Once a month we’re swapping articles, stories and interviews with Vancouver literary magazine PRISM international to share our writers with a wider audience.
To celebrate the release of Longbox, this month we’re going long-form: featuring PRISM writer Carleigh Baker’s stunning ‘Dinner With the Vittrekwas’.
What the hell are we doing here, standing around like a bunch of chumps while Calder gets his money shot? Little guy with a big camera, following a bull moose down the beach. He doesn’t need to get that close; surely the lens can zoom right in. Still, he looks pretty primal, stalking like a hunter for shots to fill in the spaces around the action. B-roll, he calls it. The moose does his moose thing, lopes down to the water and takes a drink.
Emma, the lead scientist on our team (and Calder’s girlfriend), stands next to me, clucking and sighing about his proximity to the moose. She’s right: it’s risky to get too close, especially in September. Rutting season. The moose could decide he likes the looks of Calder and take a run at him. But the bull is swimming away now, soft brown nose raised comically above the water. Another reminder that the noble and harrowing Yukon landscape isn’t particularly interested in us.
This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered what I’m doing here, but it’s too late to back out now. We are fourteen days into a 500-kilometre paddle through the Peel River Watershed. Six artists, two guides, two scientists, and a film crew. We began just off the Dempster Highway at the Ogilvie River and connected with the Peel at its confluence with the Blackstone River. In a few days we’ll cross the Arctic Circle and paddle eventually into the Northwest Territories, ending up in Fort McPherson, just upriver from the Mackenzie Delta on the Beaufort Sea. We’re making a documentary, or I guess Calder is making the documentary and we’re in it. As one of the artists, I’m supposed to be here to write, and maybe convince young urbanites like myself that they should pay attention to what’s happening in the North.
At the moment, what’s happening is that the Yukon government has decided to open the area to extensive oil and mining exploitation. The Peel Watershed spans nearly 68,000 square kilometres, and is one of the most striking mountain river ecosystems in North America. It’s home to the Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin, and Tetlit Gwich’in people. A legal battle is unfolding in the Supreme Court of Canada as we paddle, First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun et al. v The Government of Yukon. Most of us watched the trial in July, via live stream, or listened to the podcasts. Now we’re meeting this land we’re hoping to protect, via the kind of soft-sell artsy approach to environmentalism that’s having a lot more success with millennials than the END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH narrative.
No one could mistake us for the epic historical explorers who preceded us. The drone camera is a dead giveaway. The film equipment—and there’s a canoe full of it—runs on what precious solar power Calder can collect each day. We’ve had sun, but the camera crew misjudged the effects of the cold on their equipment—batteries drain in minutes, and the GPS on the drone camera doesn’t work well this far north. At night, Calder sleeps with camera batteries in his sleeping bag.
It’s not all pain. Sometimes it’s pain freckled with pleasure. Yesterday we left the tall, stratified stone walls of Aberdeen Canyon to meet the cold sun in a wide open sky. Scrubby spruce on the tree line, golden-leafed willow bushes and silver driftwood on the shore. Smoke billowed in the distance, which caused a bit of a stir as people speculated whether it was a forest fire or campers. Turns out it was neither. Smoking Hill, our guide explained, is a coal seam that was hit by lightning ages ago and ignited; it’s been holding at a slow burn ever since. There are mining claims all around us, but Smoking Hill is a surreal reminder of the minerals that make this place dangerously valuable. Last night the fire was my inspiration, lighting a Jack-o-lantern grin into the side of the hill. Under a sepia sky, I wrote poetry by the glow of my headlamp with only a hint of pretension. Such moments need to be stolen, subtracted from valuable sleep time, but they’re worth it.
