Previous Lost Stories
Matters of the Heart
In April, my dog died. Overnight she became a lifeless body from the one that was running, jumping, digging, unconditionally greeting me with love and wanting. The loss ripped my heart.
My typical window seat gives way to a dazzling evening sun throwing rays of gold and copper towards the western horizon. I stare into the blinding light, my head resting against the vibrating cabin siding of a Boeing747, and contemplate my decision. I could have driven and made it a leisurely road trip in my Jeep. It would take me three days each direction, though. Besides, with the load I intended to bring home, it is very questionable that it ended up being leisurely. In the end, I opted for the air, much shorter. My thoughts wander between the past and tomorrow and I squeeze my eyes shut. Partly against the celestial glare, mostly to not let the tears win.
Every door that closes opens another one. The proverb reached a unique meaning, lately. Each ending simultaneously means a beginning. True. Yet, I am struggling to get excited with the next beginning. I still mourn the recent ending. In April, my dog died. Overnight she became a lifeless body from the one that was running, jumping, digging, unconditionally greeting me with love and wanting. The loss ripped my heart.
After I had 12 years with a trusting, loving and entertaining companion, I am now left with my heart ragged and hollow. My soul turned into an emptied wardrobe, dark and dusty, with only the wire hangers’ stark reminder of what should be there, of what is gone. Uncompromisingly final.
I mourned the death of my friend for weeks, spent months of agony and countless tears. When I finally emerged, I realized that in the company of another dog, I can end this suffering. So, I started looking for a new puppy. With trepidation, I closed the reliable door of familiarity, custom and habit to open a door to a hundred unknown possibilities.
A downy cloud bank has swallowed us up a while ago when we emerge into the sphere lyrically called “above the clouds”. The smell of airplane coffee wafted through the aisles, comforting my senses. I want to hope my planned enterprise becomes just as lyrical.
I am headed to Edmonton in Alberta, a 3-hour flight from Whitehorse in the Yukon, with a brief stop at Calgary.
* * *
I meet them in the afternoon under a fairy-tale blue Albertan sky. The sun throws out enough warmth for me to relax on a grassy stretch in South Edmonton Common. Waiting for my people and the new dog, my back rests against the medium-sized dog crate I had carried around since the morning.
The abundant traffic sounds in this shopping area had receded into the back of my mind, subdued like white noise. Still, I notice insects whizzing by my face, the sun wandering over my legs, strangely caressing, when suddenly, a pickup stops. They arrived.
In the truck bed, I see a handmade wire kennel. Inside the kennel, tiny fur heads are bobbing up and down. The family piles out of the cabin, while I rise from the lawn and we acquaint ourselves. The people selling the puppy had come 600km from a northern, remote Mennonite community called La Crete, to meet me and hand over my future companion.
They brought its six siblings, too. One of them has the same colouring of tan and black with a white spot at the chest and the toes. The rest are as black as a moonless winter night. The family lets the puppies out on the grass, secured on slender leashes, attached to slim cat collars. Naturally, chaos breaks out with lines getting crossed, fights starting, and the odd puppy slipping right out of its collar.
While we adults talk, the kids try to keep the puppies in order. I am surprised when the parents offer me the pick of the litter. Apparently, I can choose anyone there on the ground crawling & growling, sniffing and pawing at each other. I am also offered to take more than one.
More than one? The black male?Truth is, it swayed me only momentarily.
My choice made from pictures on the Internet stays firm. It will be the multi-coloured female, labelled “Dainty”. The moment I hold her in my arms, she stops squirming. She is so tiny, much smaller than I expected. The crate I brought easily can house three of her, or four. But I take only one, her.
The family offers to drive me back to the airport. My plane is leaving in a little over 2 hours. Outside the terminal, the great GoodBye gets washed into a wave of hectic. Father helps me put the dog box together, his wife pushes a bag with toys, diapers and a small amount of puppy food into my hands, and the kids are holding on to my squirming cargo. For a moment I regret how short a time we have, wishing I could spend a few days with these people, getting to know them better, see their home, learn how they live. I remember the same thought from the years I was guiding backcountry trips in Canada’s north. Each tour was a flash with new individuals, as brilliant as a shooting star, but gone just as fast.
The moment I set my puppy inside the crate, padded with diapers and a few food crinkles, she cries, then wails, then screams. We think it best to separate quickly and exchange our human adieus in a hurry. The truck pulls away from the curb, hands waving out the cab’s window, and I stand by myself on the walkway. With a screaming puppy. Under a now blue whitish evening sky in Edmonton.
Being sure that she will settle soon, I push her on one of the luggage carts into the airport building. I walk beside the cart so she sees me, hears me talking reassuring words to her. Yet, she does not stop crying. At the airline counter, I become the centre of the area’s attention. Because I have a cute puppy, but also because of the attraction a screaming animal will cause. The Air North personnel are a fantastic lot. One lady comes straight out from behind her counter handing me the papers I need to fill out. We both agree.
I need to take the puppy out of the cage.
Absolute silence. Minimal squirming in my arms, tentative face licking. But no sounds. I write holding a 6kg animal, then pay for her fare.
A plane attendant arrives to go with me to the dog check-in. The moment she is back in the crate, her screaming starts up, reaching the level of a screeching parrot. My heart cracks. Again, I walk beside the cart, half bent over, trying to calm her. To no avail.
When we reach the oversized luggage screening desk, it becomes obvious the crate will not fit through the scanner. The agent needs to hand-swipe it for any contraband, weapons, or drugs. So, I have to lift the puppy out again. Rules are rules. I relish having her in my arms, feeling how she pushes her nose into my elbow crook, stifling the snuffles. Just before I lay the puppy back inside, I see she has already trashed her pipi-pads. Afraid she might swallow parts of it, I take them out. Instead, I grab my nightshirt from the daypack and stuffed it into the crate. The official standing beside me smiles and nods approvingly.
It is time for him to bring her past the check-in. The moment the puppy rests inside her crate, terror starts all over again. Heart-piercing screams echo through the airport hall.
The officer wheels the cage away and with every step he takes, the screams become fainter. I realize I long for the moment they are out of earshot. As long as I can hear her, I will not calm myself.
I am at the people check-in counter and boarding should start soon. The vast window leading out to the tamarack offers a plain view of our aircraft. I scrutinized the luggage going into it, but no dog crate is among the suitcases, boxes, and bags.
The luggage loading ends and the toy-like chain of carts drive off. And nothing.
My heart races. They forgot to load her. Impossible! I am not boarding! I am just about to raise hell with Air North staff when, finally, another baggage cart approaches the plane. They lift four dog crates onto the conveyer belt, from where they roll into the plane’s belly. One of them had the exact size and colour of my crate.
I willingly board.
* * *
A few minutes before takeoff, the pilot walks down the aisle and stops at my seat. He hands me the flying passport that was taped to the crate’s deck. No flight leaves without the animal passports delivered to their owners on the plane! Good to know.
Again, my head rests against the vibrating siding of the airplane. This time I am filled with anxiety of a different kind. Anticipation had given way to doubt and fear.
I did it. I opened a new door and the next chapters start to unravel. Have started already.
My feet won’t remain still. Repeatedly, I cross my legs only to uncross them shortly afterwards. My hands keep fidgeting, from bracing my body tight to being shoved underneath my thighs. Soon enough they come out again, interlaced fingers, clasped in my lap. I look out the window. Greyish clouds swim by as if they have nothing to do with me.
What will it be? Everything is possible. I know I can write part of my dog’s life chapters. Teaching and training, and being a trustworthy leader. But then, one knows, there is always nature besides nurture. How much is already imprinted in the puppy, DNA I cannot change?
With a sigh, I shake my head, trying to free it from the darker, negative thoughts. Glad I can not hear the puppy anymore; I wish the same would be true about the baby across the aisle. I have never had much patience with crying babies or toddlers on planes. But truth be told, I see the parent’s plight with fresh eyes. Empathy emerges from my heart like a snake from a woven basket – and immediately bursts into nothingness when the little boy – playing with the window’s sunshade – in one quick move rips the whole shade off the window.
I turn my head and glare into the clouds. Better them than I, knowing well it might be me soon enough.
