An Australian on the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency 2017

I felt a little uneasy in the last few days leading up to the Residency, I was in New Brunswick Canada with friends, relaxing and adjusting to Canada time. Canada time is not like the Africa time I knew from my voyages in Ghana and Mali, but at Skiff Lake where I was staying it was relaxing, so very cosy and comfortable. I was in my chill zone. I paddled each day to increase my strength to add to the kayak training I had done back home.  Though despite my preparation I felt unprepared for camping in the wilds of Canada. I’d purchased a new sleeping bag, sleeping sheet, sleeping mat, cool weather and warm weather gear that would pack down so not to take up too much space in my dry sacks. But I wasn’t carrying a back pack, I wasn’t as young as my comrades are, I live with Rheumatoid Arthritis, I’m an Aussie, and I was heading into new country with new young creative sorts from Canada, what could possibly happen?

The residency started in Whitehorse, I was met at the airport by coordinator Genevieve who was in town to assist our two guides Sabine and Anna with final preparations. There were three other members of the Residency on the same flight, we had the opportunity to meet and chat prior to boarding in Vancouver.  The other artists we met at our camp, they welcomed us with dinner at Robert Services Campground, our home until our launch into Lake Laberge on the 3rd August.

Residents, Guides & Coordinator at Robert Service Campground © Geneviève Paré

We spent the best part of a week preparing for our journey on the Yukon River, our guides building the team that we’d be sharing the next 24 days with. I was expecting a group of equal numbers of men and women, but what I found was a group of two men and ten women. It felt very comfortable, wild, fun and nurturing.

During this first week we met local artists and visited their studios including Joyce Majiski, Marten Berkman and an evening with Joseph Tisiga and friends. Joseph had been a participant in the residency, as were our guides in 2015.  Joyce had been unwell, but graciously, and with such strength, went into detail about her work as an artist, and her participation on other residencies. I was particularly interested to learn about her experience on artist residencies and her documentation of these. I recall telling our guide Anna at the end of our meeting with Joyce, how much I’d enjoyed the visit.  Marten Berkman introduced a sleepy crowd to his 3D film from his travel to Baffin Island. I was mesmerised, reinforcing feelings I have about future travels there. The night prior we were at Joseph’s for pot luck with several Yukon artists sharing their work during the evening.

Joy Majiski's studio visit 2
Joy Majiski’s studio visit © Kim Sirrs

We went hiking near Fish Lake, soaked in the local hot springs and shopped as a team for our food supplies. We then spent the good part of a day packing the food into barrels destined to share our canoes. The food was packed in such order that smoothed the way for our meal preparation along the river. Sabine with her passion for good food had put together a fabulous menu for our adventure.  I heard a rumour that the food budget was overspent on our trip, but it was definitely worth it. We were spoilt for the quality of food and choice. I did consider writing a little ditty towards the end about refried beans and Chilli, but it will remain just a thought. Just a side note, I don’t recommend day old eggs when there is no fridge to keep them cool. Four of the artists on the residency including myself shared their birthdays over the 24 days.  Anna and Sabine catered for three birthday cakes baked over a fire in the camp oven. Decorated with icing, sprinkles and candles, we celebrated each birthday and devoured each cake with such eagerness that they were gone in no time. The last cake we devoured, Anna timed its consumption, it took a short 1 minute and 37 seconds, twelve people with twelve teaspoons.

Birthday cake at camp © Katrina Newman

We visited the Cultural Centre and heard stories of femicide and the suffering of First Nations children and their families as the children were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools. I was not the only member of our group moved to tears through the emotional and heart wrenching story of our Cultural Centre guide. These stories were repeated further down the river as we gathered around elders from Pelly at Fort Selkirk to hear their experience of the residential schools, all with a beautiful warm smile on their face despite the suffering that was endured.

I was not alone in my eagerness to get on the Yukon River that flowed quickly past our campground. I was also looking forward to getting out of town, exploring the wilds of Canada and getting away from social media and email. The only Internet I had was through local cafes and the tourist information centre, but with access there also comes an expectation that you’ll stay in contact with family and friends keen to hear about your journey in northern Canada. I felt a relief to switch off when it finally came time to depart.

