“I don’t remember it being such a pretty town,” said Marcella McKenzie of this little Yukon burg.
“That’s because it wasn’t,” said Judy Couture. “There wasn’t much here in the way of buildings when we were kids – no streetlights at all. And the roads were dirt and gravel.”
McKenzie, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, had returned north for the community reunion held here during the week leading up to Discovery Day.
She, Couture and her sister Wendy were playmates growing up in Watson Lake in the ‘60s. And they fondly remember those days as they reconnect with other people who share those memories.
Those gathered for the reunion agree it was a wonderful place to grow up – lots of freedom, fun and a feeling of safety that was taken for granted.
Norma Milne was the postmaster in Watson Lake for 16 years; she and her first husband arrived in 1962, newly married. Her boys were born in the Yukon and the eldest, Allan, stayed and now works for the town. Her second husband, Alex Milne, was a mechanic in the area and confessed it was here he fell in love with Norma, though it was 1991 before they met again and married.
“This town was good to us,” they said, adding it was great to come back and see who stayed.
Judith Michie left Watson Lake for Nova Scotia in 2007 when her husband Jim retired. She was born in Mayo and lived in Watson Lake most of her life.
For many years, her store, Judith’s, was a vital centre of the community, where locals came to shop, visit and often just to hang out.
“I come back every year,” she says. “It’s home. I’ve felt rootless since leaving here.”
It was a week of nostalgia, renewing acquaintances and revisiting the place of what was, for many, the scene of a busy and happy childhood and, for others, the town where mates were met and married and children born and raised. Businesses were started (and sometimes lost), careers begun, schools attended – life taking place in a town remembered as a strong and caring community with a readiness for fun.
The pancake breakfasts, held at the Signpost Seniors’ Hall and hosted by the seniors, was the place to meet and greet, as well as fuel up for what was a full day of activities.
A scavenger hunt, a golf tournament, an arts-and-crafts show, a barbecue at the ski chalet that featured swing dancing, the Discovery Day parade and weekend ball tournament were just a few of the events staged in the town.
Everywhere were reminders of the good old days, with slide shows and photo albums. The sight of people hugging was common.
“I’m getting hugged everywhere I go,” said Norma. “And, sometimes, I don’t recognize the huggers; people have gotten older, and those who were kids have grown up.”
There was even the culmination of a dream – Cliff Turner, a well-known prospector of the “old days,” arrived in town with Steve Harrison, a helicopter pilot, to chase down some gold.
Turner found the property decades ago and his semi retirement to Cache Creek did not lessen his enthusiasm, or blunt his determination to return and claim it. His dream was kept alive during his frequent get-togethers with Harrison, who now flies out of Langley.
It was 42 years, almost to the day, that they came back and carried out the plan, combining their mining venture with the reunion week. Turner, now in his 80s, would like to add another big discovery to his long career in mining and, with the current price of gold, this may be the one.
Although there were more activities on offer on Sunday, most reunion attendees would agree the culmination of the event was the dinner and dance on Saturday night.
More than 300 people filled the recreation hall, dancing to the music of the Canucks, who were the band of choice for most of the Yukon for many years.
It was an evening of laughter and tears as people told stories and reminded one another (for good or ill) of who they were way back when.
To host a reunion where the only prerequisite for attendance was to have been a resident of Watson Lake was a brilliant idea. The old, young and middle-aged mingled in a place that was an important part of their personal histories and where lasting friendships were formed.
The multi-generational aspect of the event, and the diversity of the attendees, gave the event a depth that could easily be missed in any other large gathering.
There is talk of doing it again, said Sharon Miller, one of the organizers.
She, along with many other volunteers, not only spent the hours required to put the event together, but, like them, was tireless in her efforts to make it run smoothly.
“It was even better than we’d hoped,” said Miller, “I’m all in favour of another Watson Lake reunion.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer and author of North of Iskut: Grizzlies, Bannock and Adventure. She lives in Watson Lake.