Ten years ago I unearthed a word on a wind-chilled mountaintop in Canada’s far north.
I discovered “yukonasia” after a full day of hiking and climbing a mountain peak named Perkins. Located just eleven miles from our Yukon Territory home, it was one of the half a dozen mountains in the neighborhood. Unlike euthanasia, the intentional blessed release of life, “yukonasia” is the terminating of a sedentary life by intentionally living large.
When we took the leap from Minnesota and bought our Yukon log home we had no idea as to how our time living there would forever change us. Never before have I been so wide-eyed and uttered “Wow!” so many times.
My wife Nancy and I had joined a couple other hikers for the all-day outing. We crept the truck slowly along an old tote road through the bush. After parking, we snugged our packs and adjusted our hiking poles. There is no trailhead nor even a trail so we bushwhacked as best we could through the willow and spruce, over boulder-strewn creeks and thickets of alder.
Finally, we began to climb the south shoulder of the mountain. We eased out of the boreal shadows onto a slope covered in buckbrush, dotted with small islands of subalpine fir interspersed with spreading mats of bearberry and lingonberry. The climb steepened and I was reminded of the words of a dear Yukon friend who had lived nearly 20 years in the bush, well away from the pleasures of electricity and plumbing. When faced with a hiking pitch he would often say “it’s steeper than a cow’s face.” Between deep breaths, Nancy said, “This country has a lot of upness.”
We took deliberate and slow steps. The tug of gravity slowed our ascent. We paused. Then again. And again. We stopped to drink water, bottled at the last creek crossing. I wiped the sweat from my brow, took in the view dropping behind me, and continued the climb. I could see the summit ahead of us. In gaining it we discovered it wasn’t the top. Repeatedly we encountered what are known as “false summits.” From our vantage point, looking upslope we are fooled into thinking that mountain hump is actually the top.
While a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, such navigating while climbing is too difficult. We zigzagged, stitching our way upward. At times we followed the skinny trails made by generations of Dall sheep.
When we reached patches of snow, we realized we were closing in on Perkins’ summit. At the top we celebrated by drinking in the distant views. All aches, tired muscles and shortness of breath were forgotten in a wave of sheer exhilaration. Perhaps the euphoria, the ecstatic giddiness I feel when I reach the top of a peak is because my brain is addled from the stresses of oxygen depletion. I prefer thinking the state of summit-bliss is something more divine than simply biology.
A herd of snow-white Dall sheep stood at attention several hundred meters away. The wind ruffled tiny party-colored flowers that speckled the top. It also stole our heat and we dug extra layers from our packs to staunch our shivering. We eagerly mined sandwiches and other refueling foods from our packs.
It was 2008 when we plumped our pickup truck with prioritized gear for life in the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. The truck baggage included four seasons worth of clothing, camping gear, some furniture, kitchen accoutrements, canoe paddles, life jackets, backpacks and Duluth packs, a plant press, fishing gear, a chain saw, tools, books, snowshoes, two road bikes, two mountain bikes, a guitar, a fiddle and a ukulele.
We had purchased the home in 2001 when the American dollar was very strong compared to the more colorful Canadian dollar. Located roughly 35 miles from the territorial capital city of Whitehorse, the home, built from logs harvested nearby, had charm and was awash with constant river music from the Watson River as the rapids tumbled by the house. Our Outpost was on the edge of electrical service so we had electricity, a phone line and slow internet service. But it made it possible for Nancy to continue her work as a Life Coach and I could work on writing projects.
Roughly 170 miles separated our Outpost from the Pacific Ocean to the west. That span is interrupted by just two public roads and one of them is gravel. There are no cities, towns or hamlets. But there is a majestic range of Coastal Mountains.
Traveling due east from the Outpost you might encounter four or five roads before you hit Hudson’s Bay some 1350 miles away. The Alaskan Highway is about 35 miles north and the First Nation community of Carcross is about 25 miles straight south. We could do a lot of roaming over a rough and wild landscape that is foreign to a ground cover of asphalt and concrete.
