A Fleeting Star

A Fleeting Star in Pelly Crossing, Yukon | Photo: Melanie Hackett

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.  My feet rhythmically crush the crystals of ice on the forest floor as crimson sunlight reflects from their intricate architecture.  I lift my face towards the mist that is swirling from the depths of the granite canyon, and notice a rainbow emanating within it.  The thunderous rush of a stunning waterfall below vibrates inside my chest, and I can see through the emerald water to the very bottom.  I take a deep breath of the crisp, tangy forest air.  The phenomenal wonders of this place seep into my thoughts.  How precisely atoms are added to a growing ice crystal lattice.  How rays of golden sunshine are dispersed into the spectrum of wavelengths by the prism of mist to paint the splash of colour our eyes can pick up.  How gravity produces such a spectacular waterfall.  How geologic processes carved this bottomless canyon.  And even how all elements combined in such a fashion to cause a river of life to develop.  Yet surrounded by endless beauty, my heart is drowning with an immense sorrow.

I once knew a beautiful person.  Sheena was part of my competitive Irish Dancing team, and we travelled to many competitions throughout North America.  Tall, lanky, brunette, she was often partnered with me.  After finally medalling at the North American Championships in Ottawa, she moved to Australia to begin a new life that would lead her to graduating with honours and becoming a nurse.  She taught in Cambodia for a year, and was nominated as an executive of a non-profit organization that reduces health inequalities in rural and indigenous Australia and around the globe.  She then pursued her Master’s degree in speech pathology.  On the side, she was scouted to become a model and actress.  More importantly than her many accomplishments, I remember her as a wonderful friend and genuinely nice person.

Sheena and I in the dance team group photo
Sheena and I in the dance team group photo

Recently, she suddenly entered my mind.  I’m considering a trip to Australia in the spring, and was hoping to reconnect with her.  Though we hadn’t been in touch for a long while, I had this strange feeling that I should contact her, and couldn’t get her out of my mind.  Later, I received the news that around the same time, she was leaving her final exam for her Master’s degree, and was hit by a car mere steps away from her vehicle.  She passed away at the scene.

Whether my feeling was coincidence, or whether there was something more to it, I will never know for certain.  I like to think that her big heart and spirit filled every corner of our Earth as she passed, and that her short but wondrous presence on Earth will continue to paint rainbows in the hearts of many.

Sheena
Sheena

Several years ago, I myself was hit while bicycling.  The aftermath involved serious injuries that tore from me all of my passions, career paths, and even social networks, including Irish Dancing.  Years of physical and emotional recovery ensued.  In the midst of the darkest times in my recovery, I felt completely hopeless although intellectually I knew that it could easily have been much worse. I was the lucky one.  Eventually I reached a point where I could be grateful enough for everything I did still have to realize the beauty that exists in our world.  And occasionally, during the fleeting times that I had a glimpse into my pre-accident life, the beauty of life was vividly sharpened.

This unexpected tragedy is a harsh reminder that life is too short to be taken for granted and to spend it in sorrow.  Though one life is over, it continues for everyone left behind, including the driver of the car.  A life forever wracked with guilt, this life will likely also face seemingly unbearable challenges in the coming years.  It may never be in the hearts of those who loved Sheena to forgive such a devastating mistake, but the truth is it can happen to any one of us.  More than ever before, I am determined to make the most of my time and enjoy life fully in the wonders and the sorrows, and also to make an effort to bring happiness to others.  Life is but a fleeting falling star.  As the kids these days say, YOLO!  Does that mean I won’t feel sad? Of course not.  There exists an eternal and infinite sadness in my heart.  But it is through this very sadness that the beauty and preciousness of life shines through even more clearly.

It is my hope that through these words, anyone who is navigating through loss may find solace in the idea that the very loss has the potential to highlight the wonders of life both in the cherished memories, and in the time yet to come.

As I’m standing here, feeling the waterfall of tears plunging through the granite canyon, the mist off the water rises once more.  Catching the fluid rays of shimmering light it dances in the breeze before being carried away.  Is it just my imagination, or did I catch a brief glimpse of the sparkling rainbow of an Irish Dancing angel?

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul

Writer's block

By: Melanie Hackett

Talking Writer’s Block

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Writer’s Block”. But what exactly is it? Is it the block of notepaper that writer’s use to jot down ideas? Is it the weighted block used to contain the strewn mountain of disorganization typical of right-brain thinkers, for when the cat jumps on the pile?

No, the feared Writer’s Block is something much more terrible, something deeply dreaded by those relying on originality of ideas for their work. It is when the glass of creative juice has been drunk to complete emptiness. It happens when all ability to generate sentences and paragraphs of any sort simply stops. Kaput.

It is like the athlete that suddenly cannot perform a skill they have succeeded at countless times, or the musician that suddenly forgot their concerto. This mysterious psychological phenomenon can have several causes.