Two hours later, we land in Whitehorse, and I do something I despised all my life. I am out of my seat, even before “the engines came to a complete halt”. With my backpack in my hands, I am ready to leave. But airplane life does not allow it. As I full well know. Stuck in the aisle, I am pressing into other passengers who are total obstructions pulling their carry-on from the overhead bins, shrugging into coats, adjusting handles of their rollers. My behaviour is downright cringe-worthy and I loathe myself. However, it is not enough to stop me from pushing on. In the tunnel to the terminal, I push past people no matter how narrow the space. When I reach the passport check, I even side-step a few undecided dawdlers to move up in the waiting line.
The crowd! I moan in frustration. How can I be held back here?
My mind plays images such as the cart with my dog waiting in the arrival hall with a terrified puppy inside and nobody coming to pick her up. I ask the next official if I can go to the head of the group because of my puppy. He declines. The worst passenger ever.
I am finally at the arrival counter when the person behind it lets me know I had not filled out my form correctly. She thinks it faster if she reads the missing questions out to me and then checks them off herself. Despite her best intentions to help, she stumbles over words, misses words and has to repeat another question. My blood heats to a near-boiling state. I am hard-pressed to keep some of my unpleasant German traits under control.
Naturally, I am the last person who enters the room where the luggage gets dispersed.And no crate.
Suitcases spill out of the opening, slide down the chute, and start their revolving dance on the conveyor belt. One by one, they get picked up. People are leaving the terminal. A few bags sit out additional rounds before their owners take possession. The crowd thins.
In the meantime, I continue to be the worst passenger. I ask nearly every airport employee when the dog cates will come out. Ask for a second time, or possibly the third.
Nobody gets angry. I have to give them that. A group of people assembled in front of the silvery sliding doors, behind which an elevator is supposed to bring out oversized luggage, such as bikes, car seats, and strollers. And dog crates. The couple with the crying toddler appears beside me, their child mercifully sleeping in their arms. They are waiting for their car seat. Patiently.
I have to ask again.
A whirring sound tears my attention to the door. The elevator whines. I unearth the last vestiges of civil behaviour and do not push to the front. All our eyes are on the doors. They slide open and inside are four dog crates. Three quiet as a rock. One with a squealing puppy.
I can’t help it. I dash forward, go on my knees, and slide towards the crates. I grab the crate that holds my puppy and shuffle back, between the legs of more cultivated people waiting with grace.
She is beside herself, yowling at the top of her lungs, biting into the wire gate. My heart cracks a bit. But I can not get to her. For safety reasons, I zip-tied the crate’s wire screen. Now I can’t open it. I need to cut the plastic strip, but who carries a knife or scissors, having just left the airplane?
The father of the sunshade-destructive kid tries to help. He thinks he can hack through the plastic tie with his car keys. Not working. Puppy still at the top of her lungs. I rattle the cage, ripping with my fingers at the zip-tie when a dark sleeve crops up in the corner of my eye.
“Here, let me do it.” The dark sleeve belongs to an Air North airline person. And he has a knife. Swiftly, he cuts through the zip-tie and the door opens.
I am still on my knees when I pull the shaking body out of the crate. She clings to me with a force one would not attribute to such a small creature. Her front legs clamped around my neck, the tiny head shivering beneath my chin. Within seconds, the whining loses strength, dissolves into short ragged shudders. With her slight frame next to my chest, I feel the tremor of a terrified heart. Feel it beat a million times a minute, beat right into my own heart. Which mysteriously has regained its normal pace, strong and reassuring, calm and protective.
As it should be. As I should be.
My arms cradle the little creature, while I breathe confidence over her furry head. Confidence which, a few hours ago, I doubted I had. Confidence and responsibility.
“Ok, we can do this,” I mutter to myself – to the puppy, and possibly to the entire world. My legs have become two stiff logs when I try to get to my feet. With the puppy in my arms, I awkwardly shoulder the backpack and try to hoist the empty crate on a trolley.
Miraculously, help is here again.
Another young guy from the airline staff gently takes the trolley from my hands and offers to escort me to my vehicle. How could I refuse?
When we arrive at my Jeep, I thank the man several times. He rolls the trolley back, and I am left with only my precious belongings. A sudden calm has come over me. I know what to do.
Lowering the puppy to the ground, I feed her a few kibbles and have her drink some water from my hands. We seem to be isolated in a small, invisible bubble, leaning towards each other, starting to connect. We both breathe regularly. Nobody shakes or shivers, whines or frets anymore.
With the crate and my luggage in the hatch, I get behind the wheel, start the engine, and strap on the safety belt. Lights on, into reverse, and out of the parking lot. I aim for the highway, heading home, half an hour north of the city.
The weight of the puppy hangs lifeless in my arms. She has crumbled into my lap. Her head curled towards her belly, the tail over her nose. I drive one-handed, something I am used for a long time.
My left arm curls around her slim body as my hand cups the head of my unique companion. When I feel soft ears twitch under my fingers, my heart bursts into a million brilliant stars.
A new door has opened. The next chapter has begun. Loud and clear and with a mountain of emotions. Whatever that path, we are on it and will walk it with determination, care, and love.
In time, she gets named: “Princess Sarafina Maxxine de la Crête.” Or maybe just “Struppi.”
In Pursuit of the Perfect Present
It was a last-minute decision. Although I knew exactly what I wanted and where to get it, I had only two days left. The perfect Christmas present for my sister in Germany was waiting at the MANUFACTUM store in Frankfurt. I just had to get there.
Well, I already was in Germany, my birth country, where, in Frankfurt, I had lived all of my 35 years before I came to Canada. My sister, Hildegard, has lived her whole life here. While she loves to visit me in the wild country, she is always happy to return to her big-city reality. She is two years younger, but, with her work as chief physician in a Psychiatric Clinic, everybody places her way ahead of me in terms of matureness and having accomplished things in her life. And rightly so. With her shock of brown hair, now greying into a nice two-tone bob, and her serious dark eyes, she is definitely different than I am, but we have many things in common, the most precious probably being very, very close. She is the only “thing” I miss after having left the country, and so I visit as often as I can.
This time my vacation should have been coupled with visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest and most important literary event. In 2020, Canada would have been Guest of Honour, with a dedicated whole pavilion in which to display its cultural, historical, and foremost, literary heritage, that is, if COVID had not cancelled the whole event two days prior to opening.
Luckily, the efforts of my small but enthusiastic Yukon writers’ circle, which was started three years ago by late friend and mentor Jessica Simon, will not be for naught. Canada will be Guest of Honour in 2021, that is if the pandemic has ended by then and travel is embraced again.If so, we, that is Canada and our little dedicated writing circle, will all be there!
For four weeks, my vacation at my beloved sister’s home had been relaxing and pleasant, besides being constantly overshadowed by the rapidly rising COVID infections. Expanding all over the country, the pandemic had spread like a wildfire from a “reasonable” 30 infections for every 100,000 inhabitants to over 200 infections for the same amount of people. It was throwing some regions, Hessen County for one, of which Frankfurt is the capital, into the dark ages of extreme risks. So far, all regions were colour coded according to the degree of risk, from yellow or green where infections stayed relatively low, to the worst regions in red, labeling them more dangerous.
But there is “worse than red”.Within 10 days dark red had been invented and added indicating super-extremely high infection rates. Dead-swiftly, half of my birth country, and then, 90% of Germany appeared in dark red.
The virus had gotten away from the people leaving the “unbelievers” as well as the “law-abiding conformists” in its lethal wake. A second lock down, much stricter than during the first wave, was going to be initiated the next Monday, closing down everything but essential businesses.
On Monday, however, I should be home in the Yukon, my wild and safe domicile and motherland of choice. Once more, I congratulated myself on the decision I made nearly 30 years ago to go and live in Canada. Soon I would be out of here and home. Alas, I would be leaving Hildegard behind in this maelstrom of chaos, danger, and death. Again, as so often in the last 30 years, I felt torn between the pull to protect and stand with my beloved sister and the enticing lure to “escape” to a safer and better place. My sunlit, free, and open Yukon.
I always chose the latter.But I had one last chore to accomplish here. The Christmas present. For my sister.
