Friday, June 14, 2013

Here are the News

My walk to the school from my B&B is about 15 minutes down a gravel road. The gravel road was watered today to keep down the dust. I walk along the Porcupine River for part of the way and alongside a hedge of shrubs that bark as I pass. Well, the shrubs don’t bark, but hidden among them are about two dozen dogs tied to posts or little makeshift dog houses. Many of the residents here own a couple dozen dogs throughout the year and use them for recreational mushing in the winter. Their ancestors’ main way of transportation used to be with dogs, but now some of the residents will enter in dog sled races (although they are very expensive to enter) or just go exploring with their dogs.

   I have a bit more work to do here at the school tonight. Because I am ending the year with the students, I also need to get the room ready for summer vacation. This means taking down the Word Wall and Hundreds Chart, as well as every other piece of artwork or literacy that covers a bulletin board. It is kind of a nice piece of closure to my first year of supply teaching.

  I thought I would add some pictures of around town tonight.

Figure 1 Fire Department. It is voluntary.


Figure 2 Most popular mode of transportation. There is a discount on fuel up here, but it is still astronomical.


Figure 3 The B&B  (Ch'oo Deenjik Accomodations) where I'm staying owned by the Kindergarten teacher and her husband. I’ve yet to find out what the name means.

Figure 4 This is my place. Three bedrooms, large washroom with laundry facilities, and fridge to myself... plus thick blinds and a woodstove- it rivals our apartment in Whitehorse.


Figure 5 Skating rink of course!


Figure 6 Inside the skating rink!


   I also have to mention that the title of this post is due to a very lovely woman named Edith Josie. She is famous in Old Crow and even received the Order of Canada for her authentic journalism. The Whitehorse Star was looking for a correspondent in Old Crow and the pastor’s wife recommended Edith. She worked for the Whitehorse Star for over 40 years and her column also appeared in other Canadian newspapers. Life magazine also did a story about her and last night I was able to watch a film that CBC produced about this inspiring woman. She wrote the way she talked and the Whitehorse Star honoured her hand written columns and typed them up just the way they were written. She shared with the world the way of life in Old Crow in her humourous and enlightening style. She was a herald for the community and she also emphasized the importance of preserving the Gwitchin culture and educating the children of the future. Yukon College gave her an honourary diploma for her work in teaching others about Gwitchin culture. Her column was entitled “Here are the News”. Edith’s daughter, Jane, still works at the school teaching Gwitchin language and culture to the students, following in her mother’s footsteps of preserving culture and encouraging the leaders of tomorrow.



 You can find a link to an article about her, after her death in 2010, as well as a short video highlighting her life and influence below:



Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lifeblood of the Gwitchin: Porcupine Caribou


Figure 1 Taken from google images


The Porcupine Caribou are such an vital part of life here in Old Crow and the John Tizya Center (cultural center) has an excellent display all about the caribou and their importance in history and today.  I’ve also had the pleasure of finding three pounds of ground caribou in my freezer when I arrived at my B&B (which is more like a mini house to myself) so I’ve been feasting on caribou since I arrived!


The Gwitchin people try to use every part of the caribou so nothing is wasted. It is called Respecting Vadzaih (the caribou). This is how they use each part:


Meat: used for food; could be frozen or dried for storage

Fat: eaten, also burned to make light

Marrow: eaten raw or cooked

Kidney, Liver: eaten (protein rich and iron rich)

Eye, Nostril, Tongue, Heart: eaten (delicacies)

Brain: Used to soften hides; eaten (protein rich)

Hoof: boiled to make jelly (eaten), made into rattles, buttons, beads etc.

Stomach: Used as cooking bag and to store food and water

Bladder: used to store food and water

Hide: made into clothing, moccasins, shelters

Hair: made into pillows, mattresses, toys, dog bedding

Tail: made into medicine, used as a whip

Antler: Made into arrow and spear points, knives, cups, spoons, etc.

