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"Alone" Chapter Five
Yet another beautiful morning has fallen upon us here in Alberta. Bright sunshine, birds singing and it looks like it would be a great day for a hike or just to get out and enjoy the new freedom.
It is not hard to tell when there is a change in the weather here. Quigley is like a barometer. When it is nice she waits to run in the backyard. Cold and I need to help her outside. I guess we are no different. All she knows is there will be a treat when she comes back inside.
So here we are at chapter five in the book "Alone" already. It has been great to be able to share this with you and for me to be able to go back and relive some of those days. One thing you learn when you go back and remember is just how far you have come in life. Most importantly the people who played a role at the time.
Gather around and lets see where we end today. Help yourself to all the goodies. Glad that you have dropped in. Rest awhile and above all know that you are loved here at the Fireside.
“ Getting Ready ”
For the next several months the loneliness followed me off and on, but I kept working and looked for peace in the wilderness as often as I could. Then it was April when I had 10 days off for my annual trip to civilization—the city of Edmonton Alberta —that I called the Spring Thing. Every year at that time I went off to visit family and friends and do some shopping for new clothes. It was going to be good to get away and taste civilization again.
I was hard on clothes up there where I traveled over rough terrain to get to where I needed to be. As often as not that it was to the next hill or across the next creek. I could easily go through 10 pair of blue jeans in a year. I had a friends wife who was a quilter and she would often find the old ripped jeans would come in handy.
I was conservative in the way I dressed, needing nothing fancy. I set aside four pair of jeans and four shirts a year and called them my good clothes. I added the four dress pair from the year before to the six pair of jeans and shirts left over. It was both practical and cost effective. Dress was dress and everyday was everyday. My system was simple and it worked well.
As I packed to get ready for the trip I looked at Tannis, who was watching my performance unfold. She sensed something was up, since I was not packing for her too. There she sat with her ragged tennis ball in her mouth, a quick toss and she retrieved it and dropped it at my feet again. I picked it up and dropped it in her suitcase, again and she picked it back out, deciding it was time to play. It was a familiar game we played together. Eventually I would lie on the floor and play dead. Tannis sniffed all around me, pawing at me and whining, wondering if her dad was okay. I jumped up, clapped my hands and it started all over again. This was followed by a treat. The words “Truck ride” would perk her right up; as long as she sensed she was going somewhere, all was well in her world.
I had a friend I would leave her with and after a day or two she would likely forget I was even gone. Well at least until I returned to get her, when she would cover me with kisses to every exposed place on my body. She loved to go and visit Wendy and the kids and the other two dogs that lived there. She was treated like a queen in that household.
I carefully placed all the gifts I had accumulated for each person in my life over the last year. They were gifts with meaning and generally ones I had received from my friends among the Taggish people, hand carved jewelry and bead-work that was perfect in every way. Every piece told a story of life and the beauty found throughout the area: colorful beads and hand paintings on tanned leather stretched tight over a frame, bracelets made of porcupine quills and deer and moose hair tufts. It was very delicate work and completed by the Taggish with the love and joy of making something beautiful.
For Mom and Dad I had a beautifully made porcupine-quill work of art on a stretched moose hide, embedded with beads to tell the story of the native culture. The Taggish called it a storybook hanging. For my sisters and brother I had handcrafted leather bead necklaces and birch-bark jewelry boxes. For the nieces and nephew’s I had collected assorted articles of artwork, all handcrafted with love.
I had written the stories down and would pass them along as I gave each gift. There were Cree slippers for Dad. Mom would complain that he was stinking up the house with the smell of smoke tanned hides. This year she was getting a matching pair. Mino had laughed when I told her my mother sometimes complained. Mino said it was Cree logic “A couple that smells the same will grow older together and deeper in love.”
I thought she was serious until Johnny burst out laughing. Both he and Mino laughed and laughed; all I could do was fall into their laughter. It was good to be with such wonderful people. The joy they had for each other and life was infectious.
Just as I gave Taggish gifts to the city folk on my yearly trip, I made it a custom to bring Johnny and Mino something from the big city. This year they were going to be special gifts. Johnny was getting a brand new 30-30 lever-action Winchester rifle and several boxes of bullets. The old rifle he had been dragging around for years was likely to blow up in his face one of these days. The handle was all duct taped together, it was a sad looking thing, and he had spent many a night going through the outdoor catalog of guns that I had dropped off. From all the dog-eared pages and the drool it was easy to tell which rifle he wanted.
Mino, on the other hand, was hard to shop for. She was much like Johnny, very practical, yet so caring. She had one piece of jewelry, an ivory comb carved from a walrus tusk. From what I was able to learn it had belonged to her mother.
Maybe I would get her a new piece of jewellery and a few practical things for the house. Things she could call her own, or maybe the new set of pots and pans she so desperately needed. I would know what it was when I spotted it. Johnny was no help when I asked what Mino would like. He simply said, “She has it all in me.” And again that would bring on the Johnny laugh.
