WHITEHORSE, YUKON—In Whitehorse we were welcomed like family.
“Filipe, it’s an honour to be hosting you guys … I’m reading your book right now,” grinned Jocelyn Barrett before passing me a cold Yukon Gold.
A lawyer originally from Kuujjuaq, Que., she and her husband, John Van der Meer, live in a gorgeous log home just north of Whitehorse with a chestnut mare and a bay gelding. John’s father, Sid Van der Meer, who we met in Beaver Creek, graciously secured this extraordinary layover for us.
“My dad hasn’t stopped talking about you guys since you came through,” said John Van der Meer, while he flipped the elk sausages we would have for dinner that night.
With the horses in a spacious pasture filling their bellies and resting their hooves, Clara Davel, my Argentine girlfriend and support driver, and I went about exploring the city of 25,000 people — the major hub for Northern Canada.
We arrived in time for the final day of the Adaka Cultural Festival.
In its ninth year, the festival — whose name means “coming into the light” in the Southern Tutchone language — celebrates arts and culture of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations. Since the UN declared 2019 the year of Indigenous languages, this year’s event celebrated the eight First Nations language groups in the Yukon.
“There’s a real sense of now or never when we discuss First Nations languages,” said Charlene Alexandre, the executive director of the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association. “They are endangered.”
In nearly all Yukon communities, only the elders can still speak their language fluently due to the effects of residential schools. It was heartbreaking to hear stories about how children were shamed and mistreated for speaking their native tongues.
“I know the weight of the Bible. They (missionaries) used to make me hold bibles with my arms spread out and if I lowered my hands below my shoulders they would add another one on top,” said a First Nations artist from Teslin while he worked on a stunning buffalo carving.
Yet there was also a sense of hope. I learned about efforts to save these native languages, like the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government in Dawson City that is turning to social media for help. With weekly Facebook videos featuring words in the Hän language, they hope to reach the younger generation. Other Indigenous governments have study groups and the languages are being offered in elementary and high schools throughout the territory.
After a few days’ rest and restocking provisions for the next 1,000-kilometre stretch of nothing we would cross before arriving in Fort Nelson, it was time to get back on the road.
But not before giving a motivational talk to some bright-eyed members of the 4H youth group on the south end of town. The parents who organized the event at their farm loaded us up with hay before we left.
“Please stay safe out there, especially with the recent murders down the highway,” said Angelique Bjork before we rode out, joined by the young 4H members and their horses.
The “murders,” Bjork referred to was the two tourists found shot dead next to the Alaska Highway near Liard Hot Springs (before another body was later found). The news rocked the North, and Davel and me, especially because the young people killed was a transnational couple just like us.
“I can’t believe we have to worry about being murdered in Northern Canada … being from Argentina and Brazil,” said Clara while we read up on the story online.
There were more immediate dangers.
A few days before arriving in Teslin, 178 kilometres from Whitehorse, we were awakened by the horses trying to run off from the high line.
“What was that?” Clara cried out from beneath the covers.
“I’m not sure, the horses are scared of something,” I said, shining my headlamp at my frightful ponies, the darkness eerie after so many days of complete sunlight.
Everything went still. I could hear my heart pounding against my chest. The horses, wide-eyed and with their ears perched forward, looked off into the forest in front of them periodically blowing air out of their nostrils. All of a sudden the silence was broken by twigs breaking. A few seconds passed before more cracked, making Mac and Smokey more agitated. Luckily, the high line stayed fastened to the two willows I tied it to and the horses got turned around.
“There’s something walking around out there. I think it’s a moose,” I told Davel, whose eyes were now wider than the ponies.
It was a lie. I knew it was a bear. When I shone the light where the horses were looking, I saw its glowing red eyes. The twigs breaking also gave him away, sounding like a human walking, trying to sneak around in the forest.
“Get out of here,” I yelled, now outside holding my headlamp with my left hand and some hay with my right. I yelled for a few minutes while Davel slammed on the horn of the old motorhome.