We’re looking for ourselves, right? That’s what these transformative, Canadian journey stories are all about. Actually, most of the time, we’re just looking at Calder to tell us where to stand, or the guides to tell us what to do. Hold this paddle, set up this tent, don’t look directly at the camera. “This is going to look amazing,” Calder says sometimes, and we have no choice but to believe him. We’re friends, and when he asked me to come on the trip my trust in him made it easy. He’s had this impermeable shell around him since, but I assume that just makes sense for the director. Protect the vision. If this was a controlled film set, he’d have his own trailer. Instead, he and Emma get their own space, while the rest of us bunk three to a tent, aligned like mackerel.
The artists are the stars of the show, or so we’re told. Katie and Daniel are from Calgary; she paints and sketches, and he’s known for some ambitious installation art. On one of our paddle days, he tells me about weeks spent fasting while painting the inside of a cave in Turkey. He did a similar project in a plexiglass box in downtown Calgary, gradually painting himself off from the world over a period of five days. Callan takes photographs, and Tony is a musician. They’re both from Toronto. Tony brought a banjo and a violin on the trip, and occasionally there’s enough time for him to play for us. His hands are usually so cold and cracked from the daily paddle—thirty to sixty kilometres a day—he can’t play for long. The violin is particularly strange and spooky in the tundra, bringing the ravens out from the trees to investigate.
As one of the artists, I’m supposed to be here to write, and maybe convince young urbanites like myself that they should pay attention to what’s happening in the North.
We all did a moving-water certification course in Whitehorse just days before the trip. Apart from that, Aurora, a glass artist and welder, has never paddled or camped at all. Ever. She’s from Toronto as well, and a direct relative of Charles Darwin. She jokes that that little connection might get her through the trip. I’m more experienced than Aurora, and consider myself “outdoorsy,” but I have never done anything this outdoorsy. Not even close. All the camping I’ve done before now looks positively wimpy.
My bloodline is Cree-Métis and Icelandic, which, between the Voyageurs and the Vikings, has led to joking about how well-suited I must be to the trip. But if Calder pointed his camera at me right now, I’d have nothing useful to say. Just whining. I’m sore. I’m cold. I imagine myself spending twenty days bitching into Calder’s camera about how hard everything is. Opening the tent to a frost shower every morning for the first ten days. The daily endurance of a light, spitty rain, with nowhere to dry off, ever. Bundled up with our noses in journals and sketchbooks, trying to find the right synonym or brush stroke or camera angle to express cold. Chilly, cool, freezing, icy, snowy, wintry, frosty, frigid, gelid, bitter, biting, raw, bone-chilling, nippy. It’s too cold to work. Since we’re packed three to a tent, there’s no chance to work in bed, even though the northern lights make much of the night as bright as dawn. My sleeping bag is rated for minus forty, but it’s still not particularly warm.
I shiver myself to sleep most nights, thinking about where I fit in this landscape. A landscape I’m pretty pissed off at, honestly. One night, after sipping the drop of Scotch my body allows before a headache sets in, I proclaim that the best way to save the Peel would be to fly moneyed urbanites overhead and serve them drinks, because the river vistas are amazing. Actually being here is just misery.
Just past the Arctic Circle, we find the bloody remnants of a moose at the river’s edge. Bloated lungs and intestine, and a perfectly good pelt left behind for some reason. It’s pretty fresh—birds of prey circle overhead. This is our first indicator of hunters on the river, of anyone besides us, actually. They could be local, or from some fly-in backcountry outfit. The whole scene makes me queasy. The others are all bent over, turning the pelt bloody side up and taking photos, poking the organs with a stick. “Don’t puncture it,” somebody says. “The smell will be deadly.”
I’m annoyed by my squeamishness. I’m annoyed that I can’t handle being cold and wet. What on earth convinced me that a diluted drop of Cree blood might serve me in the north? I’m an urbanite Métis wanna-be, raised white, and I have no place stomping through the north like a fool. I head down the beach a little. We’re not supposed to get too far from the group, for safety reasons, but it’s all treeless shoreline here. No sand, just polished rocks so round and colourful they look like decorative landscaping fill. I circle the group like a goldfish while they take a million photographs of the moose carcass. Then we all have to pose for more photos, as part of our crowdfunding obligations.