She loves gardening and had recently been busy planting all kinds of fruit trees in her towel-sized garden (compared to Yukon dimensions). So, I was set on getting her those ultra-expensive but definitely high-quality pruners I had seen in a shop in Frankfurt: MANUFACTUM. This retailer boasts items from apparel to furniture and food and nearly everything in between, specializing in household and garden goods made with traditional manufacturing methods (thus “Manufactum”). I was first introduced to this shop by friends of my sister who lived down the street. They had converted their simple Garden-BBQ into a fully-fledged Pizza-and-Bread Outside-Oven, along with all the “trimmings” available. Their son, going through a highly emotional cooking-and baking phase, was scheduled to receive a pair of professional Bakers-Gloves from Hildegard and myself. Bought at MANUFACTUM, yes.
My first attempt to order the garden pruners for my sister failed miserably. I tried to order them via the Internet, pay with my credit card, and arrange for them to be delivered after my departure. So I filled out all that was necessary online. But when at check-out the required verification code never appeared on my computer screen, I had to cancel the order. I then tried with a different payment method, which is called Vorauskasse (only my old country mates would recognize this as a prepayment method transacted prior to delivery). It left me hanging with transferring the due amount from a German bank account. One I did not have anymore. Again, I cancelled my order.
After all the confusion, I decided to phone the store’s helpline. Predictably, I found myself on a long hold. While waiting with true Yukon patience, my sister popped into the room without knocking. I swiftly disconnected the phone, covering my BMO credit card inconspicuously with a paper, while closing the website with well-practised nonchalance. She had no idea. Or so I thought.
Hours later, we had finished our supper and were retired in the living room, the phone rang. Hildegard went to answer it in the next room. A minute later, the door opened, and her grumpy face appeared: “Those damned telemarketers! Tried to tell me I had ordered something at MANUFACTUM. How stupid do they think I am?”
“Hmm.” I did not lift my eyes from the knitting in my lap.It was 8:30 p.m.! They were working late, I had to give them that.
After an acceptable amount of time, I excused myself and went upstairs into her late husband’s office and opened my laptop. There it was. A purchase confirmation for the garden shears, waiting for payment.
This time, I did not have to wait long to talk to a manufacturer’s representative. I explained everything to him. From the failed credit card order to the sudden disconnection to me being a foreigner in my former home country (imagine that!) and no longer having a German bank account. Even to my ears, it sounded convoluted.
There was nothing he could do, the representative of MANUFACTUM said. Because I had chosen a payment method which couldn’t be completed the order had to be cancelled. Again. Surprisingly, I couldn’t even do that. He graciously agreed to handle it for me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.And thank you, my dear brains, for being still good at the German language.
Everything was solved but I was still without a present.
The next and, for me, last day rose in a mist of rain and wind and constant traffic of cars outside.
I called my sister’s best friend and neighbour, Paola, put my new plan to her, and she agreed. With a sloppy excuse to Hildegard, I left the house, ran down the street, and hopped into Paola’s Jeep. We had to leave their neat little neighbourhood, where small one-family houses hold hands to the next one across well-tended front gardens and evenly flagstoned car parks. While each home is completely different in style and build: from flat metal roofs to gabled steeple roofs, nicely laid in red clay shingles, from whitewashed walls to fronts covered in ivory and climbing wisteria, they unanimously radiated pride, cleanliness, and good workmanship.
We reached the downtown centre in 15 minutes. Here, an amalgamation of Gothic Patrician houses, with the earliest roots in the 11th Century nobility’s dwellings, adorned with stark turrets and heavy windows trim, stand aging beside modern glass boxes ensconced in energy-efficient window fronts. A kaleidoscope of history and modernism, of tradition and reform, of old and new. They all serve as a great commercial area now. Banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, office towers, and huge stores. Narrow pathways lead to respective entrances, no yard nor garden, simply direct access from the through lane.
MANUFACTUM sits opposite the Great Historic Opera House, dating back to the 1880s, which was destroyed in WWII, but beautifully reconstructed and reopened in 1981. Frankfurt being Frankfurt, finding a parking space compares to a lottery. Too many buildings, too many streets, and too many people navigating within this labyrinth quickly overload the sparsely build Parkades. Being short of time, we were looking for a spot close to our store to get off the four-lane thoroughfare. Paola pulled over behind a cleaning van and parked in a tiny courtyard. Its personnel were busy buffing the countless windows of another office high-rise, so common in German’s finance metropolis. They did not notice or mind us.
Leaving Paola behind, I raced to the store, throwing on my mandatory face mask. Second entrance, through the food section – I could already see the shears hanging on the wall – when a metal barrier stopped me in my tracks. Its sign said: “Closed off.”
It was ten to ten, and the hardware section would open precisely at 10 a.m. Patience, patience. Something I am capable of, if not always. Today I did very well. I even managed to calm down another person, who arrived early, like me, but complained loudly, unlike me. She only needed to wait for two minutes! I felt so superior.
Ten a.m., I dash through the aisles, reach up, a pair of shears come off their hooks, and off to the till. I could see that a paying customer at two minutes after opening time was more than unusual. I am huffing hard behind my face mask, a sample of those professional ones, extra-thick and extra-safe.
Credit card out. Tap.Declined!What kind of a day is this?
On the second try, it worked and then I am out of the store, hardly waiting for the salesperson to wrap the cutting edges of the shears with paper.
Paola had not been hassled at her illegal parking, so we backed out and turned home.Then she asked me if she could possibly stop quickly at a flower shop to get something for her 14-year-old, whose birthday was the next day.“Sure! I am not in hurry. I am glad you drove me here, so just go ahead. I have all the time in the world.”
Do I?I had left my sister thinking I would be back within 10 minutes. But what could I do?
Finding a parking spot was in order again. So, we cruised the narrow one-way side-streets of the Frankfurt Bockenheim district, where on both sides of the road vehicles were parked bumper-to-bumper. Our search brought us further and further away from the store. Wending our way, we turned back in its general direction, decelerating to a crawl checking each side for an empty spot. Finally successful, we parked, put on our masks, and strode back to the florist’s store.
We were second in line. One gentleman ahead of us was waiting for his bouquet to be finished. This being a fairly small store meant I had to wait outside, as only two people were allowed inside at one time during the pandemic. While the florist worked on the bouquet, the gentleman left the store. I stepped in. We gave our order. When the gentleman’s bouquet was ready; he had disappeared. I helped look for him without success. Our order could not be finished before he had his. It felt like square dancing where a “caller” cues the next set of steps to the dancers but half the dancers had gone missing. Luckily, he showed up eventually, was served, and we got our flowers.
Back at the parked car, Paola’s dog greeted us eagerly from the hatchback. The moment Paola started to back out of her slot, a huge truck came chuffing around the corner, blocking our way. Two men escaped the high doors and disappeared: a garbage truck collecting and dumping huge containers of household waste into the back. We were blocked to pull back and he was blocked to drive ahead. He would not be able to drive off before we were out of his way. But we could not get out because he was parked too close. At one-point, realization trumped male thickheadedness. He backed the truck away. We got out and raced towards home. Until we were soon blocked again in another narrow one-way lane, with another garbage truck, this time stopped ahead of us. It was Friday after all.
I do understand that these people have no need to hurry, so we dug deep into our last reserves of patience, unearthing them from long-forgotten caves in our brains. My brain actually started to revolt, emitting the first feelers of a headache as a forewarning that there could be an end to the “patience-resources”.
All is well that ends well.
An hour late, I took the steps at my sister’s entrance two at a time, the package with two long-handled garden shears hidden behind me. When I opened her apartment door, I nearly fainted from the intoxicating smell of freshly brewed coffee. Warmth, home, and my sister embraced me. The breakfast table was set with delicious German delicatessen.
All was well.
She had not worried at all. She is so grounded and trusts, I know what I am doing. She just waited until I’d show up again. Her dog, though, curiously stared at me with his uncannily huge brown eyes. Eyes nicely contrasted against his tan Golden Retriever fur. Then he came over and sniffed my legs. What was that thing behind her legs?
Hildegard was over the moon when I handed her the garden tools. One pair of shears was made in Germany, and another, a Japanese Specialty.I was glad to see that frantic cutting in her garden followed pretty soon.
From now on she will have a token of my love whenever she works in her garden.That, again, makes me happy.
All in Good Measure
The saying is widely known: All in good measure.
But how do you know the right measure? We sure didn’t, although I should have had a hunch.
