After the cruise ships depart…

…Skaguay is so compelling. But the cruise ships sit in the harbour like enormous hotels, towns even, during the day, and it’s hard to get a sense of the town without them. We arrived yesterday and thought how beautiful the buildings were. Yet the main street — Broadway — was so busy that it seemed like a place turned over to tourism. Shops selling diamonds and t-shirts, trinkets of one sort and another.

After settling into our B&B, we wandered around a bit and then signed up for a walking tour at the Klondike Gold Rush National Parks Centre. That was wonderful. This organization preserves many of the original historical buildings in Skaguay (I loved that the ranger who guided our tour insisted on this spelling) and in fact these buildings are gorgeous. Unlike so many towns of the late 19th c., Skaguay never had a fire to destroy its wooden buildings so many of them are intact, false fronts and all.

Our ranger-guide took us to the Moore cabin, William Moore and his son being the founders of the location that became Skaguay at the base of the White Pass route to the gold fields. I spent last summer and the fall working on a novella which has at its heart a character who travelled with his father to Klukwan on the Chilkat River in the late 19th c. – early 20th c. to observe the Tlingit potlatches and to try to acquire some of the ceremonial objects associated with the Whale House. I was particularly interested in Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit man who went on to become an ethnographer involved in attempts to sell artifacts from Klukwan. Louis’s father George was keeper of the Whale House.

Imagine my surprise as I entered William Moore’s house and saw an enormous photograph of one of the Klukwan potlatches! It turns out that Moore’s son, J. Bernard Moore, married Louis’s sister, Klinget-sai-yet. This made the tour much more potent than I expected and the realization that this community was adjacent to Klukwan has coloured the past two days.

Today we went by catamaran to Juneau for the day, a long day, stopping enroute at a Steller sea lion rookery on Lynn Canal to see the huge males basking on the rocks while females and their pups nursed nearby.

The air was pungent with them and it was noisy as well.We saw humpback whales, harbour seals, a pod of Dall’s porpoises darting swiftly around our boat. After a few hours in Juneau, we were taken to to the Mendenhall Glacier which was extraordinary. So blue and vast!

Then back to Skaguay. We went over to Skagway Brewing Company Saloon for something to eat (we had two meals there yesterday because the food was so good) and enjoyed a ramekin of crab and artichokes and a platter of smoked salmon along with a glass or two of wine. I loved the music which the bar-tender said was a band from his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota — Trampled by Turtles. A blend of bluegrass and folk, with a kind of homage to Steve Earle, evident in the intelligence of lyrics and melody. I’m going to look for their cd called “Palomino”.

Arctic char

The poetry festival is over. Last night the Yukon poets read at the Old Firehall, doors open to the green river making its way to the Bering Sea. It’s been a glorious weekend here in Whitehorse. In an hour we’re going to Carcross by bus and then taking the White Pass-Yukon railway down into Skagway.

What I loved: the wild roses, so vivid and prolific; tall spires of fireweed; ravens conferring on the roof of the government building across the street from this hotel; the scones at Baked (and the rich espresso); the conviviality of this particular group of poets; bill bissett’s Honey chant to close the festival; cold beer after a long walk; Karen Solie’s boots; my plate of Arctic char at dinner yesterday, a moist fillet of tender fish with a bannock alongside, on the deck of the Klondike Ribs and Salmon Barbeque, served with a tall canning jar of ice water. I’ll never forget any of it.

Strange things done ‘neath the midnight sun

When last heard from, I was about to tumble into bed in the Goldrush Inn in Whitehorse after a delicious evening of poetry, followed by cider at the Tippler Pub.

Oh, it’s drunks, I thought sleepily as I heard thumping on the door in the wee hours and a lot of commotion in the hall. (A few of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon?) Then I smelled smoke and John was urging me to wake up, we had to get out. Fast. More banging on the door and we were in our clothes and down the stairs to stand on the sidewalk in front of our hotel as firefighters dragged hoses from trucks pulled up to the lobby doors. Are you a tourist, a young Native woman asked John — he was wearing one of his bright Hawaiian shirts, grabbed in the heat of the moment — and he replied, Not really. You look like a tourist, she said gently.

Most of the poets were there. A couple remembered manuscripts or memory sticks. I clutched a little blue purse stuffed with money. John had his camera and wallet. I thought guiltily of my computer on the desk in the room and my memory stick in one safe pouch of my backpack (standing in a corner of that room). There was an acrid smokey smell — like burnt sugar, said Rhea Tregebov.

We stood on the sidewalk and waited. Talked a little uneasily (of course). Made jokes. Imagined headlines. At one point we watched bill bisset emerge from the hotel, in sock feet, replendent in a Tree of Life t-shirt. That was just before the All Clear.

At 2:30 we returned to our room and fell asleep. The firefighter who stood at the door had no idea what the problem had been but wished us goodnight.

midnight sun

June 24, 2011

Last night we arrived in Whitehorse for the Poetry Festival which kicks off this evening at 7:30 with a Poetry Bash at the Yukon Arts Centre. John will join his fellow poets Liz Bachinsky, bill bissett, Miranda Pearson, Clea Roberts, David Seymour, Karen Solie, and Rhea Tregebov for a weekend of readings, panel discussions, book signings, etc. Eleanor Wachtel will introduce many of the events as well as conducting on-stage conversations with the poets.