On the third of August (our day of departure) there was an electricity outage in town. The water pump wouldn’t work, so there were no showers or flushing toilets functioning in the campground, the bathrooms were closed. We were just about to head off on our two week paddle, and it was highly likely that I wouldn’t be able to shower for two weeks! Our transport arrived, we loaded our gear and off it went to collect our food barrels. The showers reopened. I had little time so I ran at the chance, a quick 3 to 6 minute shower and I was back in the carpark waiting for the transport once more. What a relief to be heading into the wilds of Canada feeling clean (for at least a day or two anyway).

We were transported by barge with our supplies and canoes to our first night’s camp on Lake Laberge. A campground protected from the wind that came up the next day and made for an easy first day paddle.  At Lower Laberge we stopped to explore the abandoned village and its ruins, and to practice our canoe skills of peeling out of an eddie, and ferrying in, skills that were very useful on our journey, and the frequent stops down the river.

First nights camp on Lake Laberge © Katrina Newman
View from first nights camp on Lake Laberge © Katrina Newman
Dreaming on Lake Laberge © Katrina Newman
A briefing with our guides Anna and Sabine on Lake Laberge © Katrina Newman

The waters of the Yukon were like a crystal, with refractions of blues, turquoise, gold, and white. As the light faded at our first night’s campground, on a small island in the middle of the river, dark greens, blues, blacks and silver. Everyday on our river journey the colours of the river changed and reflected the light, and the changing landscapes that we enjoyed.

The crystal clear turquoise Yukon River © Katrina Newman
Golden hues on the Yukon River © Katrina Newman
Yukon River blues and greens © Katrina Newman

On several of the days on the river we were lucky to take time out to relax and drift in the canoes. Rafting up the six canoes our guides prepared lunch as we lay back across the barrels and bags relaxing as the waters carried us along the river. I wrote in my journal only two days into the journey “For lunch we rafted up the 6 canoes and floated together, we ate Naan bread, salami, cheese, dill cucumbers and other yummy leftovers from dinner the night before. It was sublime.” Occasionally we might need to steer or paddle to avoid land and other obstacles.

Rafting up © Katrina Newman
Anna & Sabine preparing lunch on the water © Katrina Newman

Throughout our journey we were to camp at and visit old settlers cottages, supply stations, communities and woodlots decomposing into the landscape. Three days into our voyage we docked at Hootalinqua or Shipyard Island where the old Paddle Steamer Evelyn was brought up into dry dock for repairs many years ago. However poor Evelyn was never repaired.

Evelyn © Katrina Newman
Kitchen duties at Alf Brown’s cabin Merrice Creek © Katrina Newman
Alf Brown’s cabin at Merrice Creek © Katrina Newman

Further down the river on day 5, as we approached Five Finger Rapids, we must have practiced peeling and ferrying at least four or five times. Our guides taking every precaution to prepare us for the quick turn out behind the rapid for our lunch stop atop a pinnacle adjacent to the rapids. My anxiety was raised with all this preparation, but after all the fuss there really wasn’t anything to worry about at all. In fact I was a little disappointed that the rapids were not as wild as my imagination.

Our canoes from the lunch stop atop a pinnacle at Five Finger Rapids © Katrina Newman

Northern Canada is often described as the land of the midnight sun. It’s quite remarkable that at midnight there is still sufficient light in the sky to navigate around a campsite without a torch, so much so I probably could have left my torch at home.  The slow descent of the sun in the evening made for remarkable light and the time to collect our thoughts, explore, relax, draw, paint, braid, weave, sing, dance, photograph, walk, swim in the cold water of the river and enjoy our surroundings.

Kim painting Anna © Katrina Newman
Sand bank camping on the Yukon River © Katrina Newman
After midnight © Katrina Newman

Most mornings as we set off on the river we paused for a period of silence, usually an hour, however often this was disrupted to satisfy our hunger or to break into laughter. It was remarkable how much we laughed on this residency, I can’t remember laughing so much and so hard ever.  It was such a joy to fall back into the canoe in fits of laughter on our journey.  Our days were also filled with sweet song and occasional banjo music from Toni or Dillon.

Toni © Katrina Newman
Laughing © Lisa Takkinen

We worked well as a team, opting in to share with the preparation of breakfast, lunch, dinner or with water filtering, with the setting up of our camp and tents, the building of a fire to cook our food on, it was the flow of life in parallel with the flow of the river. At bedtime I made up bedtime stories for whoever was lucky to be sharing a tent with me that night. Stories taken from our experiences that day or from history and site information that I’d read in the book ‘Yukon River’ by Mike Rourke which I took along on our journey.