Bone: Made into awls, hide scrapers, fish lures, pipes, sled runners, etc.

Teeth: used as necklace ornament

Sinew: made into thread, cord, snares, and fishnets




 I saw this sign on one of the log cabins in town and thought it was interesting. It is the Porcupine Caribou Harvest Management Plan and as you can see we are in the Green Zone right now. Years ago, the arrow pointed to the orange zone and it seems that people are paying attention to the advice of the elders and aiming for bull caribou so that the species could grow again. It is also important that people take only what they need. There was a paper posted all over the community last week about excess meat found in the garbage dump. It reminded people to take only what they need and not more.


 The Porcupine Caribou Herd is one of the largest herds in North America. During migration (which I can only think of to compare to the zebras and antelope in Africa) the herd covers over 250,000 square kilometers. They cross the Porcupine River during their migration, hence the name. The Vuntut Gwitchin are stewards of the Porcupine Caribou and lead the fight to protect them and their calving grounds. Vuntut National Park was created in part to protect the herd’s range and migration. Ivvavik National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have also been protecting the Porcupine Caribou. However, there is pressure to develop on the coast of northern Alaska because of the discovery of oil below the calving grounds of the caribou. Many First Nations groups, especially the Gwitchin, are concerned because there is no other ideal place for the caribou to have their calves. The 1002 area is ideal because it is an open plain where predators like wolves and bears cannot hide. There is also often a breeze that helps keep away the harmful mosquitoes.


Figure 2 The location of the Porcupine Caribou migrates from Dawson, YT up to Inuvik, NWT and their calving grounds are located in Alaska close to the coast (1002 area) Every spring the caribou head up to the calving grounds and every fall they head back south often passing through Old Crow 2X a year.



Figure 3 Taken from google images

Figure 4 Caribou's primary food source is lichen found on tundra and in spruce forest habitats.


Traditional Ways of Hunting Caribou


Traditionally, First Nations used caribou fences to corral the caribou into an area where they can work as a group to spear them or use a bow and arrow. These fences took many people to set up and remnants of a few of them are lying on the ground in Vuntat National Park north of Old Crow.


Figure 5 Traditional Hunting




Figure 6 Aerial view of an historic caribou fence in Vantut National Park




Figure 7 People looking at caribou fence in the national park


There is so much more that can be said about the caribou. I wish I could have seen one, but I missed the migration route by about a month. They are currently calving in Alaska and will make their way south again through Old Crow in the fall (hunting season). I did find a couple caribou antlers while hiking through the bush and I’m excited to take them home as my souvenir and reminder of this unique place.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grades 1-3

  They call me Ms. Amy or Amy. One child actually calls me Ms. Valentine because I said he could call me Ms. V and that reminded him of Valentines J Oh, they are so cute and loveable—and WIGGILY at this age! If I hadn’t been supply teaching in the primary grades this past year, I probably would not have taken this position. I still don’t know if I would want a full time position in the primary end, but it definitely is a fun change. We get to start the day with the singing of “O Canada” and then have some “Huddle Time” where we roll a die that has different questions on it like “What kind of music do you like?” or “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What is your favourite summer activity?” It’s pretty relaxed, although the act of listening to one another is definitely a skill that needs to be practiced in this class. Everyone wants to share at the same time and we have a rain stick that is supposed to dictate whose turn it is. These kids are especially hyper due to all the sunshine they are getting right now. I’ve also heard from some of my coworkers that many of their students have trouble with self-regulation; that is, understanding the reasons for their own feelings and needs and regulating their actions. Oftentimes, this translates into temper tantrums and exasperated whine-fests.

