A mother and son’s enlightening travels across the “great, big, broad land ’way up yonder”
Part 1: Travelling Liam-style: You might say it’s “rudimentary”
It’s the great, big, broad land ’way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
– The Spell of the Yukon, by Robert W. Service
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir
My son, Liam, often quotes the late John Muir, aka John of the Mountains, as they share a love of the wilderness, particularly the wilds in them thar hills.
I’ve come to greatly appreciate this quote after my three weeks of wandering across the Yukon and northwestern British Columbia with my son in, how shall I say it, a very rudimentary way. We literally and figuratively took dirt paths. Yet my travels were luxurious in the sense that really matters—they enriched me, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Here’s what I mean by “rudimentary”: what’s been Liam’s home for seven months (and what was my temporary travel home) is his Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, with every square inch of space behind the front seats and beneath the cap efficiently and entirely utilized—not to mention the space inside his kayak that’s secured to the roof of his truck.
In the back seat area of the front of the truck, he stores his off-season stuff—at the time it was winter clothing, skates, ski and snowboard boots, and such. In the bed of the truck, under the cap, is his DIY elevated bed on one side with storage beneath it, and along the other side are shelves functioning as his kitchen and food storage space. Between the bed and the shelves near the front of the truck bed is another storage area and further towards the back is wedged a cooler, which is accessible from a kneeling position on the tailgate, and over which I’d clamour to get in and out of bed.
Liam gave up his narrow, foam-mattress bed with about a two-foot headspace under the cap ceiling for me to sleep in for our three weeks together, while he stoically slept in his small backcountry hiking tent on a one-inch-thick air mattress. After maneuvering into the truck at bedtime (at which I became more adept with each night passing), I’d pull closed the tailgate and cab door, and snuggle down comfy, snug, warm and dry. After my first night, I never again wormed my way backwards out of my cocoon sleeping bag to pee beside the truck in the pitch black; I instead restricted my fluid intake in the evenings, avoiding the contortionistic endeavor, and hightailing it to the privy at first light.
Liam did almost all the one-pot, one-pan cooking (always delicious and nutritious in his vegan way), either over a campfire in the evening or a gasoline burner set on his truck tailgate in the morning.
I especially enjoyed his pancakes with fresh blueberries (and assorted other wild berries) picked the prior afternoon along our mountain hiking trails or along the road, and his pan-fried hardtack with jam. Is it my imagination, or is there a scientific explanation why the blueberries tasted increasingly mouth-wateringly flavourful (albeit smaller) when sourced higher and higher up the mountains?
Liam’s kitchenware consists of a couple of pots, a pan or two (double functioning as plates or bowls) and a handful of eating and cooking utensils. He questioned my extravagance in bringing a small clothes-changing tent from home—for which over the three weeks I would come to repeatedly gave thanks for the privacy and modicum of convenience it provided—and my $17 expenditure on a tarp at Canadian Tire in Whitehorse. That was a “luxury” I wouldn’t compromise on and which he came to admittedly appreciate during a few rainy evenings in our campsites.
The Yukon has the best campgrounds when it comes to rudimentary travel, with BC’s recreation sites a close second. Ontario take note: it costs a whopping $12 per night to stay in a Yukon Territorial campground with all the free firewood a camper could want, compared to your $40± daily fee; firewood with kindling for one bonfire in Ontario costs almost $20 more. BC’s rec sites are free, albeit with no firewood provided.
Admittedly, you get what you pay for amenity-wise. In Ontario Provincial parks, you can have electrical hookups if you wish (for an added cost); there’s always a drinking-water tap close to your campsite and diligent park staff on duty; there are usually flush toilets and showers, and often laundry facilities, sandy beaches, playgrounds, well maintained hiking trails, canoes or kayaks for rent, a camp store, outdoor theatre and visitor centre. And there are many, many annual visitors, with the large campgrounds often at full capacity.
Compare Ontario’s amenity-rich, large, well-used parks to the Yukon’s small, barebone campgrounds where $12 a night gets you a well-kept, treed site with a picnic table and fire pit, and a clean privy nearby. (Side note: the Yukon’s Territorial slogan is “Larger than life.”; commensurate with this, I swear their campsite picnic tables would sit 20 happy campers and stand firm in hurricane-force winds, such as the blow that gave Destruction Bay its name.) Frequently our sites were beside a placid lake or burbling river and we enjoyed no-cost bonfires for cooking or simply sitting around in the evening silence, where our camping neighbours were few and far between. There is typically no park staff on site—the Territory trusts campers to self-register—and there is most often no potable water without first boiling it for a minute. Tenting in the Yukon Territorial campgrounds and the BC recreation sites is as “pure” as tenting gets, short of finding your own non-campground site in the wilderness, all to yourself, which is Liam’s modus operandi when I’m not in the picture.
