Archive for June, 2010

Fetching Garden Seed

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Gardening at the Outpost is a challenge. While there is ample sunshine in the summer the cold river that skirts our yard is a corridor for cool breezes that wash over our garden.

During our first summer here, two years ago, a Whitehorse gardener friend was visiting. He strolled over to the garden and was mightily impressed with our bonsai garden. I recall my potatoes were about four inches tall and it was the end of July. With the river breezes and being situated low in the valley we have chilly conditions for the garden. It didn’t help that we received five inches of snow on June 9th of that summer.

According to a friend, Val, who operates three thirty-foot long greenhouses in raising bedding plants for two garden centers in Whitehorse, “All soil does in the Yukon is provide texture, you have to add the nourishment.” So the first step is soil building by seriously composting.

Farming livestock is mostly done on a personal scale up here. It is not unusual for folks to have a few chickens, rabbits and perhaps a horse or two. Occasionally one finds someone raising a pig or two and a handful of sheep or goats. Manure is hard to come by and it is valued. There are some small horse operations for offering tourists trail rides or providing horses for backcountry big game hunting purposes. One learns to scrounge where you can.

Several of our neighbors, including Val, use a brew called “manure tea,” to enhance their crops. All you do is scoop a few cups of manure into a burlap sack, tie the end shut and drop this potent tea bag into a barrel of water. The enhanced fertile water is then doled out to the plants as needed providing both needed moisture and nutrients.

On the way to the Outpost, less than six hours from here, we paused along the Alaska Highway, to gather bison droppings. During the winter and early spring, the bison concentrate along the highway corridor where humans have inadvertently created corridors of pastureland for the big ruminants. After the snow melts the ditches are specked with large brown piles that resemble over baked cinnamon buns. With gloves on, I moved quickly from pile to pile stashing them in my big garbage bag. Most of the mounds of fertilizer were already dried by the spring sun and weighed almost nothing. My hope was that this bag of plop and plunder, when added to our Yukon compost pile, would boost the garden’s production.

Then there is the issue of good seed stock. We learned from a neighbor who grows and sells vegetables for the Whitehorse Farmer’s Market every Thursday that Denali seed grows well here, particularly the spinach. It is a northern variety of seed developed in Alaska. She said that it is available at the hardware in Skagway Alaska, ninety miles from here.

Well who would know we would have the opportunity to marry pleasure a task into one episode. A friend called and asked if we wanted to partake in the “Yukoner’s Special” and take the train ride from Fraser, British Columbia, not far over the Yukon boundary, to Skagway. The cost; a mere $27 each.

The sun shone bright that sunny day as we drove an hour south on the South Klondike Highway to Fraser. We passed four black bears that at this time of the year find the roadside gardens of greenery particularly inviting and sumptuous.

The White Pass Railroad still functions in the summer months, primarily as a tourist attraction. Thousands ride the rails through one of the most spectacular sections of rail line in the world. The passenger cars are replicas of the old ones and you feel as if you have stepped back into time. Each car is named after a regional lake. Amazingly, we were ushered by a historically correct conductor to the car titled Lake Annie on its side. Our Yukon Outpost is located just off the Annie Lake Road and the lake itself is ten miles west of us.

This railroad was built in two years around the turn of the last century as a means to accommodate the floods of gold stampeders and commerce that followed the gold rush.
Over 35,000 men worked year around on the project. At the summit it is not unusual for over twenty feet of snow to accumulate. Hundreds of thousands of tons of dynamite were used to sculpt a mountain pass up and over the Coastal Mountain range.
In that time it seemed almost miraculous that only 35 laborers died during the railroad construction.

Given that we would be descending from the summit up near Fraser to Skagway, we would be moving quite slowly, hopefully, through the numerous bends. We passed through two tunnels cut through the mountain and passed over several trestle bridges.
Those who wanted to brave the outside cool air, could move to the platforms between the linked cars and shoot photographs.

As we descended from the alpine landscape into the temperature, lush forests around Skagway the air temperature warmed and the passing landscape became almost jungle like with ferns and more flowers. Spring was more advanced at the lower elevations.

We pulled into Skagway and were informed that we would have fifteen minutes to stretch and relax before our return trip back up the pass. We strategized and got directions to the hardware. It would be a four-block scurry. And scurry we did. We hustled down the wooden sidewalks, counting the blocks into the old hardware and found quickly found the rack of Denali Seed. No spinach. We grabbed packets of Swiss chard, mustard greens, various lettuces, kale and peas. Since our plans are to return to Minnesota in the fall, we were only interested in cool weather crops that we could enjoy this summer.

Nervously, I looked at my watch as I waited for the man in front of me at the cashier buy his kitchen cookware. With the seed packets jammed into our pockets, hurried back to the train and arrived with a few minutes to spare.

The return trip to the car was slower as we climbed and climbed. No bears were spotted on the way home. The next day we slowly made our way along scratched furrows in the garden tucking seeds into the warm soil that was flecked with crumpled bits of bison gold. I was visualizing fresh salads and crisp pea pods.