Sometimes a writer’s brain goes into overdrive and there are so many ideas all seemingly hyped on quadruple espresso, whirling around inside the skull in a struggle to burst out whilst merely colliding into each other, and run-on sentences just run on and on too fast to catch and freeze on some paper, thoughts racing far past the constraints of finger dexterity…

The solution? My god, take a chill pill! Simmer down the boiling over alphabet soup! Sometimes writers just need to chillax. My dad, author of several books, occasionally does this by enjoying a cold beer or puffing a Cuban cigar. But there are also healthier methods than his think drink or his think stink. How about a hot bath, a walk or a ski on the river? Then, once the overdrive has been geared down, some form of coherent thought can begin to assemble on the pages of your notepaper block.

The polar opposite can also happen. Your brain could feel like a black hole, devoid of any thought whatsoever. But, ideas are a dime a dozen. The joy of writing is that unlike most activities, the subject matter can be anything at all, and constantly changing. From mystical extraterrestrial creature sightings in the North to the latest seasonal beer at Yukon Brewery to, heck, even Writer’s Block, one can write on whatever it is that piques your interest at the time. Topics are easy to come by, and the problem lies not in a lack thereof.

So perhaps the black hole issue stems from a tree of emotions within the writer. Whereas runners can run on, accountants can count on, professors can blab on, politicians can fib on, emotional states within writers can simply halt the flow of ideas. Maybe fear of disappointing yourself paralyzes you to become frozen stuck. Or perhaps the writer is bored, uninspired, or discouraged.

Well, we’ve all heard of countless remedies for such dilemmas. Do yoga, drink antioxidant tea, go for a long walk on the beach. Take a hot bath, smoke a Cuban think stink, have sex with your lover. Talk to the cat, eat chicken noodle soup, go see the shrink. Listen to music or try other methods of creating, such as painting, photographing, or dancing, just to fill up that glass of Creativity Punch.

But perhaps the real solution is merely to view Writer’s Block not as a problem, a dreaded ailment of those attempting to produce originality. Perhaps Writer’s Block is simply the footprint for creativity; the priming of the right brain for an explosion of vocabulary onto the parchment. Given enough time and patience, supplemented with the Chill Pill, writers are bound to move past this stage of inventing a masterpiece. After all, the empty punch glass can only be replenished once again!

Revolutionizing Resolutions for New Year

Revolutionizing Resolutions

By Melanie Hackett

It’s happening again. Fireworks are lighting the skies all around the globe. The ball is dropping. People are writing down everything that is going to change with this new beginning. But what exactly is the significance of the New Year?

For most, it’s a clean slate. People are comforted by the idea of a chance to start fresh, erase the mistakes and bad things of the past, celebrate the accomplishments, and resolve to make positive changes starting – mañana!

In reality, most of us realize that New Year’s resolutions typically don’t make it through the first month. It is after all a wee bit irrational to believe that things can just change at the drop of a hat – or a ball in this case. But it is a global starting point for people to reflect on their lives and the changes they want to make, to talk about it, and to participate in something that makes their resolutions seem to sink in.

My mother has always said, “New Year’s resolutions are silly. If I am not pleased with something in my life, I will change it NOW, and not wait until the New Year!” And kudos to her! To change old habits can be extremely difficult and not everyone can do it without some kind of starting point, and even then, we have to work extremely hard not to fall back into the same habits. That is why so many people make resolutions at this time of year. It brings people hope and confidence that they can implement the changes they want to see in themselves or their lives.

For me, New Year’s always held special significance. Our coach for competitive Irish Dancing taught us to reflect on our accomplishments over the past year, and to write out the goals that eluded us or new goals that we wished to achieve in the coming year, as well as a strict plan on how we would aim to do that. My plan would include monthly, weekly and daily strategies, outlining in detail the changes I was committed to making in order to improve my skills at a faster rate. Sometimes, we had to bring these goals in to the first class. Other years, we brought our papers in prepared to share them with the class, only to be told that we were going to get straight to work and start sweating – hard! We would then be required to glue our goals to our mirrors so we would be forced to look at them every morning. But in the end, I think we were all going to work as hard as we already did, whether or not a new year came. The results we wanted to see were much stronger motivating factors than the change from December to January. Similarly, the reason for wanting to make any resolution and the results of the change should be motivating in itself, because ultimately we are not motivated by the change from one day to the next even if it is a new year.

This year, I’ve been struggling with the task of writing down New Year’s resolutions. I don’t anymore compete in the sport that consumed my entire existence, where goals and successes were very well defined. Now, like most people in their twenties, the direction of my life is a little more vague. So instead, I am reflecting on the reasons why it was so important to me, and many others, to come up with resolutions before that ball drops. In the world of highly competitive athletes, it is easy to be defined by your accomplishments, especially in the elite levels. This is particularly true when athletes are children or adolescents with brains that are developing, and their self-identities are only just forming. When 110 percent of their focus is towards reaching a specific goal, as is necessary if they are to succeed in elite sports, they cannot build all of the other elements that make up a healthy self-identity. Essentially, they can become defined by a number – the value of their top placement.

