young visitor discovers beauty and sorrow in the north

Dear Uma: You know how I feel about children; back in the days when it was possible, my response to the question of whether or not I myself wanted…

Dear Uma:

You know how I feel about children; back in the days when it was possible, my response to the question of whether or not I myself wanted children was, “Yes, but not all the time.”

I have enjoyed my friends’ kids, though not all of them, and not always.

Your Jason’s visit reminded me that the best possible thing about children is that sometimes they grow up to be wonderful adults.

If there was some guarantee a child would grow up to be the courteous, sensitive and humorous young man he has become, there would not be the looming threat of this country’s rapidly decreasing birth rate.

I’ll admit I had some hesitations when he called to say he was coming; I haven’t spent any real time with him since he was a child, and young people haven’t been my choice of company, even when I was one. But he was the perfect guest and we were sorry to see him leave. You and Andrew must be proud of him.

He certainly expanded my knowledge of the community, especially in the area of activities on offer.

We went to the ski hill the day after he arrived. Jason and Pete skied till the lifts were stopped, coming into the very pleasant chalet every now and then to tell me how wonderful it all was.

The food in the concession there is my favourite kind; I was quite comfortable spending the hours watching the skiers and eating.

The next day they visited the recreational complex, a vast red-and-green building the design of which looks as though it came from someone who’d never been any place featuring deep snow.

They came home all aglow from playing squash, followed by a sauna. According to them, the place is clean, up-to-date and staffed by friendly, charming people.

I went with them to the Northern Lights Centre. Like the recreational building and the library (same architect?), high ceilings and a lot of wasted interior space. Again, however, clean, and staffed by welcoming and helpful people.

While not sharing my passion for fast food, Jason was OK with our dining experience at my local favourite, Archie’s, where the comestibles are more than edible and, best of all, consistent in quality.

On the fourth and last day of Jason’s visit our final act of winter tourism was snowshoeing on Watson Lake. I have no issues with frozen bodies of water, I am glad to report, because snowshoeing is a sort of a sport and Pete and I can do it together.

Ed, a friend of Pete’s from the mine, offered the use of some snowmobiles, but we were unanimous in wanting to experience the hush of the woods, and speculate on the meaning of the many and varied tracks in the snow.

We built a fire and had a picnic. The guys snowshoed some more while I sat by the fire, imagining what it must have been like in the real old days when the Kaska lived on the land.

When I thought about this fire being the sole source of heat until I could get to my cabin or dugout (gotta do some research on this! I have no idea what they lived in) and build another fire, and how the walk to that shelter would be on snowshoes through this landscape of snow and ice, I got a deep feeling of pure terror.

How did people ever survive in this? They were utterly dependant on the land to provide food and fuel enough to see them through a very, very long and very, very cold winter. Consider the knowledge and skills they had to develop!

I’ve thought of this, idly, looking out the window of our warm truck as we drive to and fro on the excellently designed and maintained Alaska Highway, but sitting in the bush in the winter with a small fire, it really hit me what a tremendous achievement it was to have lived here then.

Even in the middle of summer when I look around in the bush, my untrained eyes don’t see much that could be classified as food, let alone medicine and basic tools.

When Jason and Pete got back to the fire, I shared this marveling with them and they, too, marveled and wondered.

We took Jason to one of the two dry-goods stores in town, Hougen’s, to look for a souvenir T-shirt. This place is a veritable Aladdin’s cave; there is every imaginable thing from garish souvenir items to equally garish home furnishings.

It sells fishing and hunting accessories, work clothes, and lots of what I am assuming to be the latest fashions, judging by the sort of leftovers-look that seems to be in.

This is an analogy of these troubled and confusing times, I imagine, this garbing oneself in as broad an assortment of colour, fabric and shape as one can find — covering all the bases.

Jason’s search for the perfect T was aided by a woman whose name, we soon learned, is Edie. Any town or city could use more Edies, those rare and valuable people who show a genuine interest in others; she made our shopping experience so pleasant that I may go back to Hougen’s and buy something, just to bask in her warmth.

We finished off with a drive to Upper Liard to have a beer in the pub at the lodge. This place has existed for years and years, enjoying a reputation for being an unchanged example of the good old days.

While appreciating the authenticity, we were none of us able to linger. The décor is heavily in favour of various bits and pieces of dead animals, and the clientele were very drunken and vocal.

I have often found a drunken and vocal group appealing, especially when the atmosphere is one of tremendous good cheer, and involves singing. This group was far from glad, and the vocals consisted mostly of foul language and even some loud, horribly moist weeping.

The lone staff member appeared happy to see us, not surprisingly, and brought us our drinks with a smile and a greeting.

He could tell we were feeling affected by the other patrons and took it upon himself to apologize for their behaviour, telling us with a shrug they were daily customers.

There were not enough of us to overcome the miasma of misery and futile rage that permeated the room.

We found ourselves drinking our beer quickly, and when we left, it was with a feeling of having escaped something dreadful and pervasive. It took a couple of martinis at home to recapture a sense of ease.

I felt as though I had stumbled upon the seamy underbelly of this place — the flip side that exists in every community.

I have sensed it every now and then, as one must after living in a place for awhile. It’s no surprise to learn alcohol abuse is happening in Watson Lake; I’d read reams of material on small towns, and particularly small northern towns, before coming here, and I have seen it in other parts of the world.

But it is possible to live in Watson Lake and rarely see much evidence of substance abuse, or the ugliness that goes with it, especially if one is not in the habit of frequenting the bars.

We have, occasionally, seen people in front of the grocery store, or on the streets, who are clearly under the influence.

Anyway, back to your lovely Jason’s lovely visit. We drove him back up to Whitehorse; the drive was beautiful, as always.

We saw caribou and a fox, with Jason being able to photograph both, much to his excitement. When Pete picked him up, they drove straight to Watson Lake at night; it was great Jason got to have his return trip in daylight.

We spent the night at the Westmark and had an excellent dining experience at a place on a street off Main Street — gotta get the name of it. Jason got his plane the next morning, Pete and I grocery shopped and drove home, feeling quite bereft.

Love from Jason-less


Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.