Northern Gifts

Some gifts take time sinking in; others stare you in the face.

We, our family of four in a VW Beetle, arrived late in Watson Lake on October 1, 1957, and awoke in a strange house, beside the lake. Outside, in brilliant sun, and “a silence you most could hear,” as Robert Service described it, came the thought, “Maybe this new job was a gift; the place is.”

You don’t need a cabin by a lake when that’s where your house is. The school was but a three-minute walk for daughter Linda and son Bernie, my office another three minutes, and nary a fence to be seen — a gift for this pair of stubble jumpers.

My work included being on-call 24/7 to maintain three buildings full of electronic hardware, built in 1941, supporting all air traffic above and around us. Watson Lake was a key airport on World War Two’s Northwest Staging Route, helping in ferrying 8,000 warplanes to Europe and Russia. Historians have forgotten this air route, but that’s another story for another time.

My first call out came after supper on day three. A communications transmitter had failed. This transmitter was exclusive, as special frequency allowing us to communicate with the U.S. Air Forces Strategic Air Command jets which were always flying somewhere over the world during the Cold War. It promised to be a long night and it was.

Arriving home, my wife Pearl said, “A stranger, a man with a toque on his head, came with a big piece of an animal on his shoulder. ‘A welcome gift,’ he said. It’s down the basement.”

The fur wasn’t moose colour so I assumed it was a caribou hindquarter. I recalled someone raving about caribou meat and was pleased — until reality struck. Fish and grouse, including a four-foot pike, didn’t count as proper butchering experience.

Pearl said, “Yukon hospitality is well known, someone will help, maybe even butcher it for us.” They didn’t! This first touch of Yukon generosity was memorable, and is still unequalled in uniqueness.

We received caribou butchering and cooking advice from Vic and Katy Johnson, and established a lifelong friendship in the bargain. Katy’s moose roasts could make a big city chef drool with envy. Their house, where over 200 foster children lived and were loved, was rarely quiet, yet Vic and Katy were always as calm as cucumbers. Their gift to the Yukon was recognized when Katy received the Order of Canada after Vic was gone.

The generosity of Yukoners is fabled, and comes from the land itself, some say. Sitting on the shore of the lake, a loon’s cry bounces like a skipping stone, leaving circles of sound in your mind. That’s one spell the Yukon wraps me in, and the generous spirit follows. I suggest it is inherited from the Kwaday Kwadun, our Long Ago People, it’s the message of the land.

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