And what is the New Year? It is also just a number; a day like any other. It only holds the meaning we decide to attach to it. So rather than expecting ourselves to be able to change things that we haven’t yet managed to change and being disappointed that an arbitrary number did not change anything at all, why not frame this New Year simply in terms of hope for a good next cycle of the seasons. Why not simply resolve to enter into a future that can be satisfying even though it lacks everything that we may desire; a future that offers hope that if we cannot change certain things, that we will be at peace with the unavoidable rougher times we will all face within the next journey around the sun?

Tonight, for the first time since I can remember, I will not be writing down any resolutions. I will raise my glass of Glühwein high, and toast to the continuation of this ongoing journey through time, resolving to celebrate the good things each day and to enjoy a future that has hope even with the inevitable challenges life will bring. Happy New Year!

Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

By Melanie Hackett

If you are interested in health you have probably heard of “cleansing” diets aimed at ridding your body of toxins by reducing what you eat to a very limited selection of healthy products for two or three weeks.

But wait! Is our physiology that straightforward?  No way.  These diets simply don’t do what they are intended for.  In fact, more toxins are created during these diets!  Of course, there are many different types of detox diets.  Like all fad diets, most of these are merely a tool for companies to earn money off unwary consumers and aren’t based on science at all.  Even my mother, a very health-conscious and active 61-year-old who generally looks for the science, used to do annual “cleansing” fasts consuming nothing but elderberry juice for a week in an attempt to “flush away” toxins.  I will focus on these types of “cleanses”.

In most people with a healthy diet, blood sugar levels are well regulated by two hormones: insulin and glucagon.  Insulin, released by the pancreas after a meal, is the bus driver that takes the blood sugar to work.  Mr Sugar’s workplace is inside all body cells where it can be used as energy for all cell function.  Extra glucose (sugar) combines forming a substance called glycogen, which gets stored in the liver and muscle.  The hormone glucagon, opposite of insulin, is the vehicle that takes Mr. Sugar from these stores back into the blood when your blood sugar gets low.  These glycogen stores are crucial for maintaining blood glucose levels when you aren’t eating.  They can be completely depleted after only a couple of hours of exercise at a heart rate 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. So how do we rebuild them?  Only with a diet high in carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, quinoa, rice, whole grain bread, etc.)!  These stores can also be depleted within a couple of days of consuming much less than you are expending, or not having a diet consisting of about 60 percent carbohydrates.

When the glycogen runs out, your liver breaks down fatty acids and proteins to use for energy instead.  The by-products are three types of what we call ketones.  Two of these are used by the heart and brain, and the third is a waste product stressing the kidneys.  Ketones also make your blood more acidic.  To correct this, your respiratory system goes haywire, and in extreme cases this can be fatal.

For the Bioscience Geeks:

When the pH of your blood is too low, you’ll start to hyperventilate to expel more carbon dioxide.  This works because in the blood, carbon dioxide combines with water and forms bicarbonate and a hydrogen ion (the latter of which makes the blood more acidic).  What’s in your lungs goes into your blood through structures called alveoli.  If there is less carbon dioxide available, fewer hydrogen ions will be produced, and your blood pH will therefore go back to normal.  However, less carbon dioxide also means there is less of a stimulus to breathe.  This is how it can cause fatality.

The main point here is that rather than “flushing away” toxins, we create toxins when we don’t eat enough carbs.  Excess ketones and the physiological effect they have can be considered toxic in the human body.  These effects are pretty much identical to what happens both during starvation and during diabetic coma when a diabetic’s blood sugar is extremely high because they lack insulin, sugar’s bus driver, to help the sugar from the blood to the starved cells.  This is also what happens during the Atkin’s diet, one that should only be tried in morbidly obese people who are at alarming risk of fatality if they don’t lose weight.  In general, if a diet is not healthy or is impossible to maintain permanently, it probably should not be done at all.

When we don’t eat enough carbohydrates and our glycogen stores run out, the use of proteins for energy instead can be compared to burning fossil fuels.  Instead of using renewable energy such as Whitehorse’s hydroelectric power, there are many more waste products with fossil fuels.  The net breakdown of proteins to provide energy (either in a high protein diet such as the Atkin’s diet or when the body is starved of carbs in “cleansing” diets) not only creates ketones, but also causes a negative nitrogen balance, meaning there is a lot of nitrogenous waste being produced.  Just as the burning of fossil fuels taxes Earth’s atmosphere, this taxes the liver as it tries to rid itself of the waste products.  The immune system is weakened, and the levels of cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, may increase, further weakening the immune system.

The physiological effects discussed above merely state what toxins build up in the body and the negative effect on health during “detox” diets, and that’s not even to mention the nutrient deficiencies that occur during such limited diets, which have a cascade of harmful effects in the body.

Eyjafjallajӧ-KABOOM!

