Off the Beaten Tracks | BESIDE

Off the Beaten Tracks

Meet three Yukoners forging their own paths in a land of ice and snow.

Text — Marie Charles Pelletier
Photos — Eliane Cadieux

 

In partnership with

Flight AC 277 Vancouver–Whitehorse. A sea of mountains stretches out endlessly through the airplane’s scratched window. Just the thought of soon being there, in the middle of those high ranges and infinite plains, leaves us feeling dizzy. However untouched this landscape may seem, Indigenous people have in fact lived there for thousands of years.

The traditional Indigenous territories that cover most of Yukon were the subject of major land claims, which culminated in the signing of modern treaties between these nations and the Canadian government.

The Yukon is the least populous territory or province in Canada, and over 80 per cent of its population was not born there. Most of them travelled to the North without knowing that once they arrived, they would never want to leave. Here are the remarkable stories of three such individuals.

Sarah Ouellet, 60th-parallel vegetable grower
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We take the Klondike Highway to get to Sarah Ouellet’s self-sustaining organic farm on the edge of Lake Laberge. The young farmer is one of the few Yukoners who brave the climate to grow vegetables, including kale, arugula, fennel, Swiss chard, cabbage, and herbs. She supplies local businesses and restaurants with produce and sells it at the market in the summer. Given that the Yukon imports 98 per cent of its food, it’s a worthy mission. In 2019 the Yukon government named Sarah Ouellet their Farmer of the Year.

After WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in India, Sarah knew she wanted to work the land for a living. WWOOFing was also what brought Sarah to the Yukon from her native Ontario, and how she met farm owners Brian Lendrum and Susan Ross. The sexagenarian couple offered to let the young woman rent one of their two gardens. “I could never be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t met them,” she says gratefully. Although Lendrum is blind, he helps her wash and package vegetables and prepare deliveries.

Sarah moved into the cabin next to the main house, devoting herself to agriculture and what would soon become Sarah’s Harvest. In her cabin, there’s no electricity, running water, or cell reception: just wifi that runs off the owners’ land line. The power is solar, the water is pumped from the lake, and wood for the stove is chopped on site.

 

Farming in the Yukon presents challenges beyond the cold climate. The soil is naturally poor: when the last ice age’s final glacier receded—around 10,000 years ago—it took everything in its path along with it. But Lendrum and Ross spent years turning over the soil and spreading compost to make it fertile. Sarah calls their compost the “heart of the farm”: without it, nothing would grow.

The power is solar, the water is pumped from the lake, and wood for the stove is chopped on site.

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The Yukon is a place of intense contrasts. While the gloomy days of winter stretch on and on, the summer is short but full of life. With the sun barely setting during these months, plants actually grow very quickly. Nestled near coniferous trees, Sarah’s garden becomes luxuriant, bordered by flower beds to keep the insects away.

Sarah takes advantage of the winter to plan out her seeds. Cold-sensitive vegetables are kept in the greenhouse and dropped if they’re not profitable. She can’t afford to suffer any losses or waste space in her garden.

In the winter, warmth recedes from the landscape, giving way to a thousand shades of blue and grey. When the weather is good, Lendrum and Ross skate in tandem on the frozen lake, while Sarah hits the ski slopes. The winter here forces people to slow down: to light fires, cook, and go to bed earlier. In the evening, everything falls silent—everything, that is, except the wind whipping against the windows.

Jocelyne LeBlanc, musher braving the cold
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We pick up fresh croissants at the Alpine Bakery and drive to Fish Lake. Mount Granger towers over a nameless mountain. Two people are wrapped up in parkas, fishing with their chairs turned to face the winter sun.

The Sky High Wilderness Ranch faces Fish Lake and stretches out over 32 hectares, bordered by the lands of the Kwanlin DĂĽn First Nation. Musher Jocelyne LeBlanc takes care of a pack of 150 dogs; she knows their names and personalities by heart.

Originally from New Brunswick, she came to the Yukon more than 20 years ago. Her first winter here, she worked in a hotel frequented by mushers. She watched them take care of their animals with amazement; never in her life had she seen anyone give a dog a massage.

That’s how Jocelyne learned about the Yukon Quest, a 1,648 km dogsled race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska—the route of the Klondike Gold Rush. The race is a tribute to canine dedication and endurance in extreme northern conditions. It crosses frozen rivers and mountain passes, where winds gust at over 80 km/h.

