“What’s your favourite colour?” I would ask my parents. “Your favourite animal? Your favourite car?”
At first they would humour me, but there came a point when enough was enough and they’d tell me they didn’t have favourites.
This was incomprehensible to four-year-old me. There must be favourites, there must be best and most-liked.
As I’ve got older though, I’ve come to side with their reticence. Picking favourites is like a declaration of allegiance. I’ve chosen one thing and therefore not chosen others. Maybe red is only my favourite colour of clothing, but for the walls of my apartment, I want something different.
When I’m asked about more complex things, I’m amazed at how people can choose one thing when I see an array of options that can are significantly different. A favourite place I’ve been. The most influential person in my life. The one and only career I must do until I retire or die. How on earth can there only be one?
So to talk about who has been most formative on this Stories North trip is a little difficult and I hope it’s not hedging to acknowledge that I don’t think any one person qualifies. It’s like focusing in on a small part of an 18th-century Grotesque painting. You’re seeing something incredible, but you’re kind of missing the larger picture.
* * *
I’d bought a book on prostitutes of the Klondike gold rush, picked up pamphlets about Kluane Lake and Atlin, B.C., and bought some jam as gifts for friends back home. Now I was trying to fit that all in my bag with my camera, lenses, mics, phone chargers and other equipment.
My bag was open on the seat of a bench outside the Dawson City Visitor Information Centre as I drew on my Tetris skills to make it all fit. The sun was shining, which was a nice turn from the beautiful, but damp misty morning we’d had earlier in the day.
I smiled up at a woman who stood nearby with her big grey dog.
“Do you know if we need tickets for the tour starting soon?” she asked.
“Yeah, but they’re free,” I said, holding up my “Golden Ticket.”
She handed me the leash of her dog. “She seems nice,” she said to the dog. Then, to me, “This is Vincent. Can you hold him a minute while I go inside and get a ticket?’
I nodded and she went inside. I was left with Vincent, who seemed calm about the situation. I couldn’t even remember her face, except that it was kind.
I finished up packing my bag and sat with the dog while we waited for her return. No one looked at us or seemed to think it was strange that I had a dog. They probably thought he was my dog. Or that I knew her. Or I just blended into the hordes of tourists and no one paid any attention at all.
As soon as we started the tour the sunny day turned into a downpour. We huddled under a tent to listen to Parks Canada employees dressed up as famous Klondike figures tell stories of the gold rush.
We got umbrellas and I put up my raincoat hood and Vincent got very wet as he wasn’t allowed into the historical buildings. Between each building, I chatted with the owner as we walked down the boarded sidewalks with the pack of other tourists.
She was on a kayak trip, alone with her dog, stopping at historical places and camping out in the woods. She’d been to places only accessible by water and stayed in abandoned trappers’ cabins. I asked her if I could take her and Vincent’s photo later and she said yes.
At the end of the tour, I stopped to talk to the guide and lost her. She must have told me her name, but I can’t remember it for the life of me.
Brave, smart women have always impressed me. As someone who loves history and wanted to see the places she’d read about was bound to make me pause and think. It was like meeting someone you wish you were.
The Yukon wilderness is vast; it’s monumental. It feels too big to be surmounted by a woman in kayak with a dog. There are bears. She could drown. She could get lost and maybe no one would find her.
There are always reasons not to go, reasons not to do the things that scare you. But if they excite you and call to you, maybe it’s best to follow through. She certainly seemed no worse for wear. Even after being out on the river for weeks, she had friendliness for me and plenty of questions for our tour guides.
I’m nearly finished my third, and final (hopefully) degree. The future lays open with possibilities and it’s like looking up at a beautiful mountain of terror. But maybe there’s a way to navigate through and a friend to share the adventure with.