‘The devil is in the detail’ may be a useful cliché when it comes to dealing with human affairs such as contracts, political manifestos, bankers’ pay deals and the like. However, when it comes to the natural world the opposite is true: ‘the delight is in the detail’ is a simple fact.
When writing about The Yukon it is easy to succumb to the temptation of dwelling on the spaciousness, the grandeur, the sheer scale of the land and the sky. And as I tend to do with any temptation worth its salt, I shall no doubt continue to succumb to that lure. However, there are many small things and fine details that make time in The Yukon special.
I sing the pika! The pika is not by any means unique to The Yukon, but these tiny members of the squirrel family thrive here, and they are the livewire bit-part actors who steal the scene if you watch them carefully. They love sloping bellies of scree and talus…skittering and wriggling through the rocks and stones, simple little pulses of kinetic energy. Camping near Keno on my last trip I spent a sunny evening watching a dozen of them combing the remains of a wide rockfall opposite my tent. It reminded me of the puzzles we used to have as kids, where you had to manoeuvre a blob of mercury through a maze…of course the mercury would fragment into lots of tiny drops and you’d end up with twenty mini-blobs zigging around the labyrinth in crazy symmetry. Like pika on tilted scree.
Of course, mercury games are not sold to kids anymore. If it gets out of the box it can cause brain damage. That must be why I succumb to temptation so readily, all that mercury when I was small – at last, a valid excuse!
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In Pick Up the Pieces, the book you will see one day, I recount how a pika sparked its wiry little way into my rucsac whilst I was meditating on the profundity of the forest below Keno Hill. A raven alerted me, very deliberately and consciously, and I was able to save some of my trail mix. I rewarded the raven with most of the remains.
The other delight in detail that struck me today occurred during a ramble around the small lakes and pools above Lewes Lake. The terrain is remarkable for a series of barely fixed dunes that have formed from the rich deposits of glacial silt. The silt gives the lochans a startling turquoise colour, most notably Emerald Lake a little further along the valley. The dunes are a magnolia white…wind-whipped into micro John Ford western backdrop shapes…riddled with ground squirrel burrows. And some of them, 80 miles from the nearest sea inlet, are studded with pearly white shells.
The shells are all spiral whelk shapes, no bigger than your fingernail. They have been there so long that they are not only hollow but also too fragile to touch. I tried to pick one out of the wall of a dune and it disintegrated like old parchment. I felt stupidly guilty for even trying and avoided brushing against any others. Some dune segments bristle with hundreds of them, most half-shattered by the sheer pressure of the silty sand that they will gradually augment without any trace of their independent existence.
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One of the features of sparsely populated areas is that people learn to fix things for themselves, become good enough at a range of practicalities to make do and mend. In the southern Yukon this is not such a prerequisite as Whitehorse is a fine service centre, but the level of self-sufficiency does have to be a little higher than in cities.
In The Yukon a parallel trend seems to operate for arts and culture. This is not based on painstaking research, but I would bet my next cranberry slice (yes, I am still saving my first cinnamon bun experience for that special bakery where they are as big as Jersey cowpats) that there is an unbeatably high proportion of painters, carvers, musicians, singers, dancers, theatre players, quilters, photographers et al amongst the population here.
More examples to come in future posts, but it is particularly good to see a flourishing scene amongst First Nations groups. In this general area there are 4 distinct groupings: the Kwanlin Dün; the Champagne and Aishihik; the Ta’an Kwech’an; and, covering the area of my house-sit, the Carcross / Tagish. All the Nations speak versions of the root Athapaskan language, but the Carcross / Tagish speak Tlingit. The Tlingit Nation is based further inland and was relatively successful in keeping its traditions, and at least some semblance of power, during the big European colonisation drives. Tlingit (pronounced ‘clinkit’) imagery and culture has thus become an important influence on various other groupings.
“Coyote was amazed to find, during his tour of all the towns and cities of Canada, and the USA, and all the European countries, that nearly all works of art were placed in special buildings and parks. The only connection that most people had with art was in occasional visits to those buildings and parks (where they often had to pay money just to get in) or if they could afford to buy a few pieces of art to decorate their homes.” Quoted, with the permission of the author, from the forthcoming story ‘Raven Has Fun With Conceptual Art’, by Ted Eames.
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I haven’t yet ventured very far upwards, despite the beckoning peaks and ridges. Canadian mountains tend to be defended by broad swathes of forest, and in May there is still enough snow in the higher woods to make it very laborious to get onto the firmer snow of the rocky tops. Such trails as there might be disappear and you can end up treading slush in deep wet snow. At least the woods are not as thick in The Yukon as the rainforests of the Coastal Ranges , and the trees are shorter and thinner, making the forest lighter and drier. The lichen is primrose yellow crinkly salad and the moss is soft golden broccoli.
I am looking forward to the mountains off the South Canol and off the Dempster for some good, solid-rock underfoot boulder hopping.
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And I am afraid I can’t mention the word ‘yellow’ without a tip of the headband to Oxford United, who play at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in the play-off final to regain League status after 4 years of hurt. They play in Yellow (yes, with a capital) and dark-blue, you see. It is a little known fact that something has been amiss in the universe since they lost League status: international terrorism has worsened; wrong-headed wars have proliferated; capitalism has been exposed as an inhumane, bankrupt delusion (so it hasn’t all been bad); and now the UK is to be governed by Dictatorship of the Pasty-Faced Private School Prefects. All this, and more, will be put to rights when the “U’s” marmelise York City on Sunday…my son Jack carries my lung power along with 30,000 others!