   One day last week, at 3:00 (school ends at 3:30), I had three kids all the sudden start bawling their eyes out and run to different corners of the room (one kid went under my desk) to hide and wail. Apparently, the boy who was leading the game of Hangman (I know…. great teaching methods!) was upset because someone (who wasn’t playing) told the other kids the answer. One of the girls who was shaking away in a corner, tears streaming down her face, was upset because the answer to the Hangman was “(her name) loves Dean”. Ack! Really! In grade 3?! Another girl was upset, hiding under our round table, but I’m still not sure why she was crying. Finally, Dean was standing in the middle of the room with his arms up in the air and a quizzical look on his face. I think he missed the whole episode and was wondering what happened to the Hangman game that he was trying to participate in.  Thankfully, in 30 minutes, we got everything sorted out and they were all wearing smiles by the time they went out the door at 3:30. When those things happen, I just want to yell at them “Get OVER it! You should NOT be this upset!” but I think there is a lot more going on in their lives than school that is stressing them out or factoring into these episodes. Exhaustion from lack of is one of those factors. I saw some of my 7 year-old students out playing at 9:30 pm one weeknight… Gak!

   Here is my classroom. It is beautiful! The school was built in 1998 (the last time there was an ice road- so they could bring in all the materials) and it is very big for its total of 40 students. This year is the first year it has had a highschool program. The highschool program is very unique and caters to the needs of the students who are around. Occasionally, the school misses out on having certain resources on hand, but generally they have or with careful planning can get anything they need for their programs. Teachers are flown down periodically for additional training sessions as well.


Figure 1 The School from the outside.


Figure 2 Its a huge room for 11 students.




Figure 3 Lots of resources and space to put them!



Figure 4 The kids go home for lunch for an hour which means I get an hour off in the middle of the day. Its pretty spectacular. These two backpacks seem to sit here all day and all night and all weekend. I'm not really sure what their purpose is.





Figure 5 This is our terrarium. The teacher received larvae from a science for kids group. The larvae grew into caterpillars and by the time I got here they were all chrysalis (in pupas). I have the pleasure of seeing them come out of their cacoons!



Figure 6 They came out! We are feeding them sugar water on cotton balls and we will have a "releasing party" this week! Fun!



Figure 7 The community bell in front of the community hall (to the left).


Figure 8 Ted Harrison's version of the community bell and a fun description of Old Crow from his children's book about the Yukon.


Figure 9 Teacher housing. There are two duplexes so enough for four teachers. The school also has use of a truck; one of 12 vehicles in the community.



Figure 10 The school playground with the teacher housing in the background. Super close. Super convenient.



Figure 11 This is where I am! Wow-- and I thought Whitehorse was north!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Exploring Arctic Canada

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive- it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half as interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?

--- Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables



  I spent my morning reading in the John Tizya Cultural Center ( because it is on the river with big windows and it is full of information about the Arctic and the Gwitchin people. I found a coffee table book of Canada in it and as I flipped through it I was thrilled that I could recognize so many of the beautiful places pictured in the book. The photography was incredible and the author spent time in each province and territory taking pictures and getting to know different stories of each place. It was lovely. The book not only shared about Canada through its incredible photos, but also through the numerous narratives of individual Canadians—like the Icelandic Farmer in Saskatchewan, the fisherman and bird protector in Newfoundland, the aboriginal dancer in BC, and Mr. and Mrs. Yukon from Whitehorse. The country we live in is so rich with history, culture, and beauty. It makes me so proud to be Canadian.


  I feel even more privileged to have experienced so much of this great nation. It truly is a blessing. When I thought of the Arctic prior to this experience, I thought of frozen tundra, a forever winter where only the craziest and most solitude of people would live. In reality, the community is very welcoming here and people live among each other as family. I’m also sitting in a tank top and shorts right now and the sun is high in the sky and hot! This land is definitely one of extremes. In the winter the temperature can go quite low and the school declares indoor recess when the temps dip below -35 (the magic number is -30 in Whitehorse) and in the summer it can be as hot as temps above 30 degrees.