Calder’s idea was to write personalized notes to our funders on a whiteboard and then take a photo (right at the Arctic Circle, folks!). But the dry erase markers, like the camera batteries, the GPS on the drone, and our tender extremities, don’t work well in the cold. After a few tense minutes with everybody talking at once, it’s decided that we’ll take just one photo and Photoshop everyone’s names in later. This gets us to snack time faster. Finally, a silver lining!
I imagine myself spending twenty days bitching into Calder’s camera about how hard everything is.
Snack time means a handful of cheese and one “fun-sized” chocolate bar each. “Fun-sized” means inadequate. Then it’s back on the river. Today is particularly challenging–the rain has been constant since we woke and pulled ourselves out of tents we’d set up in thick dead grass that smelled like wet dog. The river here is thick and brown and sluggish. Paddling is the only time I get half warm, and the spray skirt that covers the canoe and cinches around my waist keeps heat in, so it’s hard to leave. When lunchtime comes, we don’t pull off the river to picnic, just tie the boats together and pass around some food. Pasta salad with a little bit of precious tuna broken into it, and some beans. Earlier in the trip there was lemon juice and dill, but overzealous chefs used more than they should. Now those preparing the meals are left with ground ginger and chili powder to get creative with.
It’s not just the condiments that are getting low. Nobody wants to say it, but we’re running out of food. I’ve heard the guides whispering to each other. Meal portions have been insufficient for days, and people are edgy. Most small talk is about what we’ll eat when we get home. Our days on the river are now about marking off kilometres; we need to make forty to sixty kilometres a day to make up for a slow start. At the end of each day, everybody is famished and can’t help looming like vultures over whoever’s preparing the food.
It’s not just the quantity but also the quality of the food that’s so depressing. Chocolate granola, while tasty, is a sugar crash waiting to happen. Grated cheese is a sad substitute for quality proteins. The meat is canned—canned tuna, canned ham, canned chicken—and there is precious little of it. Callan has a nut allergy so severe that nuts are banned. Seeds are okay. Bird food. I feel like a bird fairly often, a bird eating cheese. I remember Calder and one of the guides going out to buy groceries, telling us everything was taken care of. I don’t want to admit it, but real concern is starting to grow inside me. If I had the internet, I’d Google “northern adventure starvation,” or “arrogant colonial explorers.” We’re not starving. But I’m so hungry I can’t help musing about what starving would be like.
The North has seen many ill-prepared travellers run out of provisions and lose their lives, and we’re only a few days’ paddle from the memorial site of one such group, known as The Lost Patrol. One of our guides has probably told the story to wide-eyed travellers a thousand times, but he agrees to do it again on camera for Calder when we arrive. They’ll set him up with a lavalier mic and fuss over light and angles for a few minutes, the kind of Hollywood crap we’re used to now.
On December 21, 1910, Francis Joseph Fitzgerald left Fort McPherson with three RCMP constables to lead the annual patrol to Dawson City. For some reason, he carried a lighter-than-usual supply of provisions on the 750-kilometre trek. There’s speculation that he’d hoped to make record-breaking time. After wasting nine days trying to find the route across the Richardson Mountains in heavy snow, the patrol was forced to head back towards Fort McPherson.
Records show the temperature dropped as low as minus sixty-one degrees that winter. When the food ran out, they began eating their dogs. Fitzgerald’s diary was found at the site, his last entry dated the fifth of February. He reported that there were five dogs left, and the men were too weak to travel more than a short distance each day. Their bodies were found only a few kilometres from Fort McPherson. Three men died from exposure and starvation; one committed suicide.
The search party had been led by William Dempster, the namesake of the Dempster Highway, where we began our trip. Dempster had done the patrol successfully many times, but in March 1911 he must have set out with a heavy heart and some trepidation. The bodies of all four men were moved to Fort McPherson, where they were buried.