Lava lake at Pu'u O'o crater, Hawaii Big Island (Photo: Melanie Hackett)

Where Fire Meets Ice – The Icelandic Eruption

By: Melanie Hackett

Humans have always been fascinated by the immense power of volcanoes. After all, volcanoes are responsible for the birth of new earth, as is rapidly happening on the Big Island of Hawaii. In fact, the gases released by volcanoes may have contributed to the creation of our atmosphere, and therefore set the stage for all of life itself.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.

But what happens when volcanoes erupt in frigid areas full of glaciers, and how does that change the landscape afterwards? In 2010, a team of scientists from the UK and Iceland set out to the flanks of Eyjafjallajӧkull to discover the consequences of fire meeting with ice.

Remember this Icelandic eruption? Yes, it’s the one that caused the greatest air travel disruption since the Second World War as ash clouds blanketed Europe. However, Eyjafjallajӧkull provided the opportunity for scientists to learn how volcano-driven torrents of glacial meltwater would behave and how they would alter the landscape.

Prince William Sound, Alaska
Prince William Sound, Alaska

When the volcano rumbled to life on April 14, 2010, it melted large amounts of ice, sending cascades of meltwater roaring down the mountain. These glacial outburst floods are given the easily pronounced name jӧkulhlaup. The action culminated in two larger floods that sent the equivalent of 60 thousand Canada Games Centre swimming pools down the flanks of the volcano! The surge flowed both underneath and atop the glacier, carrying gravel and debris into a lake at the base of nearby Gigjӧkull glacier. And before you can say “Eyjafjallajӧkull”, the lake level rose by nearly five metres, engulfing the scientists’ equipment. The jӧkulhlaup continued its rampage, smashed through the far lake wall and drained the lake entirely.

Before this, not much was known about what happens as these catastrophic floods are raging down volcanoes. The scientists’ time-lapse imagery showed another subsequent 140 jӧkulhlaups. Each of these is believed to have occurred after the rupture of temporary blockages in meltwater rivers. These floods were much smaller than the initial two because the increasing tephra created an insulating layer on the ice, so less could melt. However, what the scientists discovered, to their surprise, was that contrary to previous belief, the large floods did not actually transport the most debris. The 140 smaller jӧkulhlaups had a much greater influence on the new shape of the land, as they brought fans of gravel down the mountain.

These findings will be invaluable for future hazard assessment, especially since more and more of these glacial outburst floods are expected in our warming climate. Closer to home, a future jӧkulhlaup is possible at Lowell Lake, a sediment-dammed lake at the headwaters of the Alsek River. Currently there is not enough water in the lake to flood Haines Junction if a catastrophic flood were to happen, but as Lowell glacier melts into the lake with global warming, this could be of concern in the future. However, as Eyjafjallajӧkull has shown us, it is not necessarily the largest and most powerful body that initiates change. There is strength in numbers, and change can be initiated by much smaller forces, that when combined, hold great power.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.

Journey to the Midnight Sun: Pedalling with Purpose

Journey to the Midnight Sun: Pedalling with Purpose

It’s lunch time. I’m alone, in a spectacular land with twice as many moose as people. My only companion is Skookum – my mountain bike. The nearest settlement is three days of biking away down the Dempster Highway. Suddenly, a flash of fur in the bushes interrupts my tranquil munching. “A lynx!” I think as I stand and grab my camera. What I see then stops my heart in mid-beat. It’s no lynx. It’s a giant grizzly. And it’s lumbering directly towards me, nonchalant, ignoring my yells, unaware of my bear spray. I have two options. I can keep yelling until the massive beast is within range of my puny can of spray. Or I can retreat, allowing it to hop onto the picnic table and chow down on the irreplaceable food intended to get me through ten days of biking through the Yukon wilderness. No time for thinking. I choose potential starvation over immediate mauling. And flee. This is going to put a serious spoke in my wheel. How do I get out of this dilemma? How did I get into it!? And why?

This past August, I began a typical day in my role as Recreation Director in Pelly Crossing, Yukon. This is the home of the Selkirk First Nation. The challenges for this community are as vast as the size of the territory: the tragedies experienced in residential schools, including severe physical, emotional and sexual abuse have left them with intergenerational cycles of trauma and ensuing social woes. Living and working here is extremely challenging and emotionally draining, so when three cyclists passing through jokingly invited me to join them on their quest from Vancouver to the Arctic, I said what only someone who’s gone loopy from the midnight sun would say: “Absolutely!”

Dempster Highway
Dempster Highway

The mere mention of the name “Dempster Highway” strikes terror into the hearts of rational cycle tourists. The Dempster is the most northern road in Canada. It is an isolated 750 kilometre stretch of dirt (or impassable mud depending on the weather) with no services, travelling from Dawson City in the Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Heading north on the Klondike highway five hundred kilometres south of the Dempster, there is a sign warning you that you are leaving the area covered by emergency services. It is not uncommon to have hundred kilometre per hour winds blowing across the Arctic tundra, and snow even in the middle of summer. The weather can change overnight from 35 degrees Celsius to freezing. Grizzlies roam the entire stretch on the hunt either for caribou or for the weeks of food rations in the panniers of crazy cyclists, if not the cyclists themselves! Even displaced polar bears lacking ice have been found strolling down the Dempster.