Dinner crew with Devon & Kim © Katrina Newman

The longest distance we paddled in one day was 78kms. The following day still tired from the previous day’s paddle we paddled against a headwind that I’d hoped with each turn in the river would abate. But the wind powered into us no matter if we were heading north or south, as the river twisted and carved its way through the valley. It was a long and hard day, but on arriving at camp no one talked about their fatigue, no one complained at all, we got on with our team effort to make for a comfortable evening. I remember as we slowed to what seemed like a crawl on the river approaching our limit of endurance, the guides had a little ‘tete de tete’ away from the group as they sometimes did. Coming back to us they asked if we could all close our eyes, hold up our hands and fingers to indicate from one to five how tired we were.  We didn’t discuss the result, a decision was made to not continue to our 98 km planned stop, and find a suitable camp close by for the night. Those chants of beer and chips didn’t quite get us to Carmacks that night, but we arrived there happy for lunch the following day.

Approaching Carmacks with Sabine & Lisa © Katrina Newman

On the eighth evening we arrived at Fort Selkirk to find ourselves amidst a celebration of First Nations people from the region. We were invited to join in. We watched as several artists were invited to dance with the children, we listened to elders sharing their wisdom and lived experiences in this place, and then we received the very generous gift of a meal and further gifts of food throughout the evening. The following day we were guided through the old town and buildings before taking time to explore or work on individual projects. We enjoyed our only two night stay on the river journey.

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First Nations dancing Fort Selkirk © Katrina Newman
Fort Selkirk cabins © Katrina Newman
Fort Selkirk cabin © Katrina Newman

After leaving Fort Selkirk we anticipated an easy day on the river of 45 or 50 kilometres, but we ended up doing a whole lot more. Relaxing in the water, reclined in our boats we missed the first camp described as ‘great’ by Mike Rourke.  I was drifting in and out of sleep while our guides read to us from Clan of the Bear.  On arrival at our next anticipated landing site our guides found a poster dated August 2017 stating that there was an aggressive bear in the area, so onwards we went. The following island camp had an older sign bearing (no pun intended) the same message and included a fresh set of bear footprints as an extra warning. Onwards we went. It was only a further 8kms down stream to Isaac Creek where we felt relieved to find a campsite that displayed no signs of bears at all. It was here though that I felt the presence of a wolf. As we departed this campsite the following day all my senses told me I was being watched. Intuitively I felt that it was a wolf hiding silently in the trees waiting to search our site for food. But unfortunately for any animal exploring our campsite there would be nothing left behind, as we left only our footprints.

The setting sun at Isaac Creek © Katrina Newman

As the weather was warm and sunny for most of the voyage, many artists took the opportunity along the river to dunk into the cool Yukon water from the canoes. Our guides Sabine and Anna who had participated on this very residency in 2015 were loving the warm weather, they explained that on their residency, it had rained and was exceedingly cold except for only three days as they travelled the Yukon River.  As magical as it was, we manifested warm sunny weather for us all to enjoy, and so we did.  When I was ready for a change in the weather we were just a few days outside Dawson City. We enjoyed some rain and significantly cooler temperatures that allowed us to climb into the cool climate clothes we’d all taken along on the journey, it was good to finally put them to some use. It was also wonderful to see how the landscape changed with the cloud and misty covered mountains. With the dim light I fell in love with the Yukon all over again.

Cool weather on the Yukon River © Katrina Newman
Keeping warm © Lisa Takkinen

It was at this particular point there was also a significant change in the colour of the river, at the confluence of the White River and the Yukon River. The White River delivered a flow of silt into the Yukon, that increased the cloudiness of the water significantly.  A little advice to those paddling this river… remember to filter your water prior to arriving at White River, or let your tarpaulins spontaneously help you on a rainy night to provide fresh drinking water the following day. Then again you can always stop to top up your water supplies from side streams flowing into the river.

The Yukon River and its banks were surprisingly silent for an Australian. In Australia when I wake it is usually to the chorus of many different birds in the garden welcoming the new day. In the Yukon it was quiet, it was so quiet that you could hear the sounds of the silt as it hit the sides of our canoes.  As we progressed on our journey the sound of those minute particles of silt crashing against our canoes was musical and became increasingly loud.

