In 1963, Martha Benjamin became a legend in the Canadian sport world. The Gwich’in mother of five didn’t just win the national cross-country ski championships in Ontario, she destroyed the field.
Martha’s time, a minute and a half faster than the next woman, would have also won her the men’s event. The race should have put Martha on the Canadian Olympic team, but it would be another nine years before Canada would send a women’s ski team to the Olympics.
Fifty-three years later in the Old Crow ski chalet, Martha Benjamin is helping us get ready for another race, this one for her granddaughter.
Martha is dressed head-to-toe in ski gear and is crackling with excitement. She pokes around, hopping from foot to foot asking questions as we hang banners, blow up balloons, and lay out the registration table. Suddenly Martha leans in and whispers, “I’m going to go out there on that course dressed like an old Didee to surprise those kids.” She gestures down at the pair of old wooden skis with moose hide bindings she has under her arms, then marches out the front door and begins digging a fire pit.
Outside the chalet a small, hand-drawn cardboard sign reading “Welcome to the 1st Annual Father Mouchet Loppet” flaps in the wind.
Father Mouchet’s impact on the North is a web that runs deep through generations and spreads wide to influence who those people have become.
An Oblate priest from France, Jean-Marie Mouchet came to the Yukon in the 1950s. It was here he devoted his life’s work to converting the children of the North not to God, but to skiing. In 1993 Mouchet received the Order of Canada in recognition of his work in the North, notably the creation of the Territorial Experimental Ski Training, (TEST) program. Mouchet passed away in December 2013 at the age of 96.
Nowhere is Mouchet’s impact on the North more evident than in Old Crow, a community where he spent more than 25 years. Last Easter his ashes were spread on Crow Mountain. This Easter a decidedly less somber affair is taking place in his honour.
We are struggling to draw a start line with a bottle of frozen blue liquid when the whine of skidoos begins to fill the air. Mothers, grandmothers, and kids begin tromping into the ski chalet.
Knute Johnsgaard, one of Father Mouchet’s last TEST athletes, is here. Fresh off his gold-medal race at this year’s Canada Winter Games, Knute helps size people for skis and begins waxing for them. At the registration table I lean in and listen closely as children whisper their last names, venerated names that make up the fabric of the territory’s ski history: Frost, Kassi, Charlie, Benjamin, Moses.
Kids are skiing around, climbing up the woodcut trail, then barreling down on the hard-packed snow before flying, spread-eagle onto the ground. Martha is hauling Desmond Kaye onto his feet while encouraging her granddaughter Tyra to begin warming up.
“Father was my coach,” Martha tells me. “He said, never mind what anybody else say or do. You’re here to do something. It’s all fun. That’s what I’m trying to tell little Tyra now. I say, look Tyra, no matter what they say or do to you, it’s just for fun. If you lose, it’s good. It do you good. Next time you work harder.”
Earl Benjamin has strapped on a pair of skis. “I haven’t skied in 40 years,” he says, grinning. Soon he’s lumbering down the trail, picking up speed as his beaver hat slips down over his eyes. I cover my own eyes and hear Chief Roger Kyikavichik and Stephen Frost laughing behind me.
Earl has started a trend, and soon mothers and grandmothers are searching for skis. Mary-Jane Moses sets off on the two-kilometre trail, the hood of her wolverine trim parka flapping madly as she rockets, lock-legged down the trail. Soon she too is buried in a snowbank. Her daughter, who’d been attempting to untangle her son at the start line, rushes down the trail to help her up.
The kids stare wide-eyed as their parents and grandparents ski away. They are like racehorses now, chomping at the bit to race after their elders and become part of the history their parents and grandparents have talked so much about. At the start line the crowd of spectators count them down. As Gavin Charlie, the last starter, sets off the sun breaks out.
Tyra Benjamin is the first finisher of the two-kilometre race. She comes blazing up the final climb and nearly collapses under the finishing banner. “How’d it go out there?” I ask. “Sweaty” she replies gasping, “but I sure liked those downhills.”
Racers come and go throughout the day. Stan Njootli Sr.‘s grandson Dean wins the 7-10 year-old division and Stan Sr. himself sets off, demanding we time him. This begins the adult two-kilometre race, and before we know it it’s time for the eight-kilometre event.
The eight-kilometre race is an ambitious affair. Members of the community have been working to clear the eight-kilometre loop for weeks. The trail hasn’t been used for years, but today it’s open with a fresh-cut track all the way around. Eight of us strap on bibs and set off.
In his book Men and Women of the Tundra, Father Mouchet describes skiing the trails in Old Crow: “Your progression becomes faster and the track is solid allowing your skis to glide effortlessly… Now the beginning of the mountain, arid and treeless, was near. From this position you could see the Porcupine River like a white ribbon curling towards Alaska.”
We make the steady, lung-burning climb from the village up to the foothill of Crow Mountain. Nothing Father liked was easy.
The next day, during the community’s Easter celebrations, elders will tell me how stiff and sore they are from today’s adventures. They will share stories of Mouchet, of his first winter in Old Crow, and why they simply call him Father.
Today there is little time for nostalgia. Back at the ski chalet, Tyra Benjamin, her friends and 30 other race participants are milling around, anxiously awaiting their first trophies. So we speed back down the mountain to where the banks of the Porcupine River reach the town. Here cultures and generations intersect and overlap in the most interesting ways. As the wind whistles in my ears I think of Father, and how the best way to honour him is not by investing in the past, but in the potential of our future.
Pavlina Sudrich is former TEST athlete who worked with Father Mouchet for a number of years. She currently works as a high performance ski coach in Canada. Her passion for skiing is second only to her love of the Yukon.