I immediately drove three hours south to Whitehorse to get geared up in a mad rush. My friends there reasoned I had gone nuts – us Yukoners have been on the Dempster in vehicles, and it is common to bring at least three spare tires and multiple jerry cans. While most people who bike the Dempster, having never been there, have the benefit (or misfortune) of being able to lead themselves into false hope that the local stories are not true, I fully knew what to expect. This trio comprised of an 18-year-old bike mechanic, a 19-year-old ultra-marathoner, and the 21-year-old leader who cycled coast to coast across Canada. To make things more terrifying, I had no idea if I could keep up with the team that called themselves GrassRoutes, having suffered a nasty accident three years ago that left me with chronic pain. Additionally, the weather was calling for blowing rain and snow for most of the ten day expedition. The Dempster, I knew, was going to be hell on wheels to tackle!

So, why on Earth, you wonder? GrassRoutes is a youth organization that embarks on extended bike trips for the personal growth that immense challenges provide, while delivering workshops for kids along the way on human-caused environmental issues. They also fundraise for youth bike co-ops and create video documentaries to use in future workshops. Their Journey to the Midnight Sun focused on issues of global warming as observed migrating from south to north and how the regions impact one another. This was a journey of learning and educating about the unsustainable things we are doing – why on Earth, our only home, indeed.

On day one of the trip, although my teammates were mostly just three specs on the horizon ahead, the weather was great, the scenery spectacular. I ignored the searing pain in my back and my chafed crotch, convincing myself that it was simply due to my sedentary office job and that I’d probably build up scar tissue or something. If this was as bad as it got, bring it on, Dempster!

Dempster biking the circle
Dempster biking the circle

Then, an event unfolded that made my stomach turn over. As if in slow motion, Graham, our team leader, turned right over his handlebars, metal and flesh colliding with the road in spectacular fashion. Gavin, who had caused the crash by suddenly cutting Graham off, guiltily ran to Graham’s aid. For me, it was like watching a video of myself being hit three years earlier, flying over Skookum and smashing the pavement. Flashbacks to that horrific moment when my passions, career choices, even social circles and whole identity slipped away made my head spin. Shaken, I had no choice but to keep on spinning and ride it out. Fortunately Graham only suffered minor wounds. Just minutes from our destination, Saskia also bailed off of her bike as her tire went “pop!” Right, three spare tires, eh Dempster? Would it be my turn next? I firmly decided I had already had my turn to bail, and this was going to be a great journey. Dempster, bring it on!

Day two. I watched some graduate students from Ottawa who were in the field for a month studying the shrinking layer of permafrost. I biked alone that day, having caught a ride with a Pennsylvanian environmental geography professor to the northern border of Tombstone Territorial Park. I took this head start with the majority of the team’s weight. I opted to do this to help the team make a very long day possible in order to reach a camp with bear caches, as the trees up north are too small to hang food high enough. Ironically, this is when I encountered my large furry friend.

Interestingly, I was not as afraid of this situation as I am of biking in a city of traffic. Sometimes our perceived versus actual risk are two very different things, and I believe driving a car is more dangerous than this grizzly was. Similarly, throughout our workshops we found that compared to people up north, southerners from cities did not perceive climate change to be as serious. Even though they understood more of the science, they perhaps do not have the same level of personal connection to nature. Mind you, climate change is happening twice as fast in the Arctic, but northerners even noticed such details as a new insect encroaching upon previously inhospitable territory. In January, we had unusual rain which created a layer of ice that cut up moose’s legs so badly that they were unable to escape wolves. In Pelly we had a plight of aspen tortrix worms that would normally be unable to survive if winters are cold enough. Not only did it look like the Apocalypse having to walk through thousands of suspended worms, but after mummifying entire trees in webs they also ate the moist leaves, worsening forest fires from the unusually intense lightning storms. In Inuvik, people’s houses fell over due to the melting permafrost.