Whitehorse is beautiful. It’s warm here, the air soft and redolent of spruce and wild river. This morning John and I walked the 5 km. millennium trail before eating fabulous scones and croissants at Baked, a funky bakery-cafe which generously donated vouchers for the poets (and their grateful partners). A little while ago, we enjoyed beer courtesy of Yukon Brewery who contributed sampler packs to the swag bags waiting in the hotel room when we checked in last night. (There were also chocolates, courtesy of The Chocolate Claim, toiletries from Aroma Borealis, local fudge, maps, a blooming miniature rose, a pound of locally roasted Bean North coffee — a special blend to help support conservation efforts in aid of the Porcupine Caribou herd — and other nifty items.)

I’ll post again in a day or two. What an amazing place this is, with its midnight sun and friendly inhabitants.

(Wild roses on the Yukon River, smelling like the winds of heaven.)


And now back at the hotel after a FABULOUS event, all of the poets reading so beautifully and so gracefully that I was proud of all of them. The audience loved the event, I think, clapping and cheering and staying afterwards to talk and buy books.  We gathered at the Tippler Pub for drinks and then walked back to a sky suffused with pink and orange — a sunset, however brief, at 12:30 am.  Magical, to be north of 60 just after the solstice.

Under Giotto’s ceiling

June 14, 2011

Ever since I saw Giotto’s beautiful ceiling in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua a few years ago, I’ve wanted something of that beauty in my daily life. To sit under a lapis sky studded with golden stars, angels and Madonnas looking down to bless those below.

Last winter I went to the hardware store with a book about Giotto in hand. The woman at the paint counter helped me match the blue (something called “Electric Storm”) and I brought home enough to paint the ceiling of my small study – it’s perhaps 9 x11, with a big window looking out to a covered porch. Right now the wisteria climbing the porch’s post is in full bloom and I love looking up from my desk to watch hummingbirds at work in the flowers.

The paint sat in the workshop for more than a year. I couldn’t bring myself to begin to paint. So much was happening in my life and there never seemed to be time to drape old sheets over the shelves and furniture and actually bring this particular project to life.

A few weeks ago, I finally applied three coats of “Electric Storm” to the white ceiling of my study. To say that John helped is an understatement. My style is careless and his is meticulous. He followed me, repairing my mistakes.

Then we spent a week or so trying to figure out the best way to paint on the stars. Would we use gold leaf? A stencil? Freehand? At one point, I desperately considered stickers.

I decided on a particular eight-sided star, partly influenced by Giotto and partly by the painted monasteries of Bukovina (you will be able to read about these in my forthcoming book, in a chapter where I try to find traces of my paternal grandfather who came from Bukovina). John cut a careful template and plotted the best way to arrange the pattern on my ceiling. There would be ten stars altogether, in four rows, two of two stars and two of three.

He measured and marked the placement with green painters tape. He held the template and I traced the stars with a white pencil crayon. I waited a day and then mixed some paint from those little containers you can buy in a craft shop – I have many of them for painting flower pots and cloth. (Forrest made me a floor cloth using these, featuring a saint on horseback inspired by the painted monasteries of Bukovina!) I used a matte dark yellow mixed with metallic gold for the first coat and followed that with a second coat of straight metallic gold. I just did the second coat this morning.

So right now I’m sitting at my desk, listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing “Cease, ruler of the day, to rise” from Handel’s opera Hercules, under a ravishing blue sky lit by stars. It’s not the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes on the walls narrating the Annunciation, the Passion of Christ, the Resurrection;  but it’s beautiful and the stories surrounding me — pictures drawn by my children, an elk skull, birds nests, our wonderful dog Lily’s pelvis, books that have taught me how to live — amount to a life. My life, under Giotto’s ceiling.

spring: bear and mushrooms

After a slow damp start, spring has finally arrived on the west coast of British Columbia. The belligerent junco is still tapping on the chimney, though infrequently;  his body language speaks of weariness, which is understandable.

On our walks on the Malaspina trail, we’ve seen lots of bear sign, the scats electric with chlorophyll.  I saw two bears last week as I drove back from my singing lesson, both of them feeding on sweet new grass and clover on logging roads off the main highway. I pulled off the road and watched one for about fifteen minutes. Its coat was very black and glossy and there was a scattering of chestnut brown around its nose.

Yesterday I returned from visiting a book club (a group of intelligent and congenial women who’d been reading The Age of Water Lilies and who invited me to their end-of-the-season luncheon on a sunny deck overlooking Oyster Bay) to find John waiting to tell me about the bear who’d visited our place while I was gone. It was a large one, and was utterly indifferent to his attempts to scare it away. He discovered it was around when he heard a bang on the front deck and when he looked out the window, he saw the bear on the deck, having just turned over a bench holding flowering plants by the front door. Then the bear took a bag of dolomite lime from the carport where I’d been potting geraniums. After abandoning the lime under a cedar down the bank, it lifted a lid off a garbage can and delicately removed the bag inside. We don’t put anything in our garbage that might attract bears so I can’t think what this one found so tantalizing. Wine corks?

Later I discovered that the gallon jug of fish fertilizer that I’d carelessly left on top of the compost box that morning before I left for the book club luncheon had also disappeared.  I’d intended to use it again that afternoon to water young cucumber plants and I honestly didn’t think a bear would arrive during broad daylight to take it away into the woods. We normally don’t have bears around our place this time of year. They come in the fall to eat crabapples at the top of the driveway or to drag pears, boughs and all, from the trees down in the orchard.  And we see them, or their scats, near the blackberry patch on the Klein Lake trail in late summer.

And here’s a photograph of the oyster mushrooms we picked on our walk this morning. They were growing up the trunk of a standing-dead maple tree. How delicious they’ll taste in risotto this evening, with shavings of Parmesan cheese and some lemon thyme. I think I’ll dry some as well, for winter soups. The kitchen smells of them now, as I type.