Literary Postcards from the North

It’s been so long since I last wrote an entry, I feel like I should re-introduce myself: I’m Lily. I’m a literary programmer and producer in Yukon.

Betcha didn’t see that one coming.

Dawson didn’t work out. To┬ápick up my spirits, I put on my literary hat and looked into bringing up people I knew from the Canadian literary scene. Yukoners invite presenters from outside the territory all the time. At the very least, I figured, I’d learn about the funding process. The first was my old instructor Cynthia Good, former publisher of Penguin, who did a two-day workshop about getting published. It sold out 3 weeks in advance. Then came a writers’ conference with Terry Fallis, Ivan Coyote and Douglas Gibson (Alice Munro’s editor). All workshops sold out 2 weeks in advance. Things kinda snowballed from there.

It’s been fun. Moreover it’s important: I’m able to celebrate the written word and provide a public forum for authors. Writers have been so devalued in the past 15 years, it’s important to recognize the artist and their work. Fortunately Yukon loves books. Authors are always welcomed here.

When I first moved here, I wondered how Yukon would affect me. Now I wonder how I will affect the Yukon. Perhaps that’s been the biggest change of all.

Here are a few folks I’ve helped introduce to the Yukon recently. They all loved it here and can’t wait to come back.

George Elliott Clarke, in a cabaret reading

Teva Harrison and Bev Brazier

Andrew Westoll and the back of my head.

This Is What Life Really Is About


Friends, connection, feeling like you belong — or rather, knowing that you do. This is what life is about.

Adventure is wonderful. It opens up new worlds and new ways of thinking. It makes you grow beyond your limits and recognize that you had self-inflicted limits to begin with. It’s thrilling to aim for higher heights and to reach them!

But at the end of the day, belonging and acceptance are the keys to a good life. Sometimes I have felt like I haven’t belonged here to the Yukon. But I have a community of friends who always accept me with open arms. I don’t belong to a physical space but to open-minded, kind people who nurture me. In a big city, I had friends certainly. Up here, though, people are much more invested in each other’s lives. They are critical to each other’s well-being.

To my friends — thank you. Mahsi cho.

What’s It Like to Live in a Town of 1,500?

It can be like this.

No matter where you go in Dawson, you see people — people you know, people you have connections to, people you think you might have a connection to but that’s only because you saw them in the hardware store 10 minutes earlier and then see them at the gym an hour later. In Toronto everywhere you go, you see only strangers.

I used to live in the 4th largest city in North America. In Dawson, there are no degrees of separation.

It’s been a mindbender living here. Of course everyone knows everyone else’s business. After living in Whitehorse, I got used to that (sorta). But my sense of personal space has changed. In order to get along in a small community, you have to give people a different sense of privacy and expect that in return. I find I talk about people behind their backs a lot less now. It’s not a matter of being less gossipy than before. But if you work with Joe, live down the street from Joe, run into Joe at the market and play on Joe’s basketball team, you need to get some space before your world becomes entirely Joe-centred.

In Toronto, you’re lucky if you get to see a good friend twice in a year. Getting a group of old friends together is even tougher. Talking about someone when they’re not there is a way of connecting and keeping that person in your life. But in Dawson, if I don’t see Joe, I don’t talk about him. He’s in my life plenty enough.

I can’t say whether or not I prefer big city to small town yet, even though I hated how oppressive the anonymity in Toronto had become. Before I left, I had a telling conversation with the owner of a funky clothing boutique on Yonge Street. He said that in the past 5 to 10 years, he’s noticed that people come into his store to have someone to talk to, rather than to buy something. I can’t imagine that happening up here.

The Great Freeze-Up


This is the Yukon River. It is now “freeze-up,” a period of 3 weeks or so when the river freezes. It’s a big deal here. The ferry service between the main part of town and West Dawson on the other side ends. Unless you own your own boat or a helicopter, you can’t get across. West Dawsonites — resourceful folk who live off-grid with no running water or electricity — hunker down in their cabins or else make arrangements and live in town during this time.

Freeze-up marks a change in mentality from what I can see. We are now officially entering winter, when daylight shuts down and the community revs up. This is the time when you join in and make the most of living in this isolated, remote Northern town. Community activities kick into high gear, people get ready for Christmas concerts, potlucks abound. Or else you can resort to the default of activity of drinking.

It’s such a change from Toronto, where the weather doesn’t define the culture. It is merely a bystander to the busyness of human activity.

It has’t been easy to adjust to living in such a small town. In Toronto, there are distractions upon distractions, not simply restaurants and movies but traffic, noise and new faces as you walk in the streets. Here, there is the night and the river. There is nothing to distract you from your own thoughts or a connection to your surroundings.

As the river began to freeze, a friend told me to go and listen. I went down and sure enough, I heard it — a light tinkling or crackling. The air was quiet enough so I could hear this subtle, unobtrusive sound. It was like discovering a new species. As I delve deeper into middle-age, it can seem like life can’t offer any more surprises, unless it’s a nasty one. But there I was by the river and thought: This is the sound a freezing river makes; this is the sound happiness makes.