On the rest of the journey we continued to encounter challenges. Like the elder back in Pelly that kept unravelling my imperfect moccasin beadwork, we kept unravelling our hard work up mountains. I held my face against relentless wind and rain on the downs. We had to keep spirits high and get along, relying on each other for survival. For a two day stretch, we had to carry all of the water we would need. We were stuck for a day on the several inches of mud that the road had become in a blizzard, already short on bear-slobber-free food. Even the road maintenance crew could not navigate their trucks through the mud. After entering the Mackenzie Delta, Canada’s largest river, it became a mental game as we biked in a straight flat line past miniature trees for three days with the sun going around in circles. By that point, the mud had destroyed my brakes and shifters, and I started calling the road the “Dumpster”!
Once in Inuvik, we faced different challenges – hardly as scary as an 800-pound grizzly, but daunting in their own way. We delivered workshops, did radio interviews, toured the Aurora College and Research Centre to learn about their renewable energy research (wind power doesn’t work yet as their turbine fell over due to the shifting permafrost) and changing migratory bird nesting grounds. We met with Floyd Roland, Inuvialuit mayor of Inuvik and former premier of NWT. As a native to this area, he grew up living off the land and realizes the importance of finding sustainable lifestyles in this fragile ecosystem rather than exploiting the finite natural resources that they have, but he is also challenged by the desire to keep his young people on their homeland to preserve their traditional ways and culture. That is only possible if there are enough jobs for them. Currently a topic of debate is the year-round road to Tuktoyaktuk project and the ensuing natural gas extraction destined for pipeline export to northern Alberta, ultimately for use in extracting Tar Sands bitumen. As it turns out, like most mining in the Yukon, workers are often not local but rather outsiders that work several weeks at a time before leaving with their earnings, as there may not be enough qualified locals to do the jobs.

On the flight back to Dawson, I marvelled at the spectacular land below and my newly formed deeper connection to it. Our Yukon truly is the Last Frontier, something that is worth more than words can describe. It was strangely disconcerting to watch it all go by in a mere two hours, after ten days of harsh struggles. In our comfortable modern life, people are becoming less attached to nature, which itself takes its toll on human health. My struggles on the Dempster were unquestionably worth it. Becoming intimately connected with such pristine wilderness that most do not get to experience in their lifetimes is a truly rewarding experience, and one that I hope more city dwellers have before they unsustainably exploit what is there in the name of economy, completely unaware of how much more there is to be lost.

Oh yes, the grizzly… although the beast had good taste and ate our favourites, eventually a car came by and I got the driver to keep the bear at bay with fervent honking while I rescued my food. Supplemented with the plentiful berries around, we made it safely to the Land of the Midnight Sun!

Walk for Reconciliation

Walk for Reconciliation

ON Sunday, September 22, thousands of people from many cultures braved the torrential downpours common to Vancouver, in order to partake in the Walk for Reconciliation. This walk marked the end of a week of events aimed at reconciliation between indigenous people and all Canadians.

The Reconciliation Week, the sixth of seven national events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, took place at the PNE. On the first day, the Pacific Coliseum venue was packed with crowds of people. People from all over the country and beyond travelled to Vancouver for the week, including many Yukoners from the fourteen First Nations in the territory. I even met a Hopi man from Arizona. Arnold Joe from Pelly Crossing said, “There were students from all over the place, all different schools. Universities cancelled classes so students could come”.

For four days, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission listened to testimonies of survivors of the residential schools funded by the Canadian government and run by churches. There were many displays with information on the national crime against aboriginal people, including the sexual, physical and emotional abuse. There were records of tuberculosis cases in schools, some of which had only a 50 percent survival rate. There were stories of the medication that was being tested on aboriginal children, using them as an experimental group without consent from them or their parents, and stories of children attempting to escape and parents attempting to retrieve their children, only to pay an even greater price. There were stories of children being shampooed with DDT. Unfortunately, the list continues.

However, there were also many tents with various ceremonies that all were welcome to partake in, and tents with amazing aboriginal artwork. Sweet sage smudging could be smelled in the air, singing and drumming could be heard, and the sacred fire was tended to for the entire week. The event t-shirt was sold, which had a Kwakwaka’wakw (from northern Vancouver Island) word meaning “we are all one” printed on it: Namwayut.

The week culminated with the four kilometer walk through downtown on Sunday. Karen Joseph, the executive director of Reconciliation Canada, was worried that the weather would influence the turnout for the event. It was her father, Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwawaenuk Nation, who originally envisioned a walk for reconciliation, dreaming to have ten thousand people participate. The numbers in Vancouver were estimated to be close to 70 thousand. It was a spectacular sight to watch what looked like thousands of brightly coloured mushroom-tops march across the viaduct with BC Place in the background, as people holding umbrellas followed the First Nation dancing and drumming groups leading the walk.

To commence the symbolic walk forward towards a society of acceptance, several speeches were given. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., engaged the crowds in a passionate speech, marking the 50th anniversary of her father’s revolutionary “I have a dream” speech. She emphasized not to forget economic empowerment as part of the way forward, and stated that resolution to the cultural oppression that was experienced by indigenous people will require all sectors to take part.

Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the TRC, thanked all of the survivors for sharing their stories over the previous four days in front of a large audience.

“I want you to know that we understand how brave it was for you to stand up before us, and before all the people who were there at the event this week, and talk about those stories, and talk about those pains, and share your tears,” he said. He also thanked them for sharing their stories of resilience and of how they came through it. He referred to reconciliation as a challenge to the whole country:

“… the most important part of it is that Canada must understand that this is not an aboriginal problem,” he said. “This is a Canadian problem.”