Mino had come around the corner and asked in Cree, “Al-tho-sta-nesti.” Meaning, “What is so funny.” Johnny had just laughed louder. Love is always in the air with these two.
It would be a problem trying to get Johnny's rifle and ammunition on the plane so the wholesaler would have to ship it by freight. I decided I might as well have everything shipped the same way. I could give the gifts at any time.
I could not help but wonder what I would face in the city to the south. My friends and family never understood my love for the Yukon. For me the city meant miles and miles of concrete and asphalt. Everywhere I went the noise and the people were all around me. I had left there to get away from those things. I loved to see my family but I had come to dislike the south.
Edmonton, Alberta was far too commercial for me: signs all over, newspapers and TV blaring about all the terrible things happening through the day. My family agreed, shaking their heads in disgust, yet failing to see they had chosen to stay right in the middle of it all.
I was especially sickened by the many senseless killings, where the criminal acted only to get his fix for the day, never once thinking of the lives he had just ruined. Human life did not seem to have much value anymore, when all the criminal could think of was his own need, as momentary as it was.
Where I lived in the Yukon, crimes like these were non-existent. Maybe it was the unwritten law of the north that people look after each other. There were stories about what happened to the serious criminals there; they simply disappeared. I thought about that for a moment and decided it was maybe a myth. If I believed such things it would taint my view of my home. Maybe such was the case back in the gold rush days but not in the age we lived in.
The following morning at 4:30 am; I had spent a restless night tossing and turning, far too much on my mind about my upcoming trip. Steam rose from my morning coffee as I stepped out onto my back deck, holding on to my few leftover pieces of bannock.
I found great comfort in the view. In February I had moved some 14 miles south of Whitehorse. It had been a good change. I now lived in a remote cabin with many of the amenities that make life bearable. The cabin was small, with three rooms, hardwood floors, a functional kitchen, spacious bedroom, living room and bathroom. It had wood heat throughout with an exceptional view in three directions of the beauty that abounded. Directly below was a small creek called Wolf Creek, which provided many a great meal with the pan-sized Brooke trout that took the fly I offered. There I had some peace and quiet.
My closest neighbours in the summer months were just a mile south on the Alaska Highway in a government run campground. During the winter months my neighbours were six miles away, so generally I found myself alone. I was looking directly west at was what was called the Golden Horn. It was a special mountain named after the color it took on in the morning at just that moment when the rising sun touched its peek. The color intensified as the sun climbed higher. No photograph could capture the glory that happened on those clear days when the sun first kissed its top. It was a sight that could only be appreciated by the naked eye and it held me spellbound the entire time.
A friend that I met through work had owned this property and had fallen on some hard times. He offered it to me at a reasonable price and I wasted little thought before purchasing it. It had become home very quickly. The house was sparsely furnished, with nothing that matched. Most of the furniture was collected as gifts from others as they were packing or leaving the north. I had a bright red chair and right beside it, another even brighter green one. There was a wooden table I had built the first winter inside the cabin from two trees I cut down on the property. The legs were hand carved; the entire table was finished with a natural oil to bring out the beauty.
A few minor repairs to the cabin still had to be done and it would be livable during the long cold winter months as well. I was pleased that the door had opened for me to buy this retreat.
My flight was to leave at 6:30 am, so I loaded things up, including Tannis, and, with a final check of the place, I drove down the driveway. Giving one last look back at my little haven, I mentally checked off the list of last minute things I needed to do before leaving for such a long period of time. Water lines had to be drained, hot water tank was drained, and potable antifreeze had been poured into anything that would freeze.
Tannis was excited to be on the road at last, little did she know her journey would be short and her stay at her new home would be fun. She so loved visiting Wendy.
Wendy and Tannis had a special relationship; her own two dogs stayed outside but not Tannis. She got only the finest of everything, and often spread out before the fireplace with ample rubs to take her mind off me. It would be good to see her when I came back. It was not until Tannis spotted her little suitcase on the floor did she realize what was up.
The flight south was known as the “Milk Run,” correctly named because it stopped in Watson Lake; Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, B.C.; and Grande Prairie before it finally landed in Edmonton. That made for a long day. Just about the time we reached cruising altitude we were on our way back down. No meals were served, just the usual complimentary drink, peanuts or cookies.
Afterward my ears would need a few days to catch up from the constant pressure changes. The plane was always packed full, leaving me cramped and sore by the time I landed at my final destination. There was only one stop where the passengers were allowed off in Fort. St. John, where there were no food services, only bathrooms and one phone that was in use for the entire 20-minute stopover. Most of the airlines had just started doing security checks, and it was always confusing for people to know what they could and could not carry. Tempers ran short as people were forced to basically unpack everything. Scanners had not yet arrived on the scene.
Little did I know I would soon be heading up the team that ran airport security in Whitehorse? Part of a service that my company offered, things would slowly evolve into a smooth flowing line of people a few years later. For now I had to be patient as I waited in line like everyone else.