This was the first year in our new home: Canada. We had moved right to the most northwesterly territory, the vast and wildly captivating Yukon.
We, that is me, at 36 years with a linguistics degree in the pocket and my heart yearning for wide-open spaces, freedom, and wilderness. And my partner, Rainer, certified air conditioning and heating engineer, smart, athletic, and funny, capable to repair everything, paddle every river, and – as we would later discover – the best log builder in the world. Germany, the country we were born in, was not giving us what we thought we needed, so we had started traveling. Looking and searching for something that would give us a higher purpose in life. Then, Canada appeared, and we got infected. Infected with the desire to live in the high north.
There was no holding us back. We went and emigrated to a New World: Canada.
So, here we were – in Haines Junction, gateway to Kluane. Placed at the foothills of magical St. Elias Mountain range, the village of Haines Junction connects the Yukon with the Alaskan seashore to the south or the interior of Alaska to the North. We could not have downsized any more, coming from a population of 800,000 in Frankfurt, Germany to this remote, quaint place housing some 600 inhabitants. However, the landscape more than made up for the lack of people. Here, steep rock walls rise to heights of several thousand metres, cross-stitched with glaciers and icefields, hiding Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan within its guarded depth of the National Park.
For the first two years, we were running a large highway lodge, Mountain View Motel, which included a restaurant, motel rooms, two gas stations, a small trailer park, and an automotive mechanical shop, the latter, luckily being supervised by a good friend of ours. We had arrived in June and hit the tourism season running. Sometimes running so fast that we lost control. Unexpectedly, we spent more time in the din of this place than, as we had hoped, out in the exciting and wild back country. Stressed and frustrated about it, we tried to keep our heads above water. Those were challenging times, to say the least.
In a good month, we employed ten employees. A good month being when we did not encounter the quantum-sized staff turnover (or better named staff-runaway) which we learned was common in this industry. Staff moved on with a regularity of migrating birds, only faster. Because of this, everywhere job vacancies appeared, giving this roundabout of employment further fuel. Although we were supposed to be mostly supervising the whole outfit, I often spent ten to twelve hours in the restaurant, helping, baking or waitressing. Rainer was regularly needed at the pumps supplementing for a no-show gas jockey. Other days, he was busy repairing something, anything, from freezers to dishwashers to the electricity in the motel, at the pumps or in the laundromat. (Oh, I forgot to mention the laundromat, which in the winter regularly broke down when customers left the doors open, so the pipes froze solid.)
In Germany, we had never had employees, we never were managers, and aside from my short stint, post-University, waitressing at a Swiss restaurant, neither of us had any experience in gastronomy.
I still don’t know what had possessed us when we agreed to take on this position.
It must have been some residue of youth when you are convinced you can do anything. But also, it was the start of living in Canada. And really, at thirty-some years, we weren’t exactly youth anymore.
And the consequences showed up clear and loud. Constantly reminded at our lack of experience, often been taken advantage of, and unfamiliar with the current employment situations and ethics put a dangerous strain on our relationship. We were both strung so tight like violins that have been left in the sun too long.
Because over my whole life I had been troubled by “lip cold sores”, always breaking out when stressed or overworked, I kept a valuable salve to treat them. The salve had always worked its magic.
Not this time.
After an extra-high amount of stress and trouble, big blisters had developed on my lips, itchy and uncomfortable. When I administered the ointment, an irritating rash spread all over my face. Apparently, I had grown allergic to the ingredients. It became worse, and I was contemplating whether to consult the local nursing station, when, suddenly, Rainer burst into our home.
“I found someone who knows what to do.” His excitement was bubbling over.
Jenny happened to be our room maid, a local Indigenous lady. Very quiet, very calm, competent, and reliable. Rainer had mentioned my predicament to her when he saw her coming out of one of the motel rooms, she was just finished cleaning. He brought her over right away. Quietly, she stepped behind Rainer into our house. Jenny’s confident composure gave me hope immediately. She sat down across from me on a chair, hands folded in her lap, and her raven-black hair falling back over her shoulders, nearly reaching her waist.
She looked at me and nodded. Yes, there was a remedy, a natural potion, that could help, found in the wild.
Rainer and Jenny agreed to venture into the woods to gather it.
A few hours later, they came back with a thick alder stick, the length of my arm with which to make a healing tea. Its antiseptic ingredients should take care of my pains within hours.
Jenny left Rainer to brew the tea. While impressing on him that the drink would be bitter, Jenny insisted that I needed to drink a whole pot. Some honey to sweeten the brew would be allowed. Then she left. After a long day working at the motel, she had taken her time to help us and was now on her way home.
By that time, I felt so miserable, I was convinced I would drink just about anything to get better. Nothing could taste that bad! Certainly, it would not be worse than the bundle of white maggots I had consumed once – in tequila – to win a bet, years ago. In the old country.
No, I was not afraid.
Rainer prepared the tea in our kitchen and brought it to me, while I was relaxing on the living room couch. He had an expectant smile on his handsome face, his brown eyes glinting with pride. I took the mug, steaming hot, filled to the brim. Its smell vague and foreign.
I expected bitter. But not that bitter. And I failed. I failed miserably. I could not drink it. I desperately tried a couple of sips, then gave up.
Rainer, disappointed to the bones with his first attempt at healing with natural remedies, tried to make me drink more. Eventually, he sat down beside me and reluctantly took the cup from my hands.“But she said you need to drink a whole pot!” Thwarted expectations tuned his voice sad.
Yes, I had heard her, and I really wanted to oblige. But I just couldn’t. Even the big hero I thought I was, I just couldn’t do it.
Next morning, Jenny knocked at our door. Wanting to see how the patient was doing with the wonderful medicine.
Rainer did not wait long to tell her how the procedure had failed.
Her wise face showed no emotion, neither disappointment nor anger. Then knowledge and patience stole into her dark eyes. I was not reprimanded.
Quietly, she turned to Rainer and asked for the stick, so she could brew a new pot of tea herself.
“What stick?” Rainer was surprised.
“The one we gathered yesterday.”
“Oh, that! It is gone, I brewed the tea from it.”
The stick was meant to last a week with daily treatments of a pot at a time.
Rainer was out the door so fast, the virtual daggers from my eyes missed him, hitting the empty door frame instead.
The measure must be right.
Alder bark is antimicrobial and is used to treat internal and topical infections. Skin disorders, including acne and boils, may respond well to both internal and topical use of alder. Its astringent properties make it useful in tightening inflamed tissue.
Red Alder, Alnus rubra: Astringent, emetic, hemostatic, mucilaginous, cathartic, alterative.
I was still so small that I could only touch the horse’s nose when I reached up my hands as far as my arms allowed. Then I felt the velvety nostrils, calmly exhaling its breath of moist warmth. It caressed the back of my hand, while at the same time, it made the hairs stand up on my arms. The thrill was nearly unbearable. I had waited for it for weeks. Today was the day.
And it happened year after year, at exactly the same date: St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.
In November, daylight bleeds fast into the misty grey of a fall afternoon. The autumn air starts to chill, set on its way to defeat the lingering heat of a sunny day.
I was still so small that I could only touch the horse’s nose when I reached up my hands as far as my arms allowed. Then I felt the velvety nostrils, calmly exhaling its breath of moist warmth. It caressed the back of my hand, while at the same time, it made the hairs stand up on my arms. The thrill was nearly unbearable. I had waited for it for weeks. Today was the day.
And it happened year after year, at exactly the same date: St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.
The horse was one of the German Police Force’s horses, a tall, sleek and well-trained Hanoverian. Even in my childhood’s time, they had been retired, but some lived out their veteran life in our Frankfurt community.
On St. Martin’s Day, they would get a short time of celebrity when being used for the annual St. Martin’s lantern course.
The legend of the Saint Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier first, then a bishop, was that he had cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the latter from the cold. St. Martin became known as patron of the poor.
As a widespread custom in Germany, on the night of November 11, children walk in processions carrying paper lanterns, which they have made in school, and sing St. Martin songs. Usually, the walk starts at a church and goes to a public square. A man on horseback dressed like St. Martin leads the lengthy procession of churchgoers, community people, and children along the cobblestoned streets. When they reach the square, St. Martin’s bonfire is lit and the scene of St. Martin helping the beggar is replayed. Bretzel (*) are handed out to the children’s extreme delight.
