Archive for June, 2008

North of Normal

Saturday, June 28th, 2008


Okay, okay. . . it has been over two months since we left Minnesota, bound for the Yukon Territory. Nor have I submitted a blog entry since I left my native land. No longer can I claim the lack of writing was because we were without power for a while (which is true), nor can I claim it was due to the lack of a modem, which was also true as it was somewhere between us and Yellowknife due to our being given an incorrect postal address.

And yes, it did take a week to amble the 2517 miles from our Base Camp in North Branch to our Outpost in the Yukon. One doesn’t hurry up the Alaska Highway, or at least you shouldn’t. Other than being stalled at the border crossing for 2.5 hours of fretful waiting, questioning and searching, we managed to tally about 80 species of birds on our migration into spring. We shared stares of wonderment with elk, deer, caribou, bison, coyotes, foxes and moose on the drive towards eternal summer.

I can also blame my lack of keyboard pecking to the long eighteen- hour sunlit days. We are far too busy outdoors to mess around with computers. After all, we are on, what the locals call “Yukon Time.” To properly engage in this time zone one should disregard schedules and simply hang loose. I don’t know if it’s the adopting of that attitude or the fact that I am vigorously moving my body outdoors, but my heart rate has slowed and my girth has melted a bit. I am down to the last belt hole before I have to take an awl and bore another.

Clearly the land up here is on “Yukon Time” with no regard to normal schedules. This was clearly pointed out to us on June 9th when we awoke to 4-6 inches of fresh falling snow. My cherry tomato plant has never recovered but the spinach, peas and lettuces are thriving. Like them, I am a cool weather being and am thriving in this land north of normal.


My right brain is too out of shape to come up with such a clever title as noted above. I stole it from a Yukon slogan intended to entice tourists to visit. It seems however that there is indeed something in the air or water that stirs your soul up here and demands you to engage in that “one, wild and precious life” that poet Mary Oliver so eloquently writes about in her poem “Summer Day.” I think a precious and wild life should rarely wallow in normalcy.

As a one-time-professional naturalist and now just an amateur one, I take pride in my powers of observation. Visual or sensual clues in deciphering the immediate, past or even future are scattered across our respective paths.

Among the first clues assuring me that I had indeed landed “north of normal” were a couple of ads in the classified section of the Yukon News newspaper.
Photos of Yukon clowns – in action. Please email . . . .

What a rarity, local clowns in action. Precious. Now I can’t help but wonder if contemporary clowns have evolved from Yukon clowns where red noses are perfectly normal.

The second ad read:
UFO Sightings.
If you have a UFO experience, call UFOBC&YT toll free 1-866-878-6511 and leave your name and number. We will get back to you.

The second ad really excited me because up here we are officially considered “aliens” and this might be a fellow alien trying to make contact with comrades! I have never been an alien before and I must confess that thus far I am basking in that title. I am an alien!

During the famous Klondike gold rush period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newcomers to the Yukon were referred to as “cheechakos.” It’s not an insulting title; it simply means that you are a tenderfoot or “newbie.”

The word “cheechako” is imported from a trade language that evolved when Chinook Indians from the Pacific Northwest and white traders interfaced. The label “cheechako” is retired when the newcomer passes one winter in the north. Then you could proudly wear the esteemed title of “sourdough.”

This is a land that demands big breathing. The landscape is littered with vistas and to get there you must climb. In climbing the body requires more oxygen and big breathing accompanies your hike to the summit. Once you get reach the apex the view alone usually inspires additional big breaths.

Last week we encountered 4 natives whose very sighting initiated big breathing. Over the course of five days we encountered four grizzly bears. Admittedly, thee of them were viewed from the protective hull of our truck.
The other one was watched through binoculars. It pawed, foraging for food, through a wrack line of seaweed about 250 yards from us. We were pleased that it never spotted us. You never know how terrifying it can be for a native to see a trio of aliens. (my wife Nancy, her sister Jane and myself).

Recently I was conflicted when I read an article in the Toronto Globe Mail newspaper about the negative impact of more and more aliens moving north. And to add to that accusation, there is a Yukon booklet intended to help people become aware of nasty aliens. I was relieved not to find an image of my face, in the full color booklet. Instead I was directed to images of plants that have set their roots in more northerly climes due to global climate change. Of the forty-four most persistent invasive plants, white sweetclover and perennial sow-thistle are among the worst invaders.

Apparently around the world there is an invasion of southerly species of flora and fauna into more northerly latitudes. No surprise when one considers that NASA climatologists are forecasting that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer in the next ten years or less.

Though my skin color is darkening into a shade of brown rather than alien- green, I am nonetheless an alien and I have to accept that. Unlike the more famous movie star alien, “E.T.” who desperately tried to return home, I choose to remain and let the yeast of winter activate my rise to “sourdough.”

And though I hope to shed my “cheechakoness,” I will remain an alien. . .an alien sourdough that strives to interface with this northerly landscape in a way that steps gently, while breathing big.

Submitted by Tom (June 28, 2008)