Torching old bush cabins seems like an odd priority for bureaucrats to have, and yet, there it is: the governmental urge to rid the countryside of those picturesque but dilapidated shacks now populated only by mice and fireweed. Why anyone would want to spend their energy on setting fire to the remnants of somebody else’s dream is beyond me.
What’s more Yukon, after all? You’re somewhere out in the boonies, awash in landscape and whacking through the bush. Maybe you notice some old blazes thickly scabbed with spruce sap and a game trail meandering in and out between them. Then the tall trees thin out – only a bristle of what qualifies as saplings down south but is really a bunch of fifty-odd-year-old trees. Something angular right in the middle. Grey logs, the roof caved in or not, walls leaning this way or that. A couple of old pieces of stovepipe, a few rusty bedsprings, maybe an old shoe.
You walk around some more and scare yourself silly when a grouse suddenly explodes from a nearby tree. There’s a hole in the ground where the root cellar used to be and, oh look at this, he must have had only the one little window. Whose cabin was this and for how long did the person live here? And why on earth here, of all places? Why did the person leave?
Why did they come and why did they leave, perhaps a question that’s particularly Yukon. Not only in regards to the historical gold rush (and its much touted modern version, I’m sure) – also Yukon First Nations were pressured away from the land and into towns. Each of those old shacks is part of the Yukon’s history, the quest to live out on the land even if it’s just for a season or a year, and somehow come through.
Crown land supposedly belongs to all of us. Yet to legally live in one of those cabins out in the bush is next to impossible because you can’t get tenure for the simple pleasure of living out on the land. For us regular people, only the most fleeting use of land is encouraged: hike and bike, paddle and ski, or go motorized. I find that interesting because it prevents, to a large extent, the putting down of roots. Sure you still have a connection with the land but it’s like a weekend affair as opposed to a marriage and that leaves you in a weaker position if somebody wants to break up your relationship.
It’s a different story if you’re only after money. If you’re extracting resources from Crown land, you’re welcome to construct camps to heart’s content and the government won’t even be particularly keen on torching everything after you’re done. Or eager to remove all those old fuel and oil barrels that you somehow left behind.
Actually, cleaning up some of the abandoned cabin sites would be a great idea and more useful than a territory-wide fire fest. Most of the old cabins that I can think of have no garbage lying around them since they date back to before the Plastic Age, but a couple of the newer ones are a mess.
What is the government’s plan in regards to garbage out there, anyway? The mere setting of fire will certainly destroy the historic log structures but it can’t be sound environmental clean-up practice to burn plastic and old fibreglass.
I wonder if in the end, this project won’t lead to the re-erection of ‘historical’ cabins in the bush, sort of a territorial version of Whitehorse’s weird themeparkization of its waterfront: first the removal of every bit of living history and then a slicker, better-groomed version plunked down in its place later. Funnily enough, the same thing seems to be playing out with the urban chicken debate. I remember that in the late ‘80s, a house on Second Avenue housed chickens in its front yard. Then they were banned – and now they’re on their way back. Legally.
So who knows, give it 30 years and custodian positions might be up for grabs in the Yukon’s Wild History Theme Park cabins. After all, you never know what the government will dream up next.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.