The annual patrols continued until 1921; measures were taken to ensure that the tragedy wasn’t repeated. Cabins and regular caches were established along the trail in case of food shortages, and subsequent patrols always included an aboriginal guide. Our guide is not aboriginal, but he’s very knowledgeable. Besides me, no one claims to have any aboriginal blood, and several members of the team haven’t had much contact with First Nations people at all. Part of our plan involved hanging out with some of the folks who call the Peel home, but since we’re so cold and short on food and behind schedule, it was decided we’d better make a beeline for Fort McPherson.
Fortunately, the Vittrekwas happened to meet us on the way.
When we hear a boat approaching, our first outside contact in sixteen days, I have a little panic attack. I get this feeling that I might not be able to think of anything to say to somebody new, or that all the wrong words might come out. It probably makes more sense to be nervous about who the hell might be in the boat (maybe the same creep who wasted that moose hide?) and what they want from us. But, for whatever reason—exhaustion or the de-sensitizing effect of being surrounded by unseen predators like wolves or grizzlies—danger never crosses my mind.
“Shhhhh,” somebody says, and we all listen, faces screwed up in concentration. We’ve been rafting for a bit, the boats loosely tied together so we float as one. It doesn’t seem real, but suddenly there they are, bundled-up figures in a long, skinny flat-bottom river boat, less curious about us than we are about them. Grandmother and grandfather, it turns out, Ernest and Alice. Alice’s sister Margaret, and Kirk, an adopted son. They have guns. Looking for moose, they tell us. With unnaturally loud voices, we trip over each other to tell them about the carcass, wondering aloud why the pelt would have been left behind. Ernest and Alice say little about it, so the topic is dropped.
“Late in the season for canoe trips,” Ernest says finally.
I cast a glance at Calder. So. Even the locals think it’s late for us to be here. The women are wearing serious Arctic parkas, no messing around. Kirk is a typical teenager, underdressed, jacket unzipped. Ernest has a baseball hat and a down jacket; he’s grizzled and missing teeth. He mumbles a little when he talks, so Alice repeats what he says. She is tiny, tough-looking, probably a few years younger than he is. She’s looking us over with a grandmother’s concern. Her brow creases when somebody makes a joke about not having enough to eat.
“Why don’t you have enough to eat?” Her voice is sharp.
Meek backpedaling: we kind of have enough to eat, we’re not that cold, we’ll be okay.
“Well, you better get to our camp,” Ernest says. “It’s just down the way.” When no one responds, Alice tells us they’ve got coffee and sugar. Since we ran out of both days ago, it’s a mind-blowing thought. “There’s a fire, and an outhouse,” Alice adds. No ice-cold hole in the ground? Also mind-blowing.
They leave us to hunt farther up river. At the promise of hot drinks and toilets, we practically fly down river to their camp. A collection of old mattresses and lumber at beach level leaves no doubt that we’ve arrived. I use the term “beach” loosely; it’s more like shin-deep mud. We pull our boats up as far as possible and I bound up the stairs to Ernest and Alice’s camp. The proud outhouse stands not far from a slack-roofed shack, and a blue tarp we saw from the water covers the outdoor common area. There’s a hearth, and a table covered with coffee fixings. Beyond is the main cabin, simple and weathered, with a small deck out front. Piles of split wood are everywhere, and the whole property looks over the Peel. It’s humble, but we might as well be on a five-star cruise ship overlooking the Mayan Riviera.
Despite having been invited to make ourselves at home, Calder hesitates. There’s some question whether we’ll stay, even whether the invitation was really an invitation. Much to my frustration, I’m told to wait on the fire, wait on the coffee. “But, we’ve been invited,” I bleat. Not accepting their invitation feels to me rude at best and, at worst, something like paternalism—the politest of discriminatory behaviours. Maybe my fellow travellers have decided the Vittrekwas don’t have enough to share? Watching the others look around the camp with eyebrows raised, this is what I suspect. But then who the hell am I, a Métis wannabe, to speak up for the Vittrekwas?
