remembering the past

I am filled with questions. Answers are sure to follow. But maybe not. Five Champagne Aishihik First Nations spirit houses are placed along the…

I am filled with questions. Answers are sure to follow.

But maybe not.

Five Champagne Aishihik First Nations spirit houses are placed along the ridge on which I take my morning ritual of hot strong coffee and quiet reflection.

It is cold enough that I see my own breath and steam from the coffee briefly fogs my glasses. When they clear, I am immediately struck by the intense fall colours covering the entire valley in front of me.

I am looking out upon an expanse of valley bottom once submerged 100 metres, or more, beneath Lake Champagne.

These burial sites at one time looked out across a body of water that connected this valley with others strung out across this part of the Yukon.

Native culture here was tied directly to water, the land it nourished and the animals it supported.

Around 1850, the ice dam that created this lake gave way and this huge body of water drained in less than 24 hours.

It has been said the volume of water sucked out of here was 60 times that of the Amazon River.

With it went the entire village of Kaskawulsh, which hung precariously along the banks of the Alsek and Tatshenshini rivers.

I have written about this particular moment in time on several occasions. In my essay, Conjectures of a Northern Journeyman, I describe this as a temporary ending of a particular place and a particular people:

“Ended were the many journeys that had brought these people to their place. Gone were the whimsy of children and the knowledge of the old ones. What did not go was the timeless moving on, the crafting of new river channels, new places for children to make memory.”

This morning, as I look out across this valley and in quiet reflection, I again hear the children who once swam in the cold water of the lake.

I can almost see them running and playing wildly along the rugged shoreline.

I imagine the blackened-tan moose that wandered down to the water’s edge and lapped up cold water.

Canada geese would have surely passed overhead cutting a dark V through the October sky and loons may have called out here as they bobbed on waves made high by strong winds.

Life must have been simpler back then. The line running between nature and culture was certainly much shorter, more direct. Words and customs were less abstract and more authentic.

Indeed the future of these lake dwellers must have seemed more stable and secure than mine.

But in fact both the natural world and the culture it sustained back then were temporary, always changing. Both were locked in time and space but for a fleeting moment.

Scientists now believe that over the last 9,000 years this lake has formed and drained at least six times.

As ice periodically moves across and jams the Alsek River, the lake forms. As climate changes and the ice retreats this valley is purged of what it had supported and the process begins anew.

Sitting here this morning and sipping hot coffee, it is hard for me to imagine what life would have been like back then.

It is harder still to imagine the horror of waking to find the geography that had made you — the lake you were such a part of — so inexplicably altered.

Today these spirit houses look out on to the Alaska Highway. Much of the tranquility of the place is gone. Trucks and campers now snake their way through where water once was.

A power line cuts through where shoreline once touched the water’s edge. I see light reflecting from several tin roofs where once only cold water caught the eye.

But what has not changed is the fact we humans have the ability (and the need) to turn away from the civilizations we create and seek out older and simpler times.

We are drawn to high places, shorelines and deep valleys as a way of connecting to our imaginations, as a way of dreaming and drifting back through time.

And, as we dream, we realize the places we love and call home are more than physical communities or loved landscapes.

Home is both real and imagined. It is a fluid mix of business, family, recreation and imagination, all held together (whether we acknowledge it or not) by our need to experience wilderness.

Wilderness both enables and encourages us to think clearly about the world we live in. The mere fact we can sit overlooking a place relatively untouched gives us yet another perspective from which we can come to grips with the truth of our times.

We can dream in places like this, and we must dream. Without dreams we are finished as a culture.

As we move steadily on our journey out of wilderness and into the faster pace of contemporary culture, we need to be able to look out onto old places and hear the past.

Being in wilderness and finding a way to reconnect with the civilizations in our past is not an answer. But without this we will never be able to frame the right questions.

And by asking the right questions we just may be able to guarantee our children that they will always have new places to make memory.