Although many agree that the road will not be any easier now, after simply walking the streets of Vancouver in unity one afternoon, hopefully we as Canadians are one step closer to understanding the issues faced by aboriginal people today and why those issues are present. We are hopefully one step closer to resolving their pain and celebrating their resilience and their rich cultures. As Justice Murray Sinclair said, this is a Canadian problem, and one which will require a multi-faceted solution to overcome the fallout of such massive cultural oppression. Namwayut – we are all one.

Dispelling myths about mental illness

Dispelling myths about mental illness

IT was a crisp day in May, snowflakes gently flying in the breeze. At the bus stop, a woman wearing a colourful toque to conceal her balding head wondered aloud whether summer would ever arrive. The woman let out a deep cough that seemed to arise from a deathly monster within her. She was going through her third chemotherapy session, and silently wondered whether she would make it through summer, assuming it did arrive.

The several others waiting for the bus stood a distance from her. As the bus pulled up, someone lashed out at her weak body to the cheers of the group. “Get lost, sick lady!” they exclaimed to her as they filed past her slumped on the ground. As the bus pulled away without her, someone announced they had the episode on video and would post it to YouTube for everyone’s amusement.

Imagine if we treated everyone with compromised health the way we treat those with mental-health challenges. The above story did not happen. The following, however, certainly did:

I was driving to my favourite biking trails with the radio on, listening to the story of the man who harmed himself with a knife on the Today Show’s Rockefeller Plaza set on June 6. The broadcaster explained how the man was tackled to the ground to cheers from the crowd. He then went on to exclaim that in any event with a crowd, there is guaranteed to be at least one stupid person. He expressed his worry that here was a stupid person who pulled a really stupid move.

These comments shocked me, and show complete ignorance of the rising incidence of mental illness. The fact of the matter is that one in five Canadians suffers from some form of mental illness. Compare this to the two or three per cent prevalence of cancer, or five per cent prevalence of heart disease.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the economic cost of mental illness is in excess of $50 billion annually, yet well over half of the people struggling with their mental health fail to receive the health services they need. One of the major barriers for getting treatment is this stigma, which is propagated by such comments as the one made by the broadcaster, as well as a lack of knowledge on mental health issues. This worsens the issue, and I worry how many people struggling with their mental health heard the commentator.

At some point in his or her lifetime, everyone will experience feelings of isolation, loneliness, sadness, emotional distress or disconnection from things. Mental illness occurs when a person’s ability to function over a long period of time is affected. Depending on the illness, it can disturb the sufferer’s thinking, mood or behaviour, and it can either have no obvious triggers, or can be set off by life events that we all find difficult: the loss of a job, a death, a romantic breakup or a loss of physical health to name a few.

Self harm or suicide can arise from some form of mental illness. It’s not a sign of weakness or stupidity, but rather an intense internal pain that manifests itself in physical form. Twenty-five per cent of deaths among youth are due to suicide, and this number increases dramatically in aboriginal populations. Of the 4,000 Canadians who die by suicide each year, most were confronting a mental-health problem. As with physical illnesses, development of a mental illness depends on a complex array of factors including genetics, physiology, environment and personal experiences, and therefore cannot be judged, as it is impossible to know another’s experience.

Mental illness does not mean the affected are “stupid” or less “mentally tough” – quite the contrary. I was a hiking guide for the wilderness therapy program of Simon Fraser University’s Students for Mental Wellness, a club started by my friends, and some of the most courageous people I’ve met are those that have struggled with their mental wellness. Similarly, here in Pelly Crossing, there is a high prevalence of mental illness due to the horrific experiences many of the people here have endured. This originates from the abuse suffered in residential schools, and the intergenerational cycle of social woes created by the obliteration of their language and culture. Knowing their stories sheds light on how mental illness including addictions can progress, and the incredible strength of character they demonstrate through their hardship and recovery.

My vision for the future is that opening dialogue on mental illness will increase knowledge and awareness, and that a corollary of that will be an eradication of the stigma that is held in our society, which is not only a roadblock to treatment, but also a factor that exacerbates this issue, one that either directly or indirectly affects us all.

Melanie Hackett was recreation director for Selkirk First Nation, Pelly Crossing.

Larger than Life by Melanie Hackett

The devastating beauty of the North. Photo by Melanie Hackett

YOU only need to set foot in the Yukon for a split second before it becomes clear why the territory’s motto is “Larger Than Life.”

Home to 14 First Nations groups and some 30,000 people — as well as the backdrop of Canada’s highest mountain and some of the largest and most isolated National Parks — the Yukon is one of the least densely populated places left on earth.

Imagine taking one tenth the population of Victoria and spreading it out over an area that is geographically larger than California, and is unadulterated and pristine wilderness.

Most of the population resides in the territory’s capital of Whitehorse. I, on the other hand, live in a self-governed Northern Tutchone First Nation community of 300, several hours north of Whitehorse. Of the seven billion people living on our planet, only about four million of them can claim that they live further north than we do here.