I knew all of this legend, for my oldest brother in our Catholic household had been christened Martin. So, we never missed the day his Saint was honoured.
I loved it all, the procession, the lanterns, the singing, and the bonfire. But most of all I loved to come an hour before it all started to the place where a representative of the German Police was waiting with his horse. Every single time he stood at the crosswalk between the church and the Catholic Kindergarten, right across from our house, the horse waiting patiently at his side.
I was allowed to go pat the horse’s nose until the church proceedings began. Which I did right up until the very last minute. Awed by the size of the horse, awed by the chance to pat it, and reassured to do so by the friendly policeman, still dressed in his uniform.
Shortly before I joined my family at church, the policeman disappeared and a helper took care of the horse. By the time the procession began, night had fallen over the city. Scant light from the then-gas streetlamps hardly illuminated the churchyard, let alone the road beyond. We all gathered with our self-made lanterns in hand, letting our parents light them with their matches.
Excitement rose until we saw him coming, from around the corner of the church. A splendid knight, clad in a blood-red cape, and atop a proud warhorse chestnut dark in colour, slowly approached us. Making its way to the tip of the procession, St. Martin took the lead and we followed along: the priest and his ministrants, in gleaming white starched frocks, the music band with their drums and flutes playing out the music, the flickering light of torches reflected in their golden trumpets and oboes. Next, marched the parish congregation with us kids in the front.
I was exhilarated by carrying my lantern and singing with all the might I had in my lungs. Far down the street, I could still see the golden helmet of St. Martin high on his regal horse, the long feather swinging above the crowd’s heads. If I concentrated, I could even smell the faint fragrance of frankincense, wisped out of censers swung with slow grace by the altar boys.
In the end, there was the replay of St. Martin’s deed. We had reached the churchyard again, after meandering through my parish’s familiar streets.
On the parking lot, a bonfire licked its flames high into the ink-black night, as if reaching for the silvered moon as sharp as a clipped coin.
My fingers were cold, but I was warm everywhere else.
Soon the knight rode up to the poor person huddling in the half-shades of the fire. St. Martin drew his sword and – with one cut – divided the cloak in two. From his stead, dead calm in the night, he offered the warm clothing to the beggar – and saved him. Which is what the scriptures tell us.
The somewhat solemn mood dissolved into the slapping of winter boots, the chatter of adults, and shrieks of delight by the kids. Bretzel had been given out.
Fast-forward six years.
At 14 years old, I am still living with my parents in the house across from the church and the Catholic Kindergarten. I have become very active in our parish. Leader of the youth group, ministrant myself, and later ministrants’ supervisor, member of the church council, and committee board for a church spire that would never be built.
The annual St. Martin’s procession is coming up. And fast approaching besides is the lack of horse or rider. None of the police force’s horses are alive anymore and no person came forward to play the knight turned Saint.
There are solutions: The nearby “Cowboy Club” has ponies, short-legged, stocky, dappled ponies with a quilt of matted hairs in several colours.
And a little girl grown teenager, agreeing to be St. Martin.
I get wrapped up in a scratchy, musty-smelling cape; a wooden sword is stuck to my belt. A red plastic Go-Kart helmet gets wrapped in golden tinsel paper; the tired old feather fluffed up with sugar water. I am to ride the plucky fat pony, lucky that my feet are not scraping the cobblestones of our street.
But, for all the glory gone and the mysteries laid bare, I glow with honour and excitement. I will be this year’s St. Martin. Even at 14-years-old, I feel the honour.
I ride ahead of everybody else, followed by the band with only four musicians, never able to scare my stumbling mount, a fraction of churchgoers behind along with a handful of children. However, the lanterns still swing and throw their lights under a sky of knife-sharp stars. I can smell my horse’s sweat, alas no incense.
I sit bolt upright, the cape spread out over the pony’s ample hindquarters, my one hand has a tight grip on the sword so it would not slip. Always, I crave to be perfect, rise to the occasion, and aspire to do things right. My pride that night leaves no room to recognize and grieve the loss of a childhood’s illusion. Had I not learned, years ago, the procession to be a mere re-enactment? A re-enactment, though, of something at the very heart of our Catholic Church’s philosophy: the teaching of empathy, the teaching to help, and share in a moment of need.
So I play my role well.
Nobly, I ride through the streets of my district, as dark as they were those six years ago when I was a child, but much more familiar now. I feel the congregation at my back, walking behind the horse. Although leading this – much shorter – procession I am aware enough to be still a part of them.
we reach the churchyard again, I make sure the wooden sword separates the Velcro strips nicely, so I can hand the one half down to my neighbour-friend the beggar.
And there still are Bretzel. Even for the Saint.
I had my moment of history, my honourable ride. But I had to pay for it. In those days I was making some money from babysitting for a neighbor couple in our street. When the next night came up for me to look after their three-year-old, my parents were told, I could not come. I couldn’t babysit anymore at their home.
During the recent St. Martin’s procession, they had watched from the sidewalk with the small child in their arms. Melissa, tiny as she was, apparently had recognized my face on the horse, where she expected, after all the stories she was told, a stoic man, a gallant knight, one who became a famous Saint.
Melissa’s confusion could not be overcome. She did not want me in her life anymore.
So, I lost my job. The price one pays for celebrity, no matter how short it lasts. In my case, just one night. But I still feel it was totally worth it.
(*) The German spelling: “Bretzel” may derive from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for ‘bracelet’), or bracchiola (‘little arms’), describing a brittle savoury biscuit, in the form of a knot or stick, glazed and salted on the outside, eaten esp. in Germany.
Left behind in a Spanish Harbour
We were a group of six to nine friends, all of us studying at the Frankfurt University in Germany. Some sports, some law, and some literature, like me. This loose band of action-frantic people also joined in activities outside the campus.
In the winter months, we regularly went skiing, seeking out the Austrian Alps, fearlessly throwing ourselves down any black-marked hill or route that was available. Sometimes we brought along the rugby ball and passed it between us, going down the slopes forward and backwards alike. For better agility we left the poles behind at the lift station. Our nights were spent in a rented old farmhouse, sprawled over several rooms, all wood panelled and so low-ceilinged that Tom and Sago, our tall members, had to be careful not to knock their head against the smoke-darkened beams. We cooked for ourselves and passed the evenings with games, music, and many laughs, until the farm burned down around our ears, but that is another story to be told at some other time.
Our group size varied, but there was always a six-person hardcore bunch that went together. In the summer, sailing became our latest fad after having exhausted all the nearby ponds and little lakes surfing and swimming and sunbathing.
Sailing meant we hired a yacht and ventured out for two to three weeks. Our preferred destination was the warm south in Italy, France or Spain. Sago was our captain, in possession of motorboat and sailing licences allowing us to pursue hair-raising adventures either in the Mediterranean or Adriatic Seas. With his uncanny calm composure, his broad knowledge in sailing and motorboating and his aptitude to keep us all in check, Sago was the tranquil centre of the group who probably kept us alive all these years. Hard-muscled and tall, with thoughtful brown eyes, he organized the necessary papers, planned the routes and harbours, and brought us safe across the oceans time and time again. While we, the crew, handled everything he told us to do. Together we became the perfect team.
Summer 1984 saw us renting a 9-metre sailing boat in Marseille on France’s Côte d’ Azur. The plan was to sail west to the Balears, an archipelago of islands near the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. There, we would languish for a couple of weeks island-hopping under the Mediterranean sun.
Again, we were down to six friends, all knowing each other inside out and well attuned to each other’s ticks and spleens.
Or so we thought.
My boyfriend, Misha and I were the only couple and therefore occupied the only private cabin, located in the bow of the boat. This tiny room presented two narrow bunks each anchored to the inside of the hull, and joined at the feet’s end. Back from our cabin, at midship, more bunks, a tiny living area and the scullery found their places. Among it all our nautical instruments at the captain’s place. Further back a short step led out of the lower deck and onto the open stern area. Under a one-mast sail and its boom was the captain’s stand, with wheel rudder and compass. The small sloop was equipped with a small outboard motor, able to help us maneuvering in and out of harbours and inside small bays.