  I went for a hike last night with a coworker. She was kind enough to take me out into some of the bush trails that I wouldn’t explore on my own due to warnings of bears around town. We headed towards the community ski lodge, a log cabin with some basic furniture, kitchen, and FULL of skis and boots! My fellow hiker told me that this past winter the teachers tried to start a ski club, but for some reason it didn’t pull through. Nevertheless, skiing was a great way to get out of the house on the weekend during the sunny hours and get some exercise. I was amazed when I saw the awesome collection of skis and deeply saddened when another teacher told me that often he was the only one out on the trails. Apparently, the ski lodge was first built in the 1950s when some Olympic cross-country skiers came out of Old Crow. Someone decided that the Gwitchin people should train in the sport because at the time they may have been the most fit people in the country due to all the walking they did (at a time when there were no vehicles or machines here). Crazy!


  We headed out on some of the trails from the ski lodge, but soon realized it was quite boggy. I guess that makes sense since Vuntut means “of the lakes” in the Gwitchin language. Each time I took a step (on what seemed like a dry spot), the water would lift up from the ground and surround my sandals and socks. Unfortunately, the active layer of the permafrost had melted hence the soakers! My coworker showed me where I could find wild cranberries (pretty much everywhere!). They harvest in the fall, but right now leftovers from last fall’s batch were just unfreezing, creating a crisp, but juicy pop of bittersweet flavor in the mouth. Delish! She also pointed out Labrador Tea needles that can be boiled to drink. The needles have a very strong scent- very woodsy. The tea is supposed to help with pain, but I’ve also been told not to boil too many or for too long because it is such a strong medicine it can make you go a little loopy.  I decided to wait on trying the tea until I’m back in Whitehorse.  Overall, it was a great Friday night and I’ve enjoyed my weekend thus far.


Figure 1 Wild Cranberries. They are everywhere!

Figure 2 Boggy Old Crow.


Figure 3 Beautiful water and skies here.


Figure 4 One of the well landscaped houses here.


Figure 5 Everyone seems to have piles of antlers in front of their house.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

You think YOUR grocery bill is high?!

Check out these prices:





The green peppers were $5.50.




The pop is $2.95 and I think Gatorade was $4.59.



I’m not sure what a 3 lb. bag of apples is anywhere else, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a deal here.


  I think the Northern Store is a chain that has stores in many remote Canadian communities and it is well known for its outrageous prices. I’m thankful that there is a store with Kraft Dinner that I can pick up quickly, but when KD costs $4.59 for a box, it is no longer a cheap meal. I’m not sure about the ins and outs of how this store works, but there is definitely controversy. The teachers at Chief Zzeh Gittlit  School order in their groceries from Superstore. There is a small fee (about $30) for someone to do their shopping for them and then there is a shipping fee of course (via plane), but it is still cheaper than buying from the Northern Store and you can get more items that you prefer. The store also houses a TD Bank and Canada Post. It is your one stop shop- literally- there are no other shops.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Old Crow

  Here I am in Old Crow, Yukon at latitude 67 degrees or above the Arctic Circle. I am officially teaching in the Arctic. It’s crazy to think, even as I am right here.  I was asked to take a two week supply teaching stint up here last Monday and by Tuesday I knew that I would be packing my bags to leave on Sunday morning. It has been a bit of a whirlwind, but how could I pass up such an incredible opportunity?

   I’ve been here almost a week and I will be staying for the remainder of the school year teaching Gr. 1-3. I have 11 students that are quite wiggily, but very fun. The teacher I am replacing is due to have her first child in one month and so on doctor’s orders she had to leave to go to Whitehorse. She has left me very organized plans and activities so it is making my job pretty easy (besides just trying to keep up with these highly energized kids!)


Figure 1 Chief Zzeh Gittlit School- Try pronoucing that name!


