There are many reasons people come to Watson Lake and end up staying here, ranging from job offers to romance to a desire to live close to nature.
Kearns came for all those reasons, but it was the stillness that really made her fall in love with this town.
“I loved it,” she says “I loved a stillness so profound that I could hear the raven’s wings as they flew over, and hear the clink of the neighbour’s spoon against his coffee cup.”
Her husband Jason had come up north in 2005 to do repair job at the barite mill. It was supposed to take a few days, but ended up taking longer. Long enough, in fact, for him to ask Kelly to come and check it out as a possibility for a move.
The couple are both Cape Bretoners. They met at a breast cancer fundraiser in 2001 and knew fairly quickly they were meant to be together. They lived together, making their commitment legal with a wedding in her uncle’s back yard in Vancouver before moving permanently to Watson Lake.
Kearns was pregnant 16 days after their wedding.
These days, her life is a long way from where she was before the move. This is a woman who attended the University of King’s College with plans to become a dentist.
“I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t going to work for me as a career; I couldn’t bear the thought of putting my fingers in people’s mouths” Kearns says. “I tried philosophy next, getting a bachelor’s degree before following my true passion and going to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. That was more like it; that was what I really liked.”
She worked at newspapers doing layouts, she taught design, she was the creative director of marketing for a company before starting her own business. This was the life she left to move to a small town in the Yukon.
In 2005, Avery was born - 10 weeks early, causing Kelly to have to be medevaced to Edmonton where she spent the next nine weeks waiting until the baby could breathe on her own.
“She was so tiny she could wear Jason’s wedding band as a bracelet,” Kearns says.
Their second child, Andrew, was born in the summer of 2007, after 20 weeks of enforced bedrest for his mom. He, too, was early, though not so precipitate as his sister. He was just six weeks ahead of schedule.
His birth heralded a strenuous and traumatic year for the young family.
When he was just six weeks old, the family found they had to find another home; the house they’d been renting had been sold. While involved in the stress of finding another house and packing up the old one, combined with visiting parents, Jason was involved in a workplace accident, zapped by a tremendous amount of electricity.
“I was so sure he had to be dead that I was planning his funeral as I drove to Whitehorse,” Kearns says. “Not only was he OK, but the cramping of all the muscles in his body resulted in a stunning six-pack; he looked good.”
During Jason’s two-month recovery period, the family settled into the house they bought, and where they live today.
Meanwhile, Avery was not gaining weight.
“Oh, she was a preemie,” the local doctor said, but Kearns knew something was wrong.
“Avery ate enormous meals; she ate more that I did, but she couldn’t seem to gain. She stopped smiling. I started doing research on the internet, trying to put together her symptoms. I absolutely knew something was not right.”
Finally, in the tumultuous year of 2007, a doctor in Whitehorse had the child tested, discovering she had cystic fibrosis. The family was immediately sent to Vancouver where they spent two weeks learning about “our new life,” as Kearns describes the experience.
The good news about Avery was and still is that her lungs are fine, unusual for a CF child. Her gastronomic issues are having the biggest impact on the lives of her family.
“She cannot eat anything but fruit without taking pills first. Jason and I do the physiotherapy exercises with her every day,” says Kearns. “But probably the oddest thing about her condition is that we must encourage her to eat high-fat, high-salt foods - junk food, in other words. Our grocery cart has garnered some disapproving stares. If Avery is still hungry after a meal, we don’t ask her if she would like some more salad; we ask her if she wants more ice cream.”
Other than the expected stress and anxiety of living with a sick child, there is the fact that there is very little time for Kelly and Jason.
“Jason often works 12 hour days. We haven’t had a ‘date night’ in I don’t know how long,” Kearns says. “I have tentatively scheduled our anniversary as a time for us to go somewhere together.”
The Johnson Elementary School in Watson Lake has shown support for the family in their collecting thousands of tabs from canned soft drinks; the aluminum is recycled and used for things such as wheelchairs.
Avery’s prognosis is good, says Kearns. Last year was the first time there were more CF adults than children, and the median life expectancy is now 37 years.
“And that is with old research; those adults were brought this far along with the knowledge and treatment that was developed when they were kids.” Kearns says. “There is a tremendous amount of new information and new treatments. I really believe there will be a cure for cystic fibrosis in Avery’s lifetime.”
Next year both children will be eligible for playschool. The thought of the freedom that means for Kearns makes her dizzy.
“There is so much I want to do: I want to quilt, learn photography, maybe set up my own business again. I have been fairly isolated with the kids, with Avery’s care, that I haven’t really gotten to know many people here, or what the community has on offer.”
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer based in Watson Lake.