Climbing into James Allen’s Chevy Silverado 4 x 4 is like clambering into the Yukon’s collective unconscious: You’re bound to sit on a dog, a Johnny Cash CD or a homemade knife with a moose-horn handle. James, a former chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, sits behind the wheel wearing stout boots and a fringed moosehide vest. (He calls it his “business vest” because of the beaded Yukon crest on the back.) We’re driving through the St. Elias range, where the plinking toy piano of the human scale is drowned out by the sky-shattering drumbeats of the highest coastal mountains on the planet. James and I speed through clouds as we skirt the edge of 22,000 square kilometres of boreal forest, calving glaciers, icefields and, deep within, Mount Logan, the godfather of Canadian mountains. The entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Kluane National Park and Reserve, and it’s part of the largest internationally protected area on earth.
Three hours northwest of Whitehorse, we pull up on a grassy bluff overhanging a bay just outside the park boundaries. We’ve arrived at Shakat Tun, which means “summer trail” in Southern Tutchone. James has been running outdoor skills and healing camps for indigenous youth and adults in the area for decades, but Shakat Tun is a new venture. Built on his family’s active trapline, it’s a camp where up to 12 non-indigenous guests at a time can learn about the traditional way of life. A cluster of log cabins fans out from a firepit, and a red yurt provides a communal indoor space for workshops and meals. With the extended Allen family as my hosts, I’ll be getting a crash course in trapping, beading and preparing hides – all part of the cultural knowledge that has allowed their people to survive on the land through eons of abbreviated summers and 60-below winters.
We sit in a circle on fold-up nylon chairs to get acquainted, three generations in flannel work shirts and hoodies around an unlit firepit. The most senior of the elders, James’ wiry older sister, Virginia, tells me a story about running away from residential school as a girl. With sunlight flashing on the turquoise water, the snowy mountains across the bay manage to look both inviting and forbidding, like an ice cream sundae with bears on top. We’re just finishing introductions when a fat black-and-white whisky jack – what Virginia calls a “camp robber” – lands on the outstretched hand of James’ tattooed 20-year-old granddaughter, Madison. “Want to try?” she asks me, and soon I’m offering up a palmful of cracker crumbs to the blue sky. From a nearby spruce, the bird glides, its wings wide and gleaming, and drops, clenching my finger in its witchy grip.
The day before, I stopped in at a cultural centre in Haines Junction, the seat of the Champagne and Aishihik government, about midway between Shakat Tun and Whitehorse, where I was invited to step on a scale and measure my weight against the animals of the region: I am the equivalent of 0.49 female grizzlies and 0.11 bull moose. I’m also 1.37 wolves, 13.73 golden eagles and 398 pikas, the tiniest member of the rabbit family. Now I follow James on foot while he rides his ATV – “my iron steed,” he calls it – down the trapline, a cool, mossy trail, musky with sweetly rotting spruce, that his parents cut through the bush in the 1920s. Licensed Yukoners can trap wolves, foxes, wolverines, lynx and coyotes for their pelts, which they can either use or sell. As we come across the different types of traps, I get a chance to see how these ingenious contraptions of wire, sinew, sticks and steel work. When their hides are being cleaned, James tells me, wolf is sticky and wolverine, greasy, the latter booby-trapped with scent glands that release stink bombs like a skunk’s. After taking what he needs, James positions the animal’s carcass in the woods to feed smaller creatures, and to show his respect for its life.
Likewise, when you clean a fish you’ve caught, you speak to it in your mind, thanking its spirit. Virginia tells me this later that evening while she prepares a dinner of salmon baked with onions, along with bacon-wrapped corn and bannock flavoured with garlic. As a pair of swans raises a ruckus flapping over the surface of the lake, Virginia lights the campfire. The talk starts small – gross things my dog has rolled in (rotten salmon, rotten whale) – and builds to alien encounters, secret government ops and sasquatch; no one here has seen him personally, but everyone knows someone who has. Madison and her younger sister, Azreil, who have been helping out their grandfather at the camp today, call out the names of legends like fans at a rock concert: “Tell Gottagook! Tell Goat People!” James obliges, and the fire crackles as we hear about a woman who marries a bear, a people-eating monster who turns into mosquitoes, and the bushmen who come to camps to steal children. Northern lights spill across the sky, billowing above us in green waves, the stars like fish swimming through water.
Over pancakes in the yurt the next morning, Madison strides in with a grouse she’s just caught. James’ wife, Barb, shows me the grouse’s speckled tailpiece that she’ll make into a hair ornament for the girls’ ceremonial dance regalia. Shakat Tun guests have a chance to try their hand at various crafts, like drum making or shaping knife handles, so I sit with Virginia, who decorates moccasins for clients as far away as Ontario and Denmark. She hands me a square of deerskin and gives me a choice of beads – I pick yellow and a rich purple – then helps me cut out a flower shape. I learn to pack the beads tightly onto one thread, then tamp them down with judicious stitches from another needle, using a worn moosehide thimble to protect my fingers as I struggle with the thick material. A truck pulls up packed with visiting cousins and dogs, and Virginia remarks, “I didn’t believe camp robber when he said we would have visitors.” The bird, she tells me as we work, can also predict the success of a hunt and the day of a person’s death. Our sewing is cleared away to make room for lunch, which is, as someone remarks approvingly, “superpaleo”: moose stew, cooked low and slow for three hours to dissolve the muscle, now as tender as rich dark beef, with a wild tang.
Then it’s outside to help Barb finish scraping a hanging moosehide. We unwind the cream-coloured heavy skin, twisted to drip-dry, and start scraping, the metal blades of our tthetchals slicing like ice skates on a pond. As I bend and straighten to scrape, I duck in and out of the mountains’ sombre regard. My hand brushes the neat hole where the moose was shot.
I’ve never felt so close to the aperture between life and death. The hide I’m scraping, as well as the pelts displayed inside the yurt – the softness left to the touch when the fox, wolverine, wolf or lynx has died – seem only a breath away from the living creatures that roam wild in the woods at my back. Food and clothing swim through the river, dash through the trees, their soft and scaly forms housing beings intent on their own unknowable errands. Our utter dependence on them binds us together as tightly as the sinew to the stick in one of James’ traps.
The day ends with a dinner of “Indian tacos” – golden frybread topped with ground bison, salsa and sour cream – as well as Madison’s grouse and a gopher that Virginia’s son brought. (“Mom makes great gopher-fried rice,” he tells me.) In the fading light, the girls sing and dance in brown deerskin dresses glimmering with beaded flowers: salmon songs, fox songs, owl songs, grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ songs. I remember the spirits of the fish slung in the smokehouse behind us and scan the trees for signs of life. “I wonder how long it’s been since these mountains heard these songs,” James says quietly. “I think we woke them up.”
1. Preparing Tea
Virginia uses spruce buds, picked in the spring when the tips are nutrient-packed, to make a healing tea for coughs and colds. Place buds in cheesecloth and steep in boiling water for five minutes.
2. Smoking Fish
The longer fish is smoked, the stronger the flavour imparted. James uses alder or poplar, which burn long with a sweet smoke.
3. Healing Wounds
For ugly cuts, James recommends applying a poultice of spruce sap and moosehide to suck out the pus.
4. Making the Northern Lights Dance
Clap or whistle, according to Inuit wisdom; in Southern Tutchone legend, however, clapping or whistling at the lights can bring the ancestors down (and they might take someone back up with them). Proceed at your own risk.