The sun was burning down like a grill. We had all turned dark-skinned, with salt-crusted hair and wrinkles at the corner of our eyes, when finally, after a gruelling passage of two days and one night without any sight of land, the island of Majorca raised its rocky head at the horizon. Having been wind-beached for over 10 hours in the middle of the sea, it had taken us much longer crossing than expected. Our freshwater was low and we all needed a shower. But most of all we wanted to set foot on land again and go out for a delicious meal which someone else had cooked and a few ice-cold beers.
Majorca was just the place. The designated playground for sun- and party-hungry Europeans, it welcomed us with noisy and colourful activity, so strange to us after days of silence and solitude. Nonetheless, we dove right in.
Twenty-four hours later, however, we had had enough. Enough of crazy people, running naked on sun-bleached beaches during the day and dressed-up in most absurd costumes, and half-cut in the streets at night. We had had our fill of paella and gazpacho, overpriced souvenirs and too much sangria.
We made ready to leave. Ready to sail along to the next island, preferably a secluded bay, a serene deserted beach, tranquility and peace. While Sago paid the harbour fees, the boat’s water tank was filled up. To save as much as possible of this valuable fluid for the days we were out sailing, we all marched to the marina’s facilities. As long as in port we should make use of its flushed toilets and running water.
I took my time. Relished the shower, brushed my teeth a long while then looked one last time into a slightly marred mirror. Off to the beaches again, sand, saltwater, and living on the boat.
The moment I left the building, I stepped into a wall of heat and bright light. This was Spain. And summer. A cloudless sky spanned the interior mountains, from where its crisp scent mingled with the sharp tang of sea. Mercilessly the silvery sun burned the ground, heating up the rock slabs under my bare feet until it was nearly too hot to walk on. I felt a tiny breeze on my arms sticking out of the tiniest T-Shirt ever. We might get some wind today, was what I was thinking, as I turned around the corner on my way to the quay, where our boat was tied up.
Only it wasn’t there.
My eyes fell on an empty space between all the other crafts from small motorboats to elegant yachts. An empty spot where our sailing boat should have been. I knew I was at the right quay wall. Right there our boat had been moored for two days, the anchor dropped in the harbour and the bow rope fastened to an iron tiling on the quay.
For a brief moment the idea played in my head that my crew had tried to play a trick on me, having left, but waiting somewhere close enough to watch me panic. Pretty quick I discarded that thought. Not a chance! It took us way too much time and effort – and a few foiled attempts – to park the long sloop between other boats by craftily maneuvering the boat backwards and sideways. During these attempts, it was my task to gauge the distance and signal to the captain when we got too close to the stony walls of the quay or any fancy fellow sailor’s boat. In critical situations, I was trained to throw out one of the fender bumpers kept aboard for just that situation. Mooring was amongst the most stressful moments in our sailing days.
No. A funny hide-and-seek in the harbour was definitely not at play.
Then I saw it. Them. The boat. Our boat. In the middle of the harbour. It had turned away from the moorings and slowly moved towards the open sea. Sails not raised yet, they traveled steadily under motor.
This could not be true. I was shocked to the very bones of my skinny tanned legs.
There I was, standing in bare feet wearing only shorts and a T-Shirt, holding a toothbrush in one hand and the paste in the other. Nothing else.
And they were leaving. Leaving me behind. They had forgotten me.
Then another flash: my boyfriend was onboard! How could he not have noticed that I was missing?
With all the strength I could muster I suppressed the wave of panic creeping up into my throat on its way to my eyes. Tears welled up, but I fought them back.
While I told myself to remain calm, I realized how pathetic I must look. Alone. No shoes. A toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste the only things I had. No money. No phone. But what would it serve anyways? Our onboard VHF never worked at the best of times.
My mind raced. When would they notice I was not there? How long until they turned the sails around and made their way back?
I decided not to wait. “Pat-Pat”: I heard my feet slapping on the rock slabs along the dock. I steered straight towards the neighbouring boat, which had spent the night tied up beside us. They happened to be also Germans. I had heard them talk, high up in their cruiser, a magnificent huge motor yacht that towered loftily above our sailboat, sporting massive stern engines and hull sides so tall you could not see into their state rooms on deck. But more importantly, I had seen a smaller motorboat hoisted above it all on sturdy chains. It was their dinghy, necessary when tying up at the quay wall was not possible, the craft was anchored somewhere and one had to transfer to land by the smaller vessel.
If I was fast enough in convincing them to water the small boat and take me on, we could catch up with my miserable comrades, before they had passed the harbour walls and turned out of sight. I had no idea where we planned to go today. Cruising around the island, and mooring in the next nice bay, was all I remembered.
So, I stood there, barefoot, holding on to toothbrush and paste, then raised my head towards their railing. “Hello there! Could you please help me? Help me catch my friends. They, ahem, left … without me. I can still see our sailboat. It is about to leave the harbour.” The words alone sounded embarrassing enough to make you wish to disappear into the ground.
I tried to give my voice a more matter-of-fact tone, less ashamed and foolish than it rang back to me. My heart, however, tapped out a rhythm of anger and frustration.
They were lovely people, really. Friendly and understanding. (“Who the hell could possibly understand this?”) And they were ready to help. But not with the tender boat. Their plan had been to leave the harbour that morning anyways, so why not take me onboard and set the yacht on my friends’ heels?
Grateful, I came aboard. Aboard a ship with real rooms, in which you could stand up still with room to the ceiling. Rooms with tables and chairs, and paintings on the walls. With a real bathroom and wide beds. A truly fine yacht.
It took forever for their automatic windlass to lift the anchor. Slowly like a caterpillar, the dripping chain creaked upwards. Foot after foot after food. While in the meantime the little sailboat of ours got smaller and smaller. Nervous and afraid my comrades would soon be out of sight, I willed myself not to squeeze the toothpaste in my hand.
Meanwhile, the owner went to pay his mooring fee at the marina’s office. His wife and I waited on deck. Among all this splendour I felt like a scrawny waif at the court of King Charles of France.
But no, the yachters were really nice. They laughed and chuckled when we finally tracked my vessel out of the harbour. “This could happen to anyone,” they said.
We had nearly caught up with my comrades, when, apparently, they finally realized they had neglected to count the crew. They began lowering the newly raised sails, fired up the motor, and brought their boat about.
I was aware they had no idea I was on this beautiful yacht and they might easily have gone by us back to the docks. And they probably would have done so, had it not been for the yacht’s lady waving her colorful silken scarf up in the air, shouting, “We have your friend!”
My embarrassment ratcheted up a few notches.
My friends eased up on the throttle, heaved to, and, after the half-hearted attempt by my rescuers to ask for ransom failed, I jumped over.
Misha folded me right into his arms. I got good and crushed along with the toothbrush between us. My return was greeted with a flood of muttered words, half-laughs, and tentative shoulder pats.
Over my boyfriend’s shoulder, my eyes met Sago’s as he stood at the helm, softly holding our boat alongside the yacht. He looked somewhat relieved, but also troubled. What is it like to forget and almost lose a crew member? I wondered. He remained mute, but a hesitant smile crept up on his face. I smiled back.
I was back. Back on our boat, back with my friends, on our route to more adventures.
And then the tears did come.
Not a New Canoe
It was 1991. Rainer, my partner, and I were – for the very first time – on our way up to the Yukon. At thirty-some years, and equipped with a fiery spirit of discovery, we did not feel invincible, but pretty close. Great plans lay ahead of us. While spending a whole year in Canada, we wanted to paddle the Yukon River. No, it would not take the entire year to paddle this river, but certainly two to three months. At least we gave ourselves that much time, after having read the then very sparse literature of the Yukon River running from its headwaters in Yukon, Canada, to the delta at the Bering Sea in Alaska.
Yes, we planned to paddle the Yukon River along its whole length: 3,200 kms or some 2,000 miles. Just the two of us. In a canoe. Paddling all the way.
But that was what was still missing. The canoe.
After our long trans-Atlantic flight from Europe, interrupted by a lengthy stop in Calgary, we finally landed in Vancouver. Similar to our previous visits to explore British Columbia, we stayed with our friends Marion and Michael in the city’s West end. We also needed a vehicle that would bring us up the Alaska Highway to the Yukon.