  The flight here is a bit of a milk run. We stopped in Dawson City to drop off and pick up people and cargo as well as fuel up. We made it to Old Crow in three hours including the stopover. Next the plane goes to Inuvik, NWT then back to Dawson City and finally completes it circle in Whitehorse. On the way home I will catch the plane here and then complete the loop meaning I’ll be able to stop in the North West Territories too. Pretty cool.



Figure 2 The plane I left on. No security checks for this flight and choose your own seat. I highly recommend Air North- great snacks and hospitality!



Figure 3 Old Crow Airport. Pretty small.



Some Old Crow Facts:


Population: about 300


Distance: About 70 km north of the Arctic Circle and 100 km south of the Beaufort Sea.


Old Crow is located at the meeting of the Old Crow and Porcupine Rivers.



Figure 4 Porcupine River


The Gwitch’in people traditional territory of approximately 50,000 square miles that is located mostly in Northern Yukon region west of the border of USA and Canada to the Peel River and Richardson Mountains, and from northern Ivvavik National Park (NWT) to the Ogilvie Mountains. This is because they rely heavily on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for food and other resources and this is the migration region of the Caribou.


Old Crow is the only village in the Yukon that cannot be reached by car- only by plane.  It is also the only community in Yukon north of the Arctic Circle. It also claims to be a dry community (no alcohol)- however, I already had some wine during communion at church on Sunday and unfortunately have seen some drunks around town.


Old Crow is a periglacial community which means it sits on permafrost. As a result, all the houses are propped up on stacks of wood or complex steel systems. The sewage system also needs to be modified for this reason and so each house has a large sewage container beside it. This morning I was woken up by my tank being emptied :(



Figure 5 Houses are lifted off the ground to prevent shifting structures when the permafrost melts (contracts) and then refreezes (expands)



Figure 6 Bigger Scale view of house lifted.




Figure 7 Most houses are a duplex and each duplex has its own oil tank, water tank, septic tank, and usually ATV. Again, due to permafrost, the septic tank can't be underground. There is a community well and each water tank gets filled every two days. If you use too much one day, you may have none the next. This only seems to happen with overuse.



Figure 8 Most houses are propped up on wooden blocks (like the jenga pile to the right), rather than expensive steel systems. The extra space is used to store all kinds of things!


The sun has not set since I’ve arrived or since the middle of May. It will not set until late July. The polar darkness lasts a bit less time, but unfortunately for the whole month of December the community sits in darkness. I’m thankful for the thick blinds that are in my room, although since Monday the weather took a turn from hot and 25 degrees (at all times- even when I went to bed at 10:30 pm) to wintery and cold. One member of the community told me it snows every June during calving season because the snow helps clean the newborn calf. The cooler weather also keeps away the dense mosquito population that arrives in the summer which can actually suck enough blood from a newborn calf that it could die. The mother could also overwork herself by swishing her tail to keep the mosquitoes away that she isn’t strong enough to protect her calf from prey. It sounds like they get A LOT of mosquitoes up here—hopefully not until I’m gone!



Figure 9 This is out my window on Wednesday morning. It continued to snow all day long, but is now all melted again. It was definitely strange and I had to remind myself it was June while staring out my windows at school!


There is so much information and so many pictures for me to post, but I’ll have to take a break now and organize my thoughts a bit more before my next post.  Hopefully this gives a bit of a picture as to life north of the Arctic Circle! It is quite the adventure!


  I heard there is a grizzly bear in town tonight so I’m going to walk home from school carefully and stay inside for the rest of the night! (It’s also raining!)