As a kayaker I found the stability of a canoe one of its great charms and comforts as a vessel for exploration.  Rafted together one afternoon as we drifted along the river, we saw a young black bear walking along the riverbank. With the canoes drifting silently, the bear didn’t notice us until it opted to swim towards the island in the middle of the river.  We were very close to the riverbank and the bear as it plunged into the water. Rapidly we separated our canoes to avoid a potential collision with this young endearing looking creature.  It spotted us in our flurry of activity and made it’s way back to the bank to sit calmly in the water to watch us paddle by.

It wasn’t the first or the last bear that we saw, or the last animal that we witnessed on the river. We saw moose and their offspring, deer, sheep, frogs, squirrels, beavers, a porcupine and a silver fox. Several of these animals featured in my evening stories. We also followed the same paths of large bears and wolves as we witnessed their fresh tracks in the mud next to the river as we stopped for lunch or when setting up camp.  I was hoping to see more of the fauna of the region however the days were very warm. With temperatures often at 30 degrees, we agreed that the animals would most certainly be enjoying the coolness of the forests, rather than basking in the heat of the day. The first bear that we saw was climbing an embankment as we were approaching Minto. It turned and sat down to watch us as we drifted by. It then headed in the direction of a small tent that we’d passed a few hundred metres up the river, no doubt in search of food.

The river landscape changed significantly everyday. We paddled through wide and narrow valleys, burnt out forests, forests of spruce, aspen and birch trees, and alongside rocky bluffs, cliffs and peaks that reminded me of gothic cathedrals. We passed sheep resting on the rock face protected from their predators. Occasionally I would see a small kangaroo or wallaby on the bank of the river, but as we approached these imaginary animals they would become what they really were, usually a piece of large driftwood fashioned into an animal shape. I believe these visions of kangaroos on the riverbank were because I felt at home in the Yukon. Maybe too, I was reminded of the canoeing I did as a child on my summer holidays, paddling and rowing on the Loddon River from Eddington to Laanecoorie Reservoir.

Birch trees © Katrina Newman
Fast flowing Yukon River landscape © Katrina Newman
Paddling through burnt out forests on a hot and sunny day © Lisa Takkinen
Rocky escarpment © Katrina Newman
Paddling the Yukon with Kim © Lisa Takkinen

The highlights for me on this residency were the opportunity to connect with the land and its people, to be off grid, to take time out for introspection, to be away from all the distractions that consume our modern days and time. To absorb the ever changing colours, light and movement, and to share with the other artists. It will be a time I look back on as one of the best in my life.

Reflecting in the late evening on the Yukon River © Lisa Takkinen

Not surprisingly since completing the residency all I have ever wanted to do is to go back, but I realise that even if and when I do, the experience will be different. I’d probably be travelling alone, not with a group of young and vibrant artists full of energy that help to transform and make such adventures all the more worthwhile.

We’ve adjourned the group for a time, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have an opportunity to have a joint exhibition in the Yukon about our experiences on the river, to share those happy moments of laughter and song.

The Canadian Wilderness Artists Residency was an experience like no other, surrounded by creative people, the voyage on the Yukon River was inspiring delight. I felt I had found my place. I came to feel at home among the eleven Canadian artists as we explored the Yukon Territory in a canoe. At the beginning I felt apprehensive but I think it was the not knowing, the feelings of being unsure and anxious that had become a way of life. After the residency though I felt liberated again, that anything is possible, feeling fabulous and fulfilled in the creative adventure that I had on the Yukon River.

The entire experience has had a significant impact on my life, and spurred my imagination. Not a day goes by when I’m not reflecting on the journey. I’ve always held the belief that no artist can work in a vacuum. It’s the constant stimulation throughout life that provides for exciting new changes and development in an artists work, including my own.  I am beginning to develop new work based on the Canadian landscapes, flora and colours of the Yukon. In February I’ll be doing a short course in enamelling. I look forward to incorporating colour into my cuttlefish cast jewellery and exploring new techniques.

Give me the river, give me a canoe to paddle in, give me the sound of the silt crashing on to the side of the boat, give me the tranquillity, and please give me the laughter again of my new Canadian friends.

Thank you to the wonderful Canadian artist residents Dillon Anthony, Rachael Chaisson, Fadwa Bouziane, Devon Berquist, Andrew Godsalve, Kim Sirrs, Toni Hiatt, Lisa Takkinen and Christine Birch, and our formidable guides Sabine Burns and Anna Williams for without them it would not have been so fabulous.  Thanks also to Calder Cheverie and Geneviève Paré for giving me the opportunity of joining this remarkable journey and residency.

Canadian Wilderness Artists residents and guides 2017 © Lisa Takkinen