Special for the News
“Is it too strong?” Carleigh Baker asks, sitting across the table and cradling her own mug of coffee. “I make my coffee really strong for some people.”
The coffee is not too strong, especially for such a grey, cold, dismal morning in Dawson City, weather and dark which Baker admits is a bit of a shock to her system, coming from Vancouver. If Baker’s name seems familiar to you, it might be for one of several reasons. Her short story collection, Bad Endings, published by Anvil Press, won the 2017 Vancouver Book Award and was a finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, prompting her to be placed on CBC Books’ “17 writers to watch in 2017” list.
Baker also appears in the 2016 documentary film The Peel Project, in which she is one of six southern artists and writers attempting to create in the high northern wilderness of the Peel River watershed.
Baker is the current writer-in-residence at Dawson City’s Berton House, where she is presently working on novel about her experience on The Peel Project.
When she was first thinking about writing the book she initially thought it would be non-fiction, but has since turned to fiction to give more privacy to some of her subjects and to allow her to write more freely. The 21-day canoe trip which is the backbone of The Peel Project, by her own admission, went sideways part way through and was the source of a “mild trauma” she is unpacking, she says.
The group – including herself – was unprepared for the mental, physical and emotional rigour of working and living in the bush which created some serious challenges. While humbling and difficult, it offered her a lot to think about, creatively.
“Sometimes I’d be thinking, ‘This is awful, but it will make for a great book.’ Conflict makes a great book,” she says with a laugh.
One of the most altering things Baker came to realize while on the Peel trip was the impartiality of the wilderness; you can die in the bush, not because nature is actively trying to kill you, but simply because it’s also not actively trying to keep you alive.
“I realized this place doesn’t care about me, about us. Nature doesn’t care,” she says. “That neutrality is terrifying.”
The loss of this “romanticism” was “doubly” troubling because she had envisioned the trip as a kind of “magical Indigenous experience,” she says, with humour and humility. Baker, who is of Cree-Metis and Icelandic heritage, had hoped the trip would be a way for her to reconnect with parts of her roots and with the natural world. Instead, she says, what she realized was that they were woefully “unprepared” for the reality of the landscape.
“I was made very aware that I’m participating (in this environment) as a tourist, not as an authentic experience,” she says. “You’re not from this place, you really have to be aware that this is not where you come from… you’re adding to – not dominating – the situation.”
“I had a lot to sit with,” she says. ““There were some large personal questions that opened up for me.”
Ultimately, the group ran out of food – not enough had been packed in she says – and had to be rescued and fed by citizens of the First Nation on whose territory they had come to make a documentary about, a fact which continues to disturb Baker.
“We went in with the best of intentions but left as traditional colonizers,” she says.
“Good intentions are not enough.”
While she lives and works in Vancouver, this isn’t Baker’s first time in the North. She actually spent some time as a young girl living in Cassiar, B.C., while the mine was still open, where her father was the local drama teacher. When she would go to have her braces adjusted, she says, she would take a milk-run flight which would take her to Old Crow with a stop over in Atlin before having the work done in the “big city” of Whitehorse.
“It was the most exhilarating trip to have your braces fixed ever,” she jokes.
Baker says she has been truly “humbled” by how warm and open people in Dawson have been with her. She is, however, very much enjoying the alone time of working in a small Northern town, away from the bustle and distractions of Vancouver. Baker was undergoing a divorce, struggling with recovery from drug addiction and in a really difficult, lonely place when she was writing Bad Endings, she says. So winter in Dawson is very much “in (her) style.”
“I wanted a certain amount of loneliness, of isolation to do this… it’s not sad…” she says.
“When I’m writing, I like to imagine I’m the last person on earth – it’s a melancholic state but it’s where my best writing comes from, the writing I’m most proud of.”
Baker is also hosting a radio show in Dawson on local station CFYT – 106.9 FM. “The Spirit of Dawson” airs on Sundays. She enjoys radio, she says, because it appeals to that same desire for isolation, the imagining that she is alone in the world as she is “speaking into the void.”
Baker will be working on her book at Berton House until March 29 – but please don’t just drop by without an invite, as she’s probably “hermitting” in work, as she calls it. You can find out more about Baker at her website https://carleighbaker.com/ and more about the Berton House Writers’ Retreat at www.bertonhouse.ca/home.html.
Contact Lori Fox at editor@yukon_news.com