“Anything Is Possible in Dawson. It’s Amazing Here.”


This is Reuben, a nice young man I met at a local cafe. He’s from Toronto. He’s also a writer, and we talked about all things writerly and Yukon. In the middle of a benign conversation, he suddenly blurted out, “Anything is possible in Dawson. If you want something, you can make it happen here.” Reuben launched into a discourse about the wonders of living in this remote town in the North. The words shot out of him like water out of a fountain.

I was so intrigued, I invited him over for an interview and some homemade banana bread. I wanted to find out more about what makes this place so special.

Reuben knew next to nothing about Dawson before he came. His girlfriend, Sam, planned to attend the arts college here. After much introspection and analysis (he is a writer, remember), he followed her. In the year he’s been here, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. He’s worked at the youth centre, joined the writers’ circle and made friends with First Nations Elders (“If I can make them laugh, I’m happy.”). He also hosts a weekly show at the local radio station. In Toronto, it would have been tough get a similar gig. Here, it fell into his lap.

Opportunities abound. “If you want something around here, you tell a few people and word gets around. People hear about it, and somehow it happens.” Those needs range from getting guitar lessons to building a house. For example, his friend Florian spent 4 years building a log cabin that would house his brainchild, the Alchemy Cafe, where we met. Alchemy is a funky hub that boasts creative food like pesto made with activated almonds. I had a slice of their chocolate-avocado cake, so rich, it lingered on my tastebuds. I couldn’t believe I was eating this kind of food north of 60.

Reuben says he loves the people in Dawson the most. “You can come here without money, a job or a place to stay and you can eat, sleep and hang out for free…Everyone will look out for you. If you’re in trouble, people will be right there to scoop you up.” Dawsonites will go out their way to help each other, like spending hours to pick up strangers stranded on the Dempster Highway.

This generosity of spirit is not something you find easily. It’s what makes Dawson unique. Reuben says, “People who’ve travelled across Canada and all over the world say this is the place to be.” It could very well be.

Just Another Bannock Monday


This is bannock, a First Nations food similar to a scone. It’s bits of dough deep-fried until slightly crispy to the touch. Serve bannock up with stew or on its own, slathered with jam. Damn, it’s tasty.

I always wanted to do a blog entry about Northern foods. Since I arrived, I’ve had moose goulash, bison pate, caribou smokies and grouse soup. People hunt their own game up here and freeze the meat for the winter. Berry-picking is popular in Yukon and common berries include lowbush cranberries and blueberries. A woman in my paddling group wanted to go soapberry-picking for an afternoon during salmon season. Apparently soapberries are valued in native culture because they are medicinal. She wanted to jar them, bring them to Alaska where they are scarce and trade them for fresh salmon. We didn’t do it but this Toronto gal so badly wanted to trade her own berries for salmon.

Locally grown produce is also common up here, surprisingly. Farmers markets like Fireweed Market in Whitehorse are bursting with huge baskets of fresh produce each week. I never thought I’d find locally grown rhubarb, tomatoes, Swiss chard and bok choy north of 60.

If you want to learn more about foods in the North, check out the cookbooks by Miche Genest, a local author and one very cool lady. She just launched her latest cookbook, The Boreal Feast, this summer, and it’s been gotten great press across Canada.

Here’s a recipe for bannock from Miche’s first book, The Boreal Gourmet:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 – 1.5 cups water
0.5 cup canola oil for frying

Mix dry ingredients together. Make a well in the centre and add one cup water, stirring dry ingredients in with a fork in a circular motion. If mixture looks dry and clumpy, add the remaining water a bit at a time. Heat a cast iron frying pan on medium heat, add oil and heat until the surface shimmers. Drop the bannock mixture a tablespoon at a time onto the hot oil, and fry until golden brown on the underside, 5 to 6 minutes, flip over and fry the other side. Serve with cranberry preserves and butter.

BTW This is what the tomatoes in Dawson are like, grown only 4 hours away from the Arctic Circle.

“You’ll Wake Up Covered in Tattoos” : Welcome to Dawson

Downtown Dawson

I arrived in Dawson today on a 6 a.m. flight. By 1 p.m., I was conscious again and ventured outside.

I immediately ran into Bonnie, a friend of a friend, who then met up with her friend, Mike, and within an hour I was invited to tour a mine just outside of town. They’re both longtime Dawsonsites. Mike is a miner. They said they’ll make this city girl go native. Mike offered to give me a ride on his motorcycle:

“We’ll lasso you a porcupine.”

“You’ll be surrounded by puffs of happy smoke.”

“You’ll wake up covered in tattoos.”

This being Dawson, our conversation took place over drinks (note the plural form). As we talked, a local piano player banged out “Crocodile Rock” in a corner of the bar. If you know how well I handle my liquor, you won’t be surprised that I was unconscious again by 6:30 p.m.

All in all, it was a good day. It was sunny and warm out. There was live music playing in the gazebo next to the river. I arrived in my new home. Stay tuned for updates.

Bonnie and Mike

Bonnie and Mike