I am a graduate from SFU’s Kinesiology program, and the Recreation Director for the community of Pelly Crossing, which is located in the traditional territory that the Selkirk First Nation has been inhabiting for many thousands of years, passing on knowledge of survival in the below 50 Celsius winters from one generation to the next.

In my time here, I’ve had many larger-than-life experiences, and have also faced the sharp paradoxes of the Yukon: there is a contrast between the awe-inspiring experiences that teach you how tiny yet connected to everything you are, and the harsh reality of life in the north.

One of the most amazing northern experiences has been to watch the aurora borealis dancing overhead in electric purples and greens as the particles from the sun interact with the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, respectively.

One particular November night, it was nearly -50 Celsius. I ran out with two of my friends to watch a huge swan dance into a soaring eagle, a daffodil and finally an angel that raced across the star-filled sky — a sky that was so clear by now that I spotted the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away. By contrast, in the summer, it’s chilling to lie in the sunlit tent nestled in the jagged mountains at two in the morning, listening to the eerie call of the wolves. The ground cover consists of strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, and more. By autumn the hills are on fire with the changing leaves, as hundreds of thousands of cranes, swans, geese, and other birds migrate south. I saw bears, lynx, foxes, porcupines, Dall sheep, wolves, moose and elk.

Yet even with more beauty than imaginable, the people here have suffered greatly. From the sudden colonization that occurred after the Klondike Gold Rush, to the end of the steamboat days when the Klondike highway was built, which forced Selkirk people to relocate, to the despicable residential school era that forced children away from their hunting gathering culture, westernized them and spat them back to families they could no longer understand, there is a lot of trauma left in our community.

It is a generational cycle, one lacking parenting as a result of being taken from their own families; there is a generational gap: the elders living here grew up living off the land, and their grandchildren grew up playing video games. It is a suppression of their language, traditions, and culture, and it is a cycle of substance abuse that leads to many more downward spirals.

There is no purpose in sugar-coating it. Children steal money off their parents in order to feed their drug habit — after all, their parents are attempting the same thing, sometimes stealing off their children who work part-time student jobs.

Being part of the Yukon EMS ambulance team, I know that over 50 per cent of our calls are alcohol related. Beginning in February, it is the sunniest place in the country, but don’t let it fool you. There have been several instances this year of teenagers that have passed out drunk and froze to death in the -40 temperatures.

Even if sober it can be a dangerous place. If your car breaks down on an isolated strip of highway, it could be an extremely long and dangerously cold wait, as there is no cell reception. Although difficult to deal with, these issues and history make the discrimination against me — as one of the only “white” people here — more understandable.

I have a friend here who was violently raped as a teenager. She got pregnant, and alcohol and drugs were the only method to temporarily wipe out her horrifying experience, so her child was born with severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This substance abuse however, increased her vulnerability to being raped again.

Eventually, two kids later, she found herself lying in the street close to death. She finally called for help and was flown to Vancouver, where a specialized surgeon reconstructed her slashed wrists. Relocated from her home and with no money or support system, she had nowhere to go. She ended up like many of the people in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

How many of us look from the bus window at that corner and judge the people there for “wasting their lives?” How many of us ignorantly tell kids ogling from the car that that’s where they’ll end up if they make stupid choices? In the best case scenario, we simply don’t give them much thought.

My friend was one of those people — the ones standing on the corner, serving as a lesson of deterrence to children, on the receiving end of our pity. Today, she is one of the most inspiring “Larger Than Life” characters I have ever met: hardworking, outgoing, and humorous, she is not afraid to share her story.

Sometimes the incredible beauty surrounding us brings even more pain as we try to comprehend the horrors that occurred in such a pristine place; likewise, it is difficult to comprehend how a simple mistake, such as forgetting your lock antifreeze inside in the dead of winter, could lead to death by such an aesthetic place.

But the things that bring healing to the community are activities that restore their culture and focus on nature.

One successful program was a native dancing program for school kids. When the children performed for their elders, the community was transformed. Tears of joy, pain and healing flowed down the faces of elders as they got up from the audience and danced with their youth, bridging that generational gap to finally connect with them.

The stone-faced youth that were so preoccupied with finding their next joint became energetic with smiles after only three days in the wilderness, where they were learning to ice fish, make fire, shoot arrows, make snares and listen to traditional legends.

It will take time — it may take a few more generations — but if any people can overcome such struggles, the Larger Than Life community of Selkirk people will.

These are the people most connected to the land, and they instinctively realize what an integral role it plays in the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of a person. If we are to deal with all of the contemporary issues we’re faced with, we need to listen to the lessons of their stories and culture.

One thing I know for certain is that if there is any place on earth that is larger than life, in both the natural environment and in the character of its inhabitants, it most certainly is the Yukon.

Words and pictures by Melanie Hackett

(Melanie Hackett was recreation director for Selkirk First Nation. She lived in Pelly Crossing for more than a year.)