She’s looking us over with a grandmother’s concern. Her brow creases when somebody makes a joke about not having enough to eat.
When our hosts return, we’re still standing on the beach with a big question mark over our heads. I take the lead for once, running up to the boat and accepting an armful of Ernest’s gear to take up to camp. One by one, uncertainly, my campmates follow.
“Why didn’t you start the fire?” Alice says. Nobody answers.
Swept up in the current of our hosts, things happen. The fire gets made, coffee gets brewed in giant pots. Cups are distributed, and I fill mine first. Alice leads us into the sway-roofed shack, where a wood stove throws a heat none of us has experienced in weeks. She says we can sleep there for the night. The idea is intoxicating. Food is produced at such a rate that we can barely keep up. Cookies and biscuits; bannock with butter and jam; dried fish and candies and, of course, bottomless coffee. After dark, wieners are brought out to roast, mustard and ketchup passed around. For our part, we make fudge, which is nibbled on delicately by Margaret and Alice. Kirk has not shown himself since they pulled up in the boat. “He’s shy,” Alice says simply.
With the firelight dancing between us, Alice, having correctly identified me as the oldest female in the group, pulls me aside.
“Why didn’t you have enough food?” she asks sternly.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” I start, raising my voice comically to implicate those who were in charge of food, but I can see she is genuinely concerned. It’s not the time for jokes.
“Why didn’t you call ahead, ask us for help?” By “us,” she means everyone at Fort McPherson, a town full of experts in Northern travel.
“I don’t know, Alice. I was told there would be enough food, and I trusted the people in charge.”
“What do any of you know about being up here?” she says, with compassion cutting her ire.
I could tell her that our guide is a local, and that Calder’s done plenty of tripping—the same script I’d been reading to myself for days now.
“Nothing,” I answer finally. “We were getting into trouble. We should have asked for help.”
It feels good saying this. Fault is irrelevant at this point, as is anger. More exhausting emotion, and we need all the strength we can get. She nods, lower lip protruding like a vindicated child. And then, without another word, she resumes her grandmother role.
That night, I can tell by the energy in the cabin that few of us actually sleep. The coffee didn’t help. But there’s also the feeling of wanting to enjoy every moment of warmth and comfort. In the morning, most people confirm my suspicion. They didn’t sleep and couldn’t care less. The sensation of being nurtured, after feeling so deprived, is gigantic, overwhelming. In less than twenty-four hours, our mood has changed from grim acceptance to celebration and optimism. I have nothing sardonic to say about it.
For breakfast, it’s oatmeal and boiled eggs and dried fish. Then the Vittrekwas load us up with coffee and more than enough supplies to keep us fed until the end of the trip. We take our time packing and cleaning the shack, savouring every moment inside. Calder does an interview with Ernest, Alice, and Margaret. Callan takes some photos. One of the scientists sharpens Ernest’s axes, then chops and stacks wood for an hour. Nobody wants to leave. When we finally do, we’re happy, full, and—though nobody mentions it—foolishly guilty of continuing in the tradition of unprepared white explorers in the North.
Last night, Ernest told us that when a successful moose hunt comes home to Fort McPherson, it’s radioed in and any surplus is shared. That’s how community works. That’s how Northern river culture works. And it makes room for outsiders—even stupid, well-intentioned tourists, self-anointed protectors of the Peel, become beneficiaries of this kindness.
“Just make sure you tell people about the Peel,” Alice says in my ear when I hug her goodbye.
Back on the mighty, muddy Peel, the cold continues, the rain continues. Now, instead of talking about what we’re going to eat when we get off the river for good, we talk about Ernest and Alice. When we reach the Lost Patrol memorial, a weathered wood pyramid with a plaque on it, the Vittrekwas pass us in their boat, headed home for the season. We wave. Three days away, in Fort McPherson, they’ll welcome us again.
Carleigh Baker is a proud Métis writer and winner of the 2012 subTerrain Lush Triumphant award for fiction. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Ricepaper and Joyland
Photo by Roger Burkhard