In DAWSON CITY at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat
In the Himalayas, PRAYER FLAGS snap in the wind
Every scrap has a story: PAPER STORIES

For Dawson scenes, see George’s blog tagged Yukon
Yukon header DAWSON CITY

Berton House entrance This is the entrance to the Berton House Writers' Retreat. The childhood home of author, journalist, broadcaster and Canadian icon, Pierre Berton, the Berton House Writers’ Retreat has been accommodating writers-in-residence since 1996.

In 2006 the retreat received a makeover from the Designer Guys, who are famous in the land of reality TV. This program aired April 2007 (on HGTV).

The unveiling following the makeover is covered by the Mayor of Dawson's blog (now the ex-mayor).

I was in residence from October to December, 2007.

The writer in residence from October to December 2006 was Gregory Cook (author of many books, including Untying the Tongue), and here are photos of him at twenty, thirty and forty below. Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Greg Cook is no stranger to cold weather, and while at Berton House worked away on a biography of Ernest Buckler, author of the quiet Canadian classic, The Mountain and the Valley, which, astonishingly, is set in the very place where I grew up.

Forty below is the magical temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius converge. When you say forty below, you don’t have to be more specific. Plus, wherever it gets really cold in Canada, you can always count on people saying, It's a dry cold.

Frank and Laura BertonBERTON HOUSE

Frank and Laura Berton are the people who made Pierre Berton. Pierre Berton in turn made the Berton House Writers’ Retreat possible. This has been another busy year at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat

First up, Lisa Pasold, who has a way with words and pictures. A tour guide to Paris, Lisa Pasold offers an equally intriguing perspective on winter in Dawson. Some highlights: From January 2007, while driving in Dawson, be careful of oncoming glaciers. And in February 2007, the full moon on the snow is bright enough to read by. Scroll down to check out the raven angels in the snow.

Spring 2007 arrives in the Yukon, and the second writer of the year, Julie Burtinshaw, attends the Dawson International Film Festival.

Question: How many major awards can be won by a Canadian science fiction writer? Answer: All of them, if your name is Robert J. Sawyer.

In his blog for July 2007, Robert J. Sawyer describes summer on writers’ row in Dawson, and his partner Carolyn Clink is inspired by the Yukon to gamble and write poetry.

And me? In a bookstore recently I chanced upon an old water stained copy of
I Married the Klondike, written by Pierre Berton’s mother. Laura Thompson (as she then was) travelled from Toronto to Dawson one hundred years ago, in 1907, to work as an elementary school teacher. "We were entering the awakening North, still in the pioneer stage," she says of her journey, "and there was a sense of life and urgency all about us." In his 1972 introduction, Pierre Berton speaks of life-long recollections of his mother pecking away at a typewriter, writing and re-writing. "Books, after all," he says, "are the only monuments any writer deserves. This is a good one and as lasting, I think, as any granite."

So far, the building that now houses the Berton House Writers’ Retreat has contributed to the creation of dozens of books.

The Yukon RiverYUKON RIVER

"Yukon" means "great river" in Gwich’in, and this word became the name of the Yukon Territory. The Yukon River is one of the world’s fabulous and grand waterways; not as well known but equivalent in its way to the Ganges or the Mekong. All these great rivers arise in faraway mountains, then travel across continents, and end up somewhere else altogether.

In the case of the Yukon River, its headwaters are close to the Pacific Ocean, then it cavorts every which way for thousands of miles around northern Canada collecting the tribute of tributaries before coursing across Alaska and emptying into the Bering Sea. In the gold rush days, especially between Dawson and Whitehorse (that is to say, between Dawson and the Outside) the Yukon River was the main transportation and supply route, at least during the six months of the year between break-up and freeze-up. The river was a lifeline, but for those who fell into it, it was the end of the line.

Starting with Frank Berton, who left New Brunswick and made his way to the Klondike in the gold rush, Berton family members have made several memorable trips on the Yukon. In Drifting Home (1973), which the Canadian Encyclopedia describes as "an unexpected slice of autobiography in the form of an account of a northern rafting trip," Pierre Berton recounts generations of family stories, triggered by this river journey through a landscape rich with history and a terrain equally evocative of a frankly ruthless timelessness. The North and the Yukon are both harsh and beautiful; unforgiving and compelling.

In Canada we tend not to appreciate our wild spaces, perhaps because we have so many and have felt little need to conserve them. Survival has often been a concern more pressing than conservation. During his rafting trip, Pierre Berton predicts a future for eco-tourism in the North. The most precious natural asset "is no longer gold, silver or base medals — although many Yukoners still cling to this idea. People in the urban south are hungering for the wilderness and the more they crowd into the cities the more they want to get away. Here, the wilderness rolls on, like the river, for hundreds of miles."

In the future, the question is whether civilization will turn this river into a sewer, or will a generation yet to come, "wiser than ours, find some way to preserve these waters for the children who follow?"

This question is one with a universal application, and this trip connects generations of an adventurous Canadian family, in a journey through a landscape framed by history yet mindful of the future.

In a place where the river has eroded the banks, the steamboat charts identify a white smear about a foot beneath the surface as Sam McGee's Ashes. Along with other fanciful creations, such as the moose meat at the Lake Bennett train station and bits of spaghetti added to ice cubes (known as ice worms), the North is full of stories which are equal parts myth-making, confabulation, tenderfoot teasing, and ambiance. But also, always buried away like the fabled elusive mother lode, is the truth. It is good to keep in mind that truth is stranger than fiction. Ice worms, if you can believe the internet, turn out to be real, and not just the subject of a ballad by Robert Service. The layer of volcanic ash, several feet thick in places and representing an awesome eruption, originated 1200 years ago from what is now Mount Churchill, near the Yukon-Alaska border.

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