It took a while and a lot of determination to learn the cryptic lingo of the used car sales ads. But finally, we became the owners of a wonderful station wagon, boat-like in its dimensions, at least it seemed that way to us, coming from Germany, where most things are on a much smaller scale. Cars for sure.
We crisscrossed Vancouver peering out over a sheer endless hood, sitting, still shell-shocked, on the soft-covered “honey-come-over” front bench, but otherwise maneuvering the crazy traffic without problems. Because that was something we were used to.
A lot of trips around downtown had gotten us stocked up on last-minute equipment, such as an ax, saw, life vests, and rubber boots, as well as white gas and some groceries, all items which were either banned from airplanes or just beyond our carrying capacity. Everything was in place.
Just one thing was still missing. A very crucial part. The canoe.
Abbotsford is the cradle of canoe manufacturers in BC, so we turned the crocodile snout of our station wagon eastwards on the highway. We arrived in Abbotsford and found the canoe dealership.
We were students, we were German, and were planning not to work for at least a year. Any of those reasons or maybe all of them made us very partial to our money. After an hour walking around their showrooms, admiring gracious canoes, wooden, fibreglass or extravagant Kevlar, painted in all the primary colours and then some, shaped for rivers or lakes and equipped with various seats, we definitely were confused and a little anxious about the costs.
The salesperson must have sensed our discomfort. When, at one point, he feared losing us as customers, he made a bold move.
Turning to our screwed-up but desperately friendly faces, he smiled broadly declaring, “I think I might have just what you need.” Two pairs of hopeful German eyes (two blue and two brown) swiveled towards his towering build, his arms crossed in front of a capacious belly. I mean, one had heard such assurances a lot, actually all the time when one was just about to leave a store. Any store. But we were optimistic people. At least, I was. Rainer, my long-time friend and adventure-partner, not so much. He never trusted people easily. But we were also desperate, so we followed him, when he waved us through the store, to enter the backyard.
Shortly before we actually did that, he turned around, stopping us in our tracks. “Don’t be overwhelmed by what you first see. It looks totally different from what it means.”
That definitely set our suspicious antennae on red alert.
In the yard, a warm and calming BC sun poured down on us. This ever-fresh air, compared to European standards, inundated our nostrils, pacifying our minds and setting our hearts at ease. We felt confident. This would work.
Until we stared at the culprit.
A gleaming white Clipper Canoe sat in front of us, equipped with fitted seats and adjustable foot-braces. Polished metal yokes and a silvery gunnel held up the virgin shape of the boat – except its bow. There was no bow! The whole front of the canoe was missing. Nearly two feet of the canoe wasn’t there. The hull ended in a gaping hole, with the walls crumpled or broken away.
Only slowly did we surface from shock to the reassurances of our friendly salesperson, still stating that we should not be worried. At all.
On reflection, I put it down to the rudimentary vestiges of politeness Germans can deploy, that we stayed and listened further to our sales friend.
He promised this canoe could be completely fixed. Built back up to its normal shape, crowned with a brand-new gunnel, the body repainted, maybe not in exactly the same white as the rest of the hull, but all its original stability and maneuverability would be regained. The canoe would be as close to new as possible. It was actually a brand-new canoe. Only ….
We learned what had happened. A lady, having just purchased this elegant, new, and shining toy of a 17-foot Clipper Canoe was driving home with it. When entering her garage, she completely forgot the load on top and crashed the canoe right into the door frame. It, being plastic, naturally smashed into pieces instead of merely being dented.
She brought it back to the dealer, apparently, but what arrangements were made there and then, we were not informed.
And it was not important to us anyways.
Repairs would take a couple of days. But time was not a problem. We had given ourselves plenty of it to drive up to the Yukon and possibly test the canoe on our way at lakes we had visited on previous trips. Some were – as we later found out – still partly frozen. Our earliest start date would be five weeks away.
But was it wise? Would this boat do what we wanted it to do? Needed it to do. Or would it put an early end to our journey? And ruin our dreams. We hesitated only briefly. Rainer, the technician of the two of us, said yes, and I trusted him. Had we not trusted ourselves with impossibly high stakes in the past? Time and time again.
This whole trip was based on confidence. Confidence in our skills, confidence in scant base data to accomplish a highly unpredictable mission. And also, confidence in our equipment, to which we would soon add this reborn canoe.
So, we purchased the canoe.
Two days later, we drove out again to Abbotsford, quietly sitting behind the panorama windshield of the station wagon, which had already become familiar to us. I played nervously with the radio channels, while Rainer stared straight ahead on the road. Avoiding eye contact, both of us secretly played with the possibility our decision could have been wrong. Had we fallen victim to a sale’s pitch by a person that did not give a damn about us and our adventure?
Not being very superstitious, I still took it as a good sign, that the warm Canadian sun led us into the dealership, just as it had when we first came. Through the sales room out into the yard.
And there it sat, gleaming white. A full-bodied canoe. Crowned by a silver gunnel and ending in a tapered and closed bow. The paint a shade off, but even and sturdy looking. I felt my throat constrict. Seeing already where I would paint the name of our new and for the next weeks – or months – best friend, all the strain fell away.
I felt Rainer pass me and kneel down at the boat. His hand glided expertly over the hull’s surface. Back and forth. Then he turned his head and smiled his amazing brown eyes to me: “It’s good! We are ready to go North!”
We were right. The salesperson was honest. The dealership was capable. All would be well.
Rainer lifted our canoe onto the accommodating long roof of the station wagon and strapped it down tight. I saw it in his movements, confident and determined. He believed in it. And so would I. We were a great team. This would work.
The canoe served its purpose to the utmost. We had a smashing and adventurous trip, with so many exciting and tense situations, all of which had nothing to do with the state of the canoe. The canoe itself was more than great, it was the best. We loved it.
We christened it “Ho’ for the Yukon”, wrote the name on its white hull, and paddled it all the +3,000 kms to the Sea. It carried our gear, our always too plentiful food, the souvenirs we picked up along the trip and us proud adventurers, day after day, after day. In rain and wind, in sunshine and calm weather. It lifted us over waves a canoe should never have to encounter and brought us along endlessly straight river stretches, which seemed so infinite that you feared to fall off the earth once you reached the horizon. It beached us each night at a new, calm or wild shore, among amazing wildlife and primordial landscapes. It showed us remote villages and lonely fish camps.
Finally, it rocked us on stubby waves into the river’s delta at the Bering Sea. So wide and open we couldn’t tell if we were still in the river or already in the sea. Tasting the water, its saltiness gave us the final confirmation – and peace! We had reached our goal: the end of the Yukon River.
Our journey ended here.
We had started in Canada’s interior, the Yukon Territory, paddled north first, then straight west, through all of Alaska to its Pacific Coast. In the delta village Emmonak, where the Yukon River spills its fresh water into the ocean, we finished. With heavy hearts we sold our beloved canoe “Ho’ for the Yukon” to an Indigenous fisherman. Jonny Shephard had already bought it days prior, upriver, when he met us working his nets. He had promised to come and meet us in Emmonak.
And he did.
Ten weeks after our departure from the headwaters of the Yukon River we said “Good Buy” (!) to our trustworthy friend, the canoe.
Without it we would have never come here.
It certainly was a leap of faith, when we adopted the poor thing and made it a crucial part in our adventure.
Just as much as it was a leap of faith to believe in ourselves, or the trust we put in the river, that it would keep us enthralled to the very end.
But nothing compared to the leap of faith when, a year later, we came to Canada to live there forever.
Gummy Bears on Bushes
This story goes back to the ’60s of the last century. In Germany, my country of birth, university students were rallying against police with water tanks to protect residential houses from getting turned into commercial buildings. In Canada, Indigenous children were scooped up and America drooled at Woodstock in a bra-less, flower-power hippy-and-Hair-concert delusion. Chairman Mao was a rising star in the far East and Che Guevara gathered weapons and followers in the southwest of this world.
At eight years of age, I was completely oblivious to such grave circumstances in the world, more concerned with living up to the expectations in my family. Growing up in a well-off, stern Catholic doctors’ household, my father was the law and mother the lovely counterweight. I had three siblings. Being placed in the lower middle of that horde, I lived with a sparkling imagination, loved teddy bears more than dolls, and too often thought the impossible could be made possible.
