Sometimes in life, you find yourself in a place you never thought you would end up.
The Yukon was that place for me.
After putting high school behind me, and finally graduating from college I had a ravenous hunger for freedom. I wasn’t ready for a job and a home, a wife and kids. I had no interest in settling down. So I set my boots to the trail and spent the next decade traveling extensively and exclusively throughout North America. One of the most memorable places I found myself was a small village in Canada’s Yukon Territory. A place like no other, Ross River.
In the heart of the Yukon where the Pelly River and Ross River converge, sits the native village of Ross River. Home to approximately 300 residents, the village is the hub of the Kaska Dena First Nation. Its history is rooted in fur trapping and mining exploration. Most of the early trappers and miners were still alive when I visited this out-of-the-way village. One of those was Arthur John.
I was introduced to Arthur one afternoon when some local residents encouraged me to visit his family’s fishing camp situated along the river. Timed with the salmon run, the makeshift camp was erected, fishing nets deployed, and bush life commenced as it had for past generations. The camp was in itself a lesson in subsistence living. There was an area for processing all the fish that were caught from the river; there were caribou and moose hides stretched tightly on poles, ready to be scraped in preparation for tanning, and there was plenty of seating around the campfire where stories were told and where Arthur’s wife, Alice, methodically sewed hides that they had tanned themselves.
Arthur and Alice loved to teach. They found joy in passing on their knowledge to everyone they met. Within minutes of meeting Arthur, he was teaching me his technique of scraping fat and flesh off of the hides with a handmade bone scraper. Little did I know that this was my introduction into the Kaska Dena way of life. I was the student. Arthur and Alice John were my teachers.
Despite being elders in their 90’s, Arthur and his wife Alice were a vibrant pair, full of life and beholders of an endless amount of traditional skills that were inherently a part of them and their life in the bush. Arthur was a lifelong prospector, hunter and trapper, dog sledder and a one-time guide for the army. Alice brain-tanned hides, was a very talented sewer, and cared for the couple’s home, as well as their many children. They were masters of the old ways, they knew the land and how to live on it, and they were both adamant that their skills needed to be passed on so they were not forgotten. I took up residence with them in an effort to help with daily chores. In turn, I was gifted with a wealth of knowledge and skills.
While living with the John’s. not only did I learn to properly scrap caribou and moose hides, but I also learned the process of brain tanning on a lynx pelt. A process of soaking the hide in a bucket of brain/water mixture, drying it, then tediously working the skin by hand to a suitable softness. Repeating the process over and over until Alice was pleased with the end result. For all my hard work, she graciously sewed me a fur hat out of that lynx hide.
During the Season of Moose, after a successful hunt commenced, Arthur taught me the most efficient way to take the meat from a moose, Alice watching and waiting patiently for her turn to thinly slice the sections of meat that were destined for their drying rack. After the most was made of the moose, the head was roasted. Family and friends gathered to feast on the finest meat I’ve ever tasted.
When winter set in and temperatures dipped far below zero, to keep my hands from freezing, I was taught to sew on a pair of mittens made from moose and caribou hides and trimmed with beaver fur. To insulate my feet from the chilly cabin floor, she sewed me a pair of hide slippers, custom made to fit. For Christmas I was gifted with a fine set of mukluks. She was a giving person.
I was the beneficiary of so much, from traditional skills to just simply being immersed in the day to day life of these people, it’s truly difficult to fit all of it into a short writing. Tracking the elusive lynx, keeping the woodstove warm, listening to tales of the past over cups of tea, watching the dance of the northern lights, the unforgettable smell of smoked hides, hearing Arthur and Alice converse in their Dena language, and much, much more, made my time in Ross River a unique opportunity that I am forever grateful to have in my life.
Arthur and Alice John are no longer with us, after celebrating over 80 years of marriage together they both passed. Sharing their endless amount of knowledge with others was their gift in this life. Everyone who passed over the threshold of their home, or visited their hunting and fishing camps were recipients of that tremendous gift. I was blessed to be one of them.