Here I learned that living large requires me to feel small. Feeling small means you pay attention and stay humble in the face of nature. Grizzly bear encounters can happen, but usually the bruin slips away before you are aware of them. However, there is always the possibility of a bear attack and that fact sharpens my awareness. Living large means a steady diet of adventure at all times of the year. For example, snowshoeing or skiing downriver from the Outpost often put us in the midst of a band of caribou that had come down to the protection of the forested valley for the winter.
Living large meant listening to the seasonal voices of the river. Summer provided the best river concerts. I recall an August morning of watching the tip of a slender black spruce arc far out over the river as in an elegant boreal ballet. Like a nervous toe testing a cold bath, the spruce tip bounced delicately in the moving water as if keeping time with the river melody. No longer did the spruce’s summit host white-winged crossbills and their sweet trilling songs. Now the branch of spruce needles quietly hissed notes out of the water to add to the symphonic allegro.
At suppertime, we cranked open the window to invite the musician to our table. We often ate in silence, mesmerized by the early evening river now lit in silver reflected sunlight. Later in the evening glow of the midsummer sun we fell asleep to the river lullaby heard through the bedroom window.
In the brief daylight of winter, I could lie down on the frozen river and listen closely for the gurgle in those areas where it flowed fastest. The winter cold and brevity of daylight inspired us to read more, create more art (including snowmen), make more music, host more potlucks and play more ping pong.
Living as an American alien in Canada’s far north, I learned that patriotism is far beyond the all-too-easy gesture of flying a flag. I learned to speak out passionately for the love of country. In this case, “country” is far beyond political jurisdictions and constitutions. I learned to speak for the residents that cannot speak— the caribou, wolves, Blanding’s turtles, scarlet tanagers, monarch butterflies and milkweed that are never invited in the discussion of their future. To fight for country is to fight for distant wild places as well as the scrappy, near wild places.
Three years have passed since we sold our beloved Outpost and re-plumped our truck with gear to bring back to our Basecamp in Minnesota. Elderly parents and now new grandchildren required more of our attention. As we left, we knew that we had banked our souls with stories and new northern friends, an investment that will remain strong all our lives.
I’ve come back with a greater appreciation for the word “nordicity” or the degree of northerness and adaptation. The rigors and wildness of the land demand that you pay close attention and never “bend the map” in making stupid decisions when out in the bush. I have come to better appreciate the efforts of my Swedish ancestors who chose to live large and leave their homeland for a wild place called Minnesota. With their fortitude in mind and having now experienced living amongst soulful log walls, I took on building my own log cabin.
I would not have built my cabin of pine logs had I not experienced the warmth, quiet and stacked stories of trees converted to walls in the Yukon. When I step into my small cabin I am confronted with Yukon artifacts. I can linger and touch the scattered scrawled stones reverently lifted from a Yukon river that runs, as a dear friend said, “the color of clear,” I can lift a massive shed caribou antler that I found far from any public road on a buckbrush covered slope near Becker Creek where unseen wolves howled and howled. A set of huge moose antlers hang on the wall. They coddle my memory of moose hunting with two friends, in three canoes, paddling a remote river. I am right back on the heavily frosted morning, a downed moose, the skinning, quartering and the heavy lifting required to load the boats.
There is no doubt that my addiction to wild places, small or large, has grown more keen. I am blessed by sleeps that are interrupted by intimate, lively rivers and bold mountains.
About the author: Tom Anderson
For 30 years Tom worked as a naturalist and Director of the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center near Marine on St. Croix. He has authored several books, most recently Foraging in North America, published by Adventure-KEEN Publishing. He has written many freelance articles for various periodicals as well as contributed as a guest essayist and poet on the Minnesota Public Radio Morning Show. After leaving the nature center and heading to the Yukon, he wrote and acted in a one-man three act show, Following the Footsteps of Linnaeus. He continues to write and adventure, basing out of his North Branch house, (built by his Great-great Grandparents in the 19th century) and his sweet little log cabin. Find more of his writings at his blog, Aligning with Nature. (Photos © Tom Anderson, all rights reserved.)