The oldest brother, Martin: a tall, nerdy smart-aleck, with such black hair nobody in our family shared. Looking back, his ever-condescending smile and behaviour should be forgiven, for being the first-born he probably bore the brunt of my parents’ strict education. Just out of spite he became a lawyer, when my father wished nothing more than for all of us to become doctors.
Three years down, there is Franz, my other brother, a free thinker, humanist and revoluzzer. He could do everything, knew answers to all my questions, and did wonderful things such as taking me shotgun on his Vespa motor roller, showing me the planetarium or teaching me words in Latin.
Four years younger than Franz, I adored him. With every fibre of my heart, I was determined to marry him. Looking at his kind, brown eyes, partly hidden behind those fashionable “Woody Allen” glasses and ready to brush aside the fact that you cannot marry brothers, I was convinced, if I could only show the officials how much I loved him, they would let me marry him. What we did manage instead, was to become the two extraordinary “black sheep” in our family. Non-conformists and talk-backers.
I was also baggaged with a two-years’ younger, useless sister, whom I ended up loving more than anybody in this mysterious family. With her puppy-like brown and eager-to-please eyes, Hildegard doggedly followed me around wherever I went. Later, when we were adults, we grew closer to each other than anything. The only one of us to become a doctor, she is the one thing I really miss after having emigrated from Germany. Besides dark bread, maybe.
So, here we go. In this episode from my “Lost Stories” collection, I am still eight-years-old caught between believing in wonders and the sacrosanct truthfulness of my elders.
Sweets were very rare in our lives, given out only at special events such as holidays or birthdays, or by far-flung relatives that came visiting, oblivious to our laws. Or because of them. Not because they cost money, but my parents thought it good, educational even, to make them rare. Really rare. My parents’ rule worked: we appreciated treats like gold nuggets in the river.
I was able to be very conservative with whatever I got. I could make candy last, string them out for weeks, so I could have a daily delight and then some.
Eventually, they were all gone. And then I would have to wait for the next occasion, Christmas or Easter, or maybe someone else’s birthday, if any of my brothers or even my sister was in a mood to share.
So, I was very excited when my oldest brother, Martin, one day casually dropped the comment that those colourful gummy bears can grow on bushes. I was stunned. That was it. I never even questioned it; my brother was seven years older. He knew things. So, I waited for the next occasion when they would fall into my possession: my birthday, March 21st, the beginning of spring.
Then, on that bright and sunny day, when all my presents had been opened and appreciated, I quietly stole away with a handful of gummy bears, that were part of a treasure trove of sweet chocolate bars with hazelnuts, a soft stuffy, rainbow crayons, and exciting sounding children books.
I was going to grow them; I was going to put some into the soil and wait for the bushes to sprout. Then I could harvest gummy bears all summer long and would not have to wait. The world had suddenly changed.
I chose a secret location in our garden, where I usually played with my Smurfs, building houses, little gardens, trails, bridges, and ponds for them. Beside the red currant bush. They went into the ground, the dark soil patted and watered. I wiped my dirty hands on the back pockets of my jeans.
Then I waited.Watered. Watched and waited some more.For weeks.
Some part of my brain must have doubted this whole miracle from the start. When I “seeded” the gummy bears, they were wrapped in one of my cloth handkerchiefs. Not my favourite, but an older one, which I was ready to sacrifice. The little red and golden bears folded easily into the soft cotton, blending with the faded pattern of yellow ducks with their red beaks. I wanted them to be at least comfortable in the foreign ground. I wanted to keep them together or just to keep them.
When nothing happened and I finally gave up, I unearthed the bundle and rescued the poor bears.Then I ate them.
Near Death on Dezadeash Lake
“It was our first winter living in Canada. We had immigrated six months earlier, in the middle of the summer, and we loved it with all our hearts. Slowly we were getting the toys one needs up here in the Yukon.”
A skidoo was the newest addition to staples like fat winter coats, Sorrel boots rated to -40C, a four-wheel drive truck with a snowplow, and, of course, skis and snowshoes.
The skidoo was Rainer’s best friend. Not mine. So, we only had one.
Rainer, my partner, and I had come over from Germany to live a better life, more simple, free, and surrounded by nature. Now his parents visited to see what our new life in the faraway “Frozen North” was like.
On a slate-grey winter morning, we left the little community of Haines Junction, with its just under 600 people, behind on our way down the Haines Highway. This narrow band of handmade asphalt winds through 250 uninhabited kilometres of Canada’s finest wilderness before it breaches the Alaska Coast Mountains to its Pacific oceanfront.
Soon we were greeted by Dezadeash Lake, a massive water body along the fringes of Kluane National Park. In late January the lake is completely frozen. Gripping the waters in its arctic fist, winter had laid a thick cover of ice on it. Stopping the waves and wakes underneath, its icy palm was holding everything in place.
In winter, means of transportation had changed from boats and four-wheelers to dogsleds and skidoos.
After unloading the heavy machine from the truck bed, we attached a low-flung metal sled to it. Since we were three people and the skidoo had only two seats, the sled was for me. (Writing this now, I have no idea why I wanted to go in the first place.).
On the sled sat a bale of straw, to smooth out the rough ride expected ahead. This was where I would ride with my puppy. My new puppy, my first puppy, my so very young puppy. His marine-blue eyes had already locked onto me with that incredibly unconditional trust. A roundish ball of black-and-white fur with still quite short legs, altogether small enough that it easily found room inside my parka, right close to my chest. A place that comforted us both.
Low winter skies of ethereal pale blue and pinned with tufts of white guided us off the shore. Soon we were on the wide-open lake. At the horizon, the glacier-ground hills of Dezadeash Range awaited us, brindled with snow patches looming over a darker band of firs.
We headed for the opposite side of the lake. Rainer was driving. At one point, his father wanted to try this exciting toy and they switched seats, father at the helm (and gas throttle) with Rainer behind him, clinging to nearly nonexistent handles. He is not a good co-pilot at the best of times, as we had learned in cars or on motorbikes alike.
Despite the wind, I was sitting with relative comfort on the straw bale, my coat tight around me, the parka hood pulled down low over my woolen tuque to shield my face. My enormous mitts trying to hold the fur collar tight, but open enough so my puppy’s head could stick out.
Crystal clear winter scenes flew by as we dashed through an air of diamond-cut frost. Alternatingly, we tore over bumps and ridges, then smoothly hissed along level surfaces of the immobile lake towards the small strip of brown and evergreen at the far side.
It was cold.
When halfway across, the ice underneath, without warning, opened up plunging us into aquamarine waters. Fountains of arctic water were spraying sideways and backwards all over the sled, my puppy, and me.
My heart must have stopped.
Through all my shock I heard a faint, “Gun it, gun it!” and saw Rainer pounding his father’s shoulders. No surprise, he had let off the gas handle.
My mind raced. We were done and the unfair part of it was that this had happened in our first winter, robbing us of at least a few years in this colossally wonderful land. So much too early.
While I was sure there was no hope for me, I thought of how I could save my puppy. If I snatched him out of my coat and flung him wide, far enough could he reach, falling down, frozen, solid, and safe ground?
Would that save him? Where would he go? But at least he would not drown.
Luckily, I never had the chance to act on these thoughts, as miraculously we were still driving forward, out of the murderous arctic waters. Rainer’s father had followed his son’s advice and given the machine full throttle. For some gracious reason we were again – or still – on the lake’s surface, no opening below us, speeding towards ever-approaching shores.
And I was still sitting on my now ice-crusted straw bale, soaking wet, with rivulets quickly turning into frozen beads.
We had hit overflow. A very common occurrence up here, when water gets between two layers of ice forming a liquid pocket, often completely obscured to the eye. It can be disastrous going into overflow if you get stuck and your equipment is frozen useless.
But we were lucky. Thanks to Rainer’s knowledge of all this and his advice to fly out of the situation with all speed.
At the other shoreside, Rainer started a fire quickly. The crackling dried small branches emitted tremendous heat. Still in a daze, I got dried out fast.
The puppy squirmed inside my coat, now crusted with ice, its tiny head poking out of my collar, was not even sprinkled. His heart, I have no idea. Mine was still pounding like a crazy drum, emitting endless thanks that we had not drowned. So early.
And also, thankful that I had not given my puppy that unnecessary boost into the freezing winter air.