Women of the Yukon

Canada’s most northerly province, the Yukon, has evolved dramatically since the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s. This evolution has occurred under the watchful gaze of the strong, independent women who seem to thrive in such a harsh environment. These women were the inspiration for my recent trip to this blue-sky country and, although over 100 years have passed since the heady days of gold rush fever, I was delighted to find that they are still the driving force behind much of the creativity inspired by the landscape.

women of the yukon wearing old time garb and pouring tea

Yukon Women: 50 over 50, was the intriguing joint project between artist Valerie Hodgson and writer Claire Festel. Making the decision to look, really look, at the women over 50 in her community, Hodgson decided to paint portraits of these women, giving herself just one day to complete each work. She asked only one thing from her subjects: to bring along one friend who was also willing to sit for a portrait. Hodgson was then introduced to Festel, who was keen to write the stories of these women, and the project grew from there.

The simplicity of this project, if not the logistics, is what made it so brilliant. But how to whittle it down to 50 women when there are so many talented, inspirational women in an area with a population of just 30,000?

One woman who made the cut is chef Miche Genest, known locally as the Boreal Gourmet. So imagine my delight to find that, after the ridiculously long flight to reach the other side of the world, Miche is cooking my dinner that night at the Takhini River Lodge. Miche embraces the seasonality of the food available to her, necessary in such a harsh climate. Her chocolate pudding is a little taste of heaven, and as soon as I’ve learned how to cultivate my own sourdough, I’ll be using her recipe to make my own bread. Listening to Miche talk about the land, the produce available and the amazing people who now call the area home, I’m delighted to learn that I will be meeting some of these people over the coming days.

some of the yukon holding a fancy pastry

I’m suffering from jet lag and the seemingly eternal daylight makes it even more difficult to sleep. Despite my fatigue, I find myself looking forward to meeting my next fabulous female, so much so that I’m up, dressed and raring to go.

Discovering the local flora on a herbal walk and talk, led by Bev Gray, is a terrific insight into how the locals interact and rely on the land for food and natural medicines. Using the native plants she finds on her land overlooking Rat Lake (much more picturesque than the name suggests), Bev makes natural beauty and medicinal products all from her own kitchen. These products are much in demand in her Whitehorse store, Aroma Borealis. I’m overjoyed that she allows me to mess up her kitchen, all in the name of producing my own tree-tip salve, which I am currently using to calm Aussie mozzie bites! Crafty cooks take note: should you be unable to find pine nuts for your pesto, you can also use the soft, white insides of the bark from a pine tree.

women of the yukon picking flowers

In what I now realise is true Yukon fashion, Bev is an acquaintance of the next remarkable woman on my meet-and-greet list. Jill Pangman is at one with nature, calling it her neighbour. Through her company Sila Sojournssila is an Inuit word for free-spiritedness – Jill runs trekking expeditions through some of the wildest, most remote areas of Yukon; something she has enjoyed doing for the last 25 years. Thankfully, today I will be learning just a few wilderness skills, so no serious equipment is required. Or at least that’s what I thought. Lulled into a false sense of security, having had my fill of chocolate and cranberry cake baked in an open fire with a nice cup of tea, Jill asks if I have a windcheater, because I’ll need it up Mt McIntyre. Taken completely by surprise, I nod silently and follow Jill with trepidation. However, Jill is a clever woman and has obviously sized-up that I am no hiking Heidi. We drive part of the way up Mt McIntyre and then enjoy a leisurely stroll to one of the best vantage points I have ever experienced.

women of the yukon hiking

Jill has worked for several years with the artist I am due to meet with the next day, Joyce Majiski, who also helped found Sila Sojourns. This local artist’s work, in particular her depictions of caribou, is renowned throughout the Yukon. When she has the time, Joyce runs artists’ workshops, which I will have the pleasure of experiencing during my stay. Today, however, we’re heading out to Lake Marsh and Mt Lorne to take in the awe-inspiring views on show from sub-alpine areas. Under Joyce’s expert guidance, I’m encouraged to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding wilderness. On first view, the colours are mainly rusts and browns but look closer and the vibrant purples, pinks, yellows and greens of summer are starting to break through the coarse carpet of plants. If this is what tranquillity looks and feels like, then I want more! 

Thankfully, I don’t have to wait too long. I spend the night at the Inn on the Lake, which is truly the most beautiful place I have seen. Overlooking Lake Marsh, which at this time of year looks like a sheet of glass, the Inn has the warm cosy feel of a luxurious alpine lodge. It’s the perfect place to relax and gather my thoughts in preparation for the next day’s workshop.

Looking at Joyce’s artwork, I suddenly feel inadequate and slightly silly for thinking I could produce anything that would measure up. Joyce explains in calm tones that art is all about expression and, as long as it is something with which I have a connection, then it’s my very own masterpiece. I roll up my sleeves and let those creative juices flow. And after just a few short days in the company of these remarkable women, I can easily see myself as one of the Yukon’s creative elite!

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Written by Debbie McTaggart

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