Longstanding on my to-do list is contacting the powers-that-be to advocate that camping in provincial and national parks be made affordable for all Canadians, which is certainly no longer the case. For many years as our four children grew to adulthood, end-of-summer tent-camping in wilderness or natural environment, government-run parks was our affordable vacation option.
Through those experiences, all four kids fell in love with, and remain in love with, the natural environment, continuing the family tent-camping tradition into their adulthood. What better way than total immersion in nature—falling into a welcome sleep in your tent pleasantly tired from the physical exertion of a hike or canoe excursion in the fresh air, with stars overhead, a breeze soughing through the pine trees, a loon calling, your head on the breast of Mother Nature—to foster connectivity to, respect and love of, the natural environment; especially for a generation anxious about environmental degradation and unsustainability, but not really understanding what it means to be part of nature.
But I digress.
It was typically evening when we’d find a campsite, after an adventurous day of travel or hiking or both. Our daylight hours were wonderfully and fully used up.
When we arrived in the Yukon in mid-August, night came late, the sun disappearing around 10:00. To my “southerly” raised mind, the daylight shortened noticeably quickly over our three weeks in the north, with the sun setting in northern BC before 8:30 by the time I flew away. After our long days of physical activity, fresh air, and wholesome eating, almost every night I slept deeply, without waking for eight hours or more. For a 65-year-old with a surly right knee, such solid sleep is a true blessing.
The whole vacation was a true blessing. While many fellow seniors (and non-seniors alike) would think our style of travel to be outrageously ludicrous at best, as I said earlier, for me the rudimentary adventure was luxurious—enriching me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and there are many reasons for this. But before explaining myself, I offer full disclosure: there were a smattering of nights over the three weeks where I insisted on roofed accommodation primarily to bask in a shower or bath after several “baths” with wet wipes in my change-tent. (My primary motive for staying in the Talbot Arm Motel in Destruction Bay was otherwise: while Liam was away backcountry hiking on the Slims River trail in Kluane National Park, I wasn’t keen on being held captive for a couple of days on my own in the nearby Congdon Creek Campground, which is enclosed by an electric fence to keep out grizzly bears.) Although each of our three roofed accommodations across the Yukon—in Whitehorse, Destruction Bay and Dawson City were most pleasant, of particular note was our two-night stay at the tail–end of our vacation, at the Cassiar Cannery guest-house on pilings over the high tide mark, 25 km south of Prince Rubert BC, near the mouth of the mighty Skeena River.
When the forecast predicted 75 mm (three inches) of rain the first night of our stay in the area (Prince Rupert is Canada’s rainfall capital city), there was no convincing me that huddling under our tarp on an already sodden campsite to wait out the multiday rain event was an option; I was mightily grateful to discover Cassiar Cannery with its superb, history-infused cottages on the breathtakingly picturesque oceanfront.
And, I am equally grateful for our night’s stay off the famous Dempster Highway (the only road access into the Arctic in Canada), at Rock River Campground, the singular Yukon Territorial Park north of the Arctic Circle, nestled in a valley in a thick grove of aspen trees in a landscape otherwise quite devoid of tree cover. Our campsite backed onto a fascinating bi-coloured river where two creeks merged; one side has rusty red water from the creek that flows over iron deposits upstream, and the other, the ubiquitous glacier-sourced turquoise water from an “untainted” creek.
In fact, truth be told, I’m equally grateful for every day and every night of my vacation. Every moment in life changes us; we’re never the same person we were the moment before; we continuously evolve with each new life experience however small and insignificant it may be. But some experiences are big, and they’re the ones with the power to change us in big ways. My three weeks with my son was a big experience.
I think of Henry David Thoreau’s words: “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than trees.”
I road-tripped, hiked, and camped in the northern mountains, Liam-style, and came out with a singing heart. Not that I didn’t have a very happy heart when I went in, but this adventure struck new chords. My deepened gratitude for, connectivity to, and love of, a simplified life; a starkly beautiful, irreducible land; and my decidedly nonconforming, long-haired, mountain-man son, expanded and enriched me. How so?
I invite you to check out Part 2: Travelling Liam-style: Way up north and deep down inside