I was anxious to be on my way, though apprehensive of facing the outside world in comparison to the secluded life I had been living for so long. It would be sometime before I would be able to return, spend time with Tannis and the world I had come to love and appreciate.
I left home early as a young man and traveled to many parts of northern Canada, first time to work in the hard-rock underground mine in Thompson, Manitoba. The north had far more to offer. Fishing was exceptional, the pay even better. A special breed of people lived there; northerners were family in so many ways. They looked after each other because if they did not they would be alone in all that vast expanse of nature.
From Manitoba I had drifted all over Northern Canada, working in various trades that generally paid well: underground mining, logging and later the oil rigs throughout the north and into the high Arctic. I used to spend money as fast as I made it, and that contributed to my need to seek out ever-higher paying jobs just to stay ahead of my spending habits.
There was always yet another opportunity just around the corner. I had never really been out of work. I always had enough money to pay the bills and buy the toys I wanted. The best cars were a priority for me back in those days. The faster the better, new every few years or when something fresh caught my eye.
Whenever I talked about the north it was like something came alive in me. I was full of passion for the land and its opportunities. Yet no one who heard me even considered moving that far away. Stuck was the impression I would always feel, stuck where they were, many stayed at their first jobs, just stuck while the north offered the adventure I sought. They considered the Yukon too far north, and held the stereotypical view that there was nothing but Eskimos and igloos and ice as far as you could see. Admittedly I thought the same until I experienced the place for myself.
The small town I had been raised in was different. Mainly the people who lived there had a different culture and different traditions. As a general rule people were sociable but they lived with class distinctions. School had been hard on me; I remembered the teachers who had shaped my education, as well as the ones who seemed to zero-in on me and me alone. I was a daydreamer thinking of adventure rather than paying attention in class. It would constantly get me into trouble. In time I grew out of it but I knew there still was another adventure out there to be lived. Maybe it had something to do with why I chose to drift around as much as I did.
I struggled to keep up in class, once I fell behind it became overwhelming. I was pegged as a failure early in my childhood and was teased unrelentingly at times. Back in those days a teacher could strap a student who misbehaved or was disruptive in class. I held first place in that department. I soon learned the strap only hurt for a little while and then it was back to life again.
Those were hard years. I often thought of the times when I was the last to be picked for a team. Things like that hurt deeply, leaving me feeling I would never be good enough to become much of anything. Maybe that was part of the reason I loved the north and the isolation. No matter who you were, you could become someone.
I found that I excelled in shop class, where I could allow my mind to create. My shop teacher encouraged me, and I won awards for my projects. I wished I had taken the time to go back and thank the man for taking an interest in me. In hindsight he became instrumental in shaping me later in life as I still have a love to create.
Everything else in school meant very little to me. I felt that all the hours I spent fussing over science, history and math were a waste of time. I would find myself gazing out the window and miss out on much of what the teacher was saying.
My real education came later in life through work, daily living and looking after what needed to be looked after. I was able to function quite well in the world with what I had. I excelled at most occupations and eventually carried a lot of responsibility in my jobs.
I chose at an early age to pursue studies in areas I found more compelling. I never really stopped learning; there was always another trade to practice or an interesting course I could take. I had a hunger to learn and the end result was that each and every course I took led me into something new and exciting.
Once away from home I forgot much of the background in faith that my parents had given me. I only attended church occasionally until my attendance became non-existent.
I was introduced to alcohol at an early age and soon learned that it changed the way I thought of myself. It became my confidence builder, a crutch that would later nearly take my life because I overindulged. In the old days it was called having “the consumption”: it was a nice name for an alcoholic.
I found myself on a slippery slope and continued to slide for many years, through many lost jobs and a building reputation of being a drunk. Drugs hard and soft had also become a part of my life. Far to often I would lose days on end. Often the only way I would find out where I had been was when the Visa bill arrived in the mail. Finally I recognized in myself what I had been called as a child: a failure.
It had been a long hard journey climbing out of that pit. It had tarnished my way of thinking in many ways. It was through God and family that I found my way out, and through sheer determination that I stayed sober. It was there in the depts of the wilderness I was able to rediscover the child and the man in me. It was here I found life again and with the people who had been placed in my life.
My mind was drifting so much I lost track of where I was. The guards at the airport were calling me forward. People were uneasy at the delay. Finally, after they made me take out everything I had carefully placed in my carry-on pack, I was allowed to board the plane. I smiled as I repacked everything and the smell of Mino’s gifts waffled throughout the crowd. Noses were turned up. Mino tanned her hides the old fashioned way, with smoke from a smudge fire. It hung in the air even as I was leaving the airport to board the plane.
Those who have sat around a fire for long periods of time understand the odor. The leather is placed directly over the fire to absorb the smoke as part of the curing process. Native tanned articles of clothing would carry the smell for months. I was glad I was able to leave a little culture in the air that morning.
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Dedicated to Tannis... a dear friend who stood by during the good times and the hard times.
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