Friday, May 31, 2013

Spring and Sunshine

  It has been a month since I've last posted and how things have changed! The shoulder season of April was hard to get through-- not winter anymore, but not yet spring. It seemed like we were the only place in Canada where the snow had not only not melted yet, but hadn't stopped coming! My expression would turn sour when I checked out the facebook newsfeed to see more and more Spring! albums and smiling children in t-shirts or eating ice-cream. The cross-country ski trails were still open in April (actually all the way to the first week of May), but my waxless skis would just get stuck in the warmer snow so I put them in the closet, hoping that would bode farewell to the winter season.
  On the May long weekend my mind was filled with images of greenhouses full of plants, guys in bright coloured SGC shirts running from truck to tractor, the smell of fresh manure, and the warm heat of the summer sun on my back. Our Yukon May long weekend was a little different. We headed north on the Klondike Hwy. towards Dawson City. I've never driven that highway and it was so good to just get out of Whitehorse after the long winter. It was our first big trip with our new Subaru Crosstrek which made the trip feel even more rewarding- just knowing that we wouldn't have to second guess if it would make it. We headed to a friend's cabin with two other couples on a beautiful lake called Fox Lake. It was still frozen, but some brave boys did manage to paddle a bit of the perimeter of the lake, while using a canoe paddle as an icebreaker. It also snowed much of the time and we were very thankful for the woodstove inside the cabin. We ate good food, played games, went for hikes, and just spent time getting to know each other. It was really great.
  Since that weekend, spring has blossomed in Whitehorse! The Yukon river is almost all the way melted through, the trees are budding filling the parks with vivid greens, I've put on shorts and flipflops a couple times, and the tourists are here! I'm sure the population of Whitehorse has doubled in the last month. Walmart is full of RVs and traffic has slowed considerably. There are a number of parking spaces that are reserved only for tourists from May to October and our PEI plates are long gone so we can't take advantage of that anymore. There is also a restaurant called "Klondike Rib and Salmon" that opened on Mother's Day and every night there is a lineup out the door of people waiting to get in! We went once and the ribs are delicious!
Beavers are hard at work along the Millenium Trail.

High Season has arrived. Population = doubled.

The way I get around. I wll not be using this for the bike race :)

Beautiful crocus flowers- the first to bravely poke up their heads in May.

The Whitehorse Rapids- now the Hydroelectric Dam. If you look closely people
are fishing and there is even a red canoe out exploring!

It is still very dry in Whitehorse. This area is normally flooded with water.
We don't get the same kind of downpours as Ontario and I miss the thunderstorms. 

  School is coming to a close and the kids are restless! The longer days really does affect everyone too. Kids are up later and tired during their first classes. I have found it difficult to sleep and so we have to put a blanket over our bedroom windows so that it is dark enough to sleep. The hours of daylight are from about 11 pm to 4:30 am. It's incredible!
    Marcel has started golfing every Monday night with some buddies of his and he is really enjoying it. We are also training for a 240 km bike race that happens in two weeks. It is the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Race and it begins in Haines Junction, YT and finishes in Haines, Alaska. We are on an 8 person team that I've been told is not competetive. I'm hoping it stays non-competetive when it gets to my leg because I'm the anchor, rider number 8! Marcel is rider number 6 and has to come down some crazy steep hills on his 30 km ride. My ride is pretty flat, but I may be riding into the wind since I'm headed towards the water. It's going to be fun! We've been borrowing a friend's roadbike to train a little bit and it is pretty incredible how fast those roadbikes can go! It'll be a great experience!
  This week I've been working at the MacBride Museum a bit already getting prepared for the kids camps I will be running. There are seven different camps and each are a week long. I have two weeks off in the summer and then school begins again in mid-August already! I'll write more about the MacBride camps in future posts. I'm excited about teaching kids about Yukon legends and history and becoming certified to give tours on the National Historical site of the S.S. Klondike!
  I'm also so excited that Marcel and I are taking a week off this summer to travel a bit in the Yukon and hang out with some visitors from Ontario. Marcel's parents are coming first and we are hoping to head up to Dawson City with them and tour them around Whitehorse. Right after Marcel's parents, my brother and his wife are coming up for a few days. It is going to be so nice to see family!! And it will be so great to be able to show them the beauty of the Yukon and have some time to enjoy it with them!

  Twenty-one more days until Summer Solstice!!