“You guys are OK, everyone just relax,” I said to Mac and Smokey before giving each a flake of hay. I tried to sound way more confident than I felt.
Luckily, the bear went off into the night and three days later, after seeing yet another black bear, we arrived in Teslin.
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“Welcome to your home for the next few days,” said Lisa Dewhurst before giving me a strong hug.
Mac and Smokey enjoyed their rest on the shores of Teslin Lake while we heard stories from Lisa’s husband, Darcy, an avid hunter and trapper from the Teslin First Nation.
“After you harvest your moose, you place your gun in the bottom of the fridge, then you put the meat on top … you only get your gun when the meat is done,” said Dewhurst while we ate a delicious moose rib, mashed potatoes and salad dinner.
Darcy explained how important it is in his culture to respect the wildlife that inhabit this great land. To his people, it is the only way to ensure a sustainable future.
“We depend on the fish we catch and the animals we hunt to survive … It has been this way since the beginning,” said Darcy before he explained how a moose will feed his family of four for a full year.
From the Dewhursts’ quaint log cabin we rode to a bridge that had kept me awake at night for months.
The Teslin Bridge, a 447-metre-long cantilever bridge, the longest span in the Yukon, has a terrifying metal-mesh deck. Since I first crossed it, two months back while driving north to Alaska to begin the journey, I wondered how the hell I would get my two mustangs to cross this beast. Horses hate seeing through the surface they have to walk on and hearing loud noises when their feet touch the ground.
Now here I was, standing only a few feet from this metal monster.
In preparation for this moment, I purchased some rubber placemats along with four rolls of duct tape. Using a doll-sized pair of craft scissors, I cut the placemats in the same size as the hooves and with the duct tape, I fastened them under their shoes like booties. I knew they wouldn’t last the nearly half a kilometre, but I just needed them to muffle the sound that first step the horses took onto the metal deck would make.
Taking a deep breath, I started the walk towards the metal monster leading Mac and with Smokey close behind him. When I stepped onto the bridge, a drip of sweat ran down my spine. The big dun followed me onto the metal deck, but the small grey did not.
“No, no, no … there’s absolutely no way I’m walking on this thing,” I could see Smokey thinking to himself as he looked down at the wide Teslin River flowing with force beneath the mesh square holes.
I looked back and motioned for Lisa, who was helping us get across safely, to drive her white SUV closer to Smokey’s hind quarters. I knew I didn’t have much time. If he thought too much about it, we would never cross that bridge.
“C’mon buddy, step on the bridge,” I said in a soft voice while putting some pressure on his lead rope.
When the car was about five feet from him, and with Mac already standing calmly on the bridge at this point, he stepped forward. Without looking back I marched forward. In a few strides the metal ate through the rubber placemats and the duct tape, and the noise the horses’ shoes made hitting the deck was petrifying. We sounded like a loud locomotive engine chugging away.
It took us about 10 minutes to get across the Teslin Bridge and when we finally stepped onto the other side, my shirt was glued to my back with sweat.
“Yaaaaaahooooooooooooooo!” I yelled, celebrating another obstacle now behind us.
From Teslin we followed fields of bright pinkish-purple fireweed stretching up high enough to touch the bottom of my stirrups. The stunning Cassiar Mountain Range made the ride dangerous and strenuous as we fought our way up and down the next few days alongside the Rancheria River.
On this stretch, the tiny annoying black flies became a big problem. They ate at the horses and our skin all day, trying to feed on our blood. Humans and beasts were left with swollen wounds that were hard to believe came from such tiny insects. But we crossed the bridges, climbed the mountains and survived the ruthless insects, finally arriving in Watson Lake alive and well.
One more rest before entering British Columbia, and crossing a 200-kilometre stretch of the Alaska Highway with several herds of massive wood bison, the Northern Rocky Mountains and one of the largest populations of black bears in the world.