjoying the warmth of the wood burning in the fireplace.
Felix and Astrid have been mostly everywhere around. They have paddled the Porcupine River together all the way to Fort Yukon, and Astrid even paddled the Yukon River to Mountain Village on her own, back in ’82. They know every place I should visit.
When they first departed west from Switzerland, it was to Alaska on a student Visa. Felix did an engineering masters degree there. But it was only a matter of time before they would make the move to this side of the border. Like all old timers who live their dreams, they are scared to see things change. And who can blame them?
While I took the kettle out of the fire for the tenth time, Astrid told me about that party they were having on November 21: the “Celebration of Yukon Land and Water – A Real Yukon Party”. I promise to show up if I can.
I walked the dogs one last time in the darkness of the morning before Felix brought me back to his cabin in town. It was snowing outside. Winter was already covering the sidewalks up to my ankles. I was glad to be back to my little den. But also, I felt very happy that I didn’t stay in Whitehorse.