YUKONOMIST: Cabin fever in the age of COVID

Cabin fever was a major menace to Yukoners’ mental health back in the day. Just look in any old Sourdough memoir or North West Mounted Police log book.

But in modern times, pre-pandemic, we didn’t have to worry about cabin fever anymore. Even Born-and-Raised Yukoners (BNRs) only knew it from the Frantic Follies skit. Most people got out of the house to spend the day at work. If your cabin-mates’ quirky summer charms risked turning into February deal-breakers, you could take a break at one of our many community clubs and activities. With choices from archery to Zumba, you could be sure of finding one they didn’t like.

It was also easy to jump on Air North and fly away for a break from Forty Below, long nights and frayed block heater wires.

This winter is going to be different. We’re going to have to flip open the old Sourdough playbook for a few tips.

This could involve supporting the local economy by buying a new fat bike or a Ski-doo Renegade Sport with Rotax 500 Electronic Fuel Injection and throttle-by-wire technology. But most of these tips are inexpensive or even free. This is an important consideration, especially for those in the private sector facing substantial worries about where the economy is going.

One old-school tip is to stay active. Statistics on bandwidth as well as Yukon cannabis and alcohol sales suggest many are following alternative strategies, but getting regular exercise is crucial. The 80-year-old Norwegian-Yukoners cruising along the ski trails at Mount McIntyre are onto something.

If you aren’t already into some outdoor activities, this is the winter to convince yourself how fun they are. The list is long. Get some good skis and a membership at Mount McIntyre. Or get some cheap skis and enjoy the excellent volunteer-groomed trails at Chadburn Lake or Magnusson. Snowshoeing is a lot of fun. So is fat-biking. Mount Sima plans to open this winter, and the more adventurous can take the Yukon Avalanche Association course and get into backcountry skiing in the passes. Regular brisk walks count too, whether to enjoy the pale winter sun or to walk to work a few days a week if you can.

Changing Gear, the used sporting goods store, has lots of good deals for equipment. Your kids may complain about cross-country skiing no matter what brand of ski you buy them, so why not rummage around in the bargain bin for some cheap, old Nordsem skis stamped “Made in East Germany?”

Outdoor activities don’t have to be all about exercise. Why not get into star-gazing or bird-watching this winter? In addition to the raven watching your garbage can, there are 40 other species that spend the winter here.

Many of these activities can be done alone, or at a responsible social distance from friends.

Of course, you can’t spend the whole time outside trying to figure out which stars are Orion’s belt. You also need indoor activities, especially ones with friends and family inside your bubble.

Games are a good idea. Even pre-pandemic, they were making a comeback. There are cabin-tested classics such as crib and hearts, or the recent generation of crowd-pleasers including Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. And if you look on Boardgamegeek.com or Kickstarter, there is a wonderful variety of new games on every topic imaginable.

Electricians can treat the family to a game of Tesla versus Edison: War of Currents. Geopolitics enthusiasts can play 2019: The Arctic in which players seek to dominate oil and gas resources while simultaneously deploying lobbyists to block their opponents and cooperating with them to keep China out of the Arctic. Or perhaps it’s time to play Pandemic, the award-winning cooperative game where players work together to suppress disease.

Projects are also a good idea, especially because they leave you with something to be proud of at the end of the winter. It could be a quilt you make with friends or the kids. Or how about learning to knit? What friend wouldn’t be delighted to receive two slightly differently shaped mittens from you at Christmas? You could renovate part of the house, maybe taking advantage of the government climate subsidies for insulation or heating systems. Or maybe it’s time that you initiated your teenager into the wonders of the two-stroke engine by giving your outboard an extreme make-over.

And why not make a virtue of the fact that most of us are eating at home more often? Cook together as a household and have some fun. Try some new recipes. Get your teenagers to cook dinner once a week. You could join the Instant Pot cult, start dehydrating your own food for backcountry trips or jump into the growing winter barbecue movement. The Wall Street Journal reports that 62 percent of American grill owners use their barbecues in the winter. Surely we could top that.

For new Yukoners tired of BNRs talking endlessly about Hot Christies and F.H. Collins grad parties, you can now take your revenge by eating one. A BNR animal I mean. You can get Yukon born-and-raised beef and elk from the Drury’s Circle D Ranch or Yukon Born and Raised Meats online, as well as a host of other farms and butcher shops.

Oldtimers will tell you that maintaining a positive attitude is critical. This includes sharing that positive attitude with cabin-mates, even when you have to force yourself to do so. Negative emotions can multiply quickly inside a cabin.

One trick is to set goals. This is why projects like tearing apart the outboard motor are good. It needs to be done by spring! Even silly goals can be fun. How many of those 40 Yukon winter birds can you and each of your cabin-mates spot? Bonus points for getting all three kinds of chickadees and an American dipper? Why not try to ski every trail at Mount McIntyre this winter, or cook every animal in the grocery store?

Fortunately, unlike the miners back in 1898, you still have some other options. Many Yukon clubs and organizations have pandemic-plans approved by public health, and you can still participate responsibly. Thanks to our bubble with B.C., you can fly to Vancouver on Air North. They have a wide range of pandemic risk-reduction protocols, including empty seats, masks and rapid recirculation of cabin air.

We also enjoy a wide range of mental health programs. If you or a loved one have more serious mental health challenges than the light-hearted ideas above can deal with, you should definitely reach out for support. Back in 1898, there was stigma around doing so. But today, such stigmas are as out of date as scurvy and spending the whole winter without taking a bath. You can call the Yukon government’s Rapid Access Counselling line toll-free at 1-866-456-3838 or the Yukon Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association at 867-668-6429. You can also get information online at yukon.ca/en/mental-wellness

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.