The race has the reputation of being one of the hardest in the world, but Jocelyne was undeterred. Just a few years after learning about it, she signed up. She tells us about frigid February nights, sleeping under the stars next to her dogs curled up into balls. Swaddled in her parka, she’d wake from time to time to feed the fire.

Jocelyne pulls up our sleds and we head out over Fish Lake. The dogs’ breath forms a blanket of fog in the cold air. Then, right in the middle of the lake, a deep rumble echoes out. Jocelyne turns to face us. “It’s a pressure crack. The dogs hate them,” she yells over their stubborn howls. Despite the impressive cracking sound, it seems we don’t need to heed the animals’ plaintive response. We carry on.

When we return to the ranch, the employees serve the dogs soup and massage their paws and wrists, as they do after every outing. The musher laments the negative perception that some people have of mushers; there are people who believe that dogsledding is animal abuse. “But the dogs are our whole lives,” she says. On the ranch, retired off-leash dogs follow the dog team around, unwilling to accept their imposed rest.

Jocelyne holds the utmost respect for this land. For more than 20 winters, she’s been happy to cross it for days and days without seeing another human. She makes sure to leave no trace of her outings to keep the landscape pristine. “We bring everything back, even feces—both dog and human. Unfortunately, not everyone is so conscientious,” she explains. The musher hopes to see the tourism industry move in a more sustainable direction.

Every morning she wakes up at 5 a.m. and makes coffee while listening to the CBC before taking her eight-year-old daughter to school. In the evenings they watch movies in their solar-powered cabin. Jocelyne’s daughter wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps, no matter how often Jocelyne repeats that there’s not much money in dogsledding. It’s an argument that pales next to Jocelyne’s deep love for the dogs and the wilderness.

Gerd Mannsperger, guardian in the skies
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When we enter the small office of Alpine Aviation, a dog greets us with its tail wagging. Papers and maps are piled high on the desks. Gerd Mannsperger, the company’s founder, smiles and informs us that the Cessna 206 Stationair is waiting for us on the runway. We had planned to head toward the Lowell Glacier, but a storm coming in from the coast forced us to change our route.

 

Once in the air, we fly slowly at about 90 m above sea level to better observe the landscape. Gerd has mastered the art of spotting animal tracks over his years of bringing hunters and fishers to extremely remote regions. He has learned to follow traplines from the air.

We fly over mountains devoid of vegetation, vast expanses of ice and rocks, narrow rivers and lakes. Gerd points out a herd of bison, the wind whipping their fleece, near a peak. He explains that the biodiversity near Fox Lake is finally recovering now, five years after a devastating forest fire.

 

We follow the meandering Yukon River and land in Braeburn, a village set on a small lake near the Klondike Highway. The runway is snowy, and the landing difficult. We enter a restaurant where two dogs are stretched out in front of an old cathode-ray television.

Over a bowl of steaming soup, Gerd explains how he became a pilot. After leaving Germany more than 30 years ago, he ended up in Canada, riding his motorcycle through the Okanagan Valley as far as the trail would allow. One day in 1987 he decided that he wanted to see beyond the trail, so he learned to fly planes. Ten years later he founded Alpine Aviation, a charter airline that flies people almost anywhere they’d like to go in the Yukon.

rom the vantage of his airplane, Gerd has watched the land change. The northwest of Canada has been particularly disturbed by melting glaciers, which feed the lakes and rivers. He remembers passing Donjek Glacier and seeing a canyon where the water flowed white. When he next flew over it, the canyon had dried up.

Tourism has increased in the Yukon. “But everyone seems to be in such a rush,” Gerd comments, as if their goal were to cover as much distance as possible without stopping. In the eyes of this seasoned prospector, you have to see the road from above to really understand the land—and to want to protect it.■

 

This trip was made possible by the Association Franco-Yukonnaise (AFY) in collaboration with Travel Yukon.

Founded in 1982, AFY is a non-profit organization that actively contributes to the vitality of the francophone community in the Yukon. It supports French-language tourism development and works closely with Travel Yukon to promote the territory as a destination of choice for French-speaking markets in Canada and Europe.

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This article is featured in Issue 09.

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