Charlotte Gray Comes to Edmonton!

Me and Charlotte Gray after her talk in Edmonton
I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Charlotte Gray, my CanHist hero, was going to be in Edmonton this week as a guest of LitFest and STARFest. Last Saturday night she spoke at the St. Albert library to a room full of fans – one of the most responsive audiences I’ve ever encountered, in fact. They made all the appropriate noises at all the appropriate times during her presentation, and it was obvious they were smitten with her and her works.
The book up for discussion that night was her latest, Gold Diggers, which was published last year by HarperCollins Canada. I happily bought my copy for her to autograph, and it actually comes at the perfect time (which, I find, is often the case with books).  I just dove into my gold-rush-era material for my book on northern aviation – there was a balloon ascension in Dawson City in 1899 – so her tome will provide great background and description. Of course I’ll still get out Pierre Berton’s Klondike (after all, there’s supposed to be a mention of the ascension in it), but it’s great to have a more recent, socially-balanced tome to work with.
It was wonderful to finally meet Charlotte in person. She called me last November after I had Skyped-in to the Berton House Gala fundraiser in Toronto from Dawson. And we shared the same space at different times in Berton House, of course (and I made sure to put my book next to hers on the bookshelf!). But to get the chance to chat for a few minutes and shake her hand was, well, a highlight in this young historian’s life.
Thanks, Charlotte, for continuing to convince Canadians their history is interesting and relevant, and for embracing the filth, messiness, lace, and rubber boots of the past. 

Skagway at Season’s End

When we woke up in Whitehorse (Yukon) the morning of September 24th, we were greeted by snow – and lots of it. We were due in Skagway (Alaska) that afternoon and saw the forecast there was rain. We told ourselves the things foolish travellers always do: “It’s only a couple of hours away!” “We’ll go slow!” “How bad could it be? “

In a rental car with semi-bald four-season tires, the mountain passes between the northern outposts of our two great nations were treacherous. And now that I’ve talked to some Yukoners it sounds like when it’s bad in Whitehorse, you just don’t go to Skagway, ’cause if a weather system is big and strong enough to push inland over them thar hills, it’s going to be rough going.

After slipping and skidding our way over the mountains, the weather did in fact turn first to wet snow and then to rain. After cresting we came upon this group of cyclists – even dumber than us? – who had just been dropped off at the top of the hill and were zooming down the wet, twisty highway. I did not hear any reports of them dying, but the newspaper is bi-weekly (and is for sale, if you’re thinking of relocating)…

At least we were greeted by a friendly face in Skagway: good ol’ Sarah Palin, who apparently spent part of her childhood in the town. They now have a Sarah Palin Store, where you can get everything from pins, magnets, to full-size cardboard cutouts. As Doug said, can you imagine Shawinagan having a Jean Chretien store? Or Toronto having a Stephen Harper one? Strange…

We were also greeted by much-needed food and beer at the Skagway Brewing Co. Nothing calms jangling nerves like spicy chili, fresh-baked pretzel, and a pint of Boom Town Brown ale.

By the time our bellies were full the rain had tapered off a bit, so we thought we’d spend a couple of hours walking around town enjoying the end-of-season sales. Skagway is a very seasonal town, we discovered, that relies on cruise ship traffic.

When these floating cities dock, people flood the streets looking for everything from local handicraft and art to the cheap tchotchkes that will gather dust until they eventually end up at garage sales. Oh, and fudge: it seems that fudge is a universal in tourist towns all over North America. Must have been a traditional food to indigenous peoples or introduced through trade. (I wonder what the word is for fudge in the Chinook trade jargon…)
In addition to the fudge (which was delicious, by the way), we ate a real meal at The Skagway Fish Co. A word to the wise: only tourists eat salmon here. The locals all eat halibut, and for good reason. My fish tacos were incredible (although the chicken tortilla soup was amazing too)!

The weekend brought more rain, but we didn’t hole up too much at the Mile Zero B&B;. On Saturday when the ships had left and the streets were empty, we headed to the old townsite of Dyea. We also visited the nearby Slide Cemetery where victims of the April 3, 1898 avalanche are buried.

Here Doug stands by the wood pilings of the old Dyea dock. A Klondike gold rush town, it boomed at the turn of the 20th century but by 1903 only had six or so inhabitants. Now the sea and forest are reclaiming the flats, and apparently it’s a great place to spot bald eagles and bears.
After our chilly and drizzly hike, we went to Glacial Smoothies and Espresso. Don’t let the name fool you: it is warm, welcoming, and my piping hot capuccino (and half of a giant apple streusel-cream cheese bar) was great. I can see why the locals favour it during the winter months, playing one of the board games or grabbing a book from the shelf.
Our last night in town also coincided with the season closing for Olivia’s Bistro and Denis, our barkeep/server, was in a celebratory mood. After a summer of work he’d saved up enough to spend three months hiking, camping, and doing yoga retreats in New Zealand. On went the Buena Vista Social Club cd, down went the mojitos, and everyone in the tiny place became fast friends. And they gave away thick slices of their three-carrot cake in celebration.

It sounds like it was a good season in Skagway, and season’s end was pretty fun too!

A Northern Valentine

I was delighted when writer and aviation historian John Chalmers (apparently inspired by the spirit of Robert Service, ‘bard of the Yukon’) sent me the following lines last week. He has generously allowed me to share them with you (with some pictures I tracked down online)!

Danielle Goes North

Strange things are done in the midnight sun, when a writer works on a novel she’s just begun,
When words fall onto the page like a winter’s rage when snow obliterates the sun.
But sometimes it just ain’t enough, even though for the story you’ve got all the stuff,
And you have to go north and let your words pour forth in a land that is ready and rough.

Pack up your computer and like a literary commuter you put everything behind
To head for the land of snow and ice, and you’re gone in a thrice to seek your solace of mind,
Where the goldfields called, to all miners hairy or bald, to seek their fortunes and wealth,
And they gave it their best to pass every hard test at the risk of their saneness and health.

But a writer’s the same when searching for fame and quite willing to pay the price
Of putting a life behind for the inspiration she’ll find and knowing damn well it ain’t nice
When the winter’s gales and the hoary tales she’s heard all start to come true,
And try as she might to settle down and write, it’s hard when the frost makes her fingers blue.

In the land of gold, Dawson City has a strange hold that grips you like you belong right there,
Where each mountain and hill offers its own unique thrill to go with the cold northern air,
And whether it’s the Klondike Follies with its painted dollies or the men who need to shave,
It’s the northern folk in saloons full of smoke who provide the characters you crave.

At the Yukon River where each breath makes you shiver, you’ll know you did the right thing,
Or by Hunker Creek you’ll find the inspiration you seek to make your words just ring,
And Pierre Berton’s ghost will offer the most to inspire your work, you can bet,
So the North is the choice that will give words to your voice in a decision you’ll never regret.

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© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.