Yukon Tour Journal, February 2019, or, How Many Banjos Can You Fly to the Yukon?
The short answer is three, plus a fiddle and a pile of CDs, a few instrument stands, change of clothes, toothbrush, etc. But let’s go back to what this was all about and how it came to be:
Some time last fall I got a phone call from Tim Osmond, director of Home Routes, the Canadian nonprofit organization that sends musicians into rural communities all over Canada throughout the winter time to provide live music in the form of house concerts in places where live music wouldn’t otherwise be commonly found. The energy and commitment of the hundreds of volunteers who make this all work is so inspiring. (Ben and I did our first Home Routes tour in Manitoba two years ago and got to know Tim when we played at his house in Winnipeg at the end of the tour.) Our conversation went something like this:
Tim: Hey Aaron, are you and Ben free in February?
AJL: Let me check… (inspects watchless wrist) Yeah, I think so. What’s up?
Tim: Do you guys want to do a Home Routes tour in the Yukon the first half of the month?
AJL: …Uh, yeah? (Like, is a tree made out of wood?)
Tim: That’s great! I’ll send you the itinerary when it’s ready. Start looking for flights. You’re going to have the best time.
AJL: OK, I’ll just double check that Ben’s free and get back to you, ok?
Tim: OK great! Talk to you soon.
So I called Ben right away and the conversation went something like this:
AJL: Hey Ben, Tim from Home Routes asked if we wanted to do the Yukon tour in February and I said yes, I’ll just double check with you. Can you do it? First two weeks in February?
BB: …Uh, yeah? (Like, is a tree made out of wood?)
AJL: OK great, I guess we’ll just have to think about how to get there. Driving is probably not an option but if we fly how will we get all our instruments out there? [We drove to Manitoba for our last Home Routes tour and brought five banjos, three fiddles, a guitar and a mandolin.]
BB: Yeah… I don’t know. Maybe we can borrow a guitar from someone out there.
AJL: That’s a good idea. And I’ll bet we can just bring minimal luggage and bring two instruments each for our carry on items.
BB: Yeah, we can bring the two Senoritas to play our classic banjo repertoire, and a bluegrass banjo and a fiddle for everything else. Plus that guitar we’re going to borrow.
AJL: All right. I’ll find us some plane tickets. We’re doing this!
Note: The thought that it would be too cold or too remote or too anything never crossed our minds until we started telling people we were doing this. It didn’t seem extreme, it just seemed like an incredible opportunity to see a very special place and meet some people we wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to meet. I got our plane tickets from Toronto to Whitehorse and rented a car and started contacting our hosts once I had the itinerary. And every time Ben and I talked we couldn’t get over how excited we were for this trip.
Before the tour officially started Ben came to Detroit to rehearse with me for a couple days and then we drove to Toronto to stay with the Debbie and Peter, Toronto’s patron saints of wandering old time musicians, and play a show at The Local. We made the drive in a car that didn’t have heat, which I thought would be no big deal, but as it turned out it was the coldest day in 11 years. So we made a few stops for hot liquids and just wore all our clothes and put those little hot packs things in our boots. Crossing the border was tough, since the border guards wanted to open everything up and it was literally freezing just to take your gloves off for a minute. I had to get out of the car to pay the toll since the window was frozen shut. But we made it past the border and the instruments survived. And here begins the tour journal (Cliff’s notes):
Day -1 (Jan 30): Ben and I fly from Toronto to Edmonton to Vancouver to Whitehorse. In the end we make it to Whitehorse only a couple hours late, around 1:30am, with only one of our bags lost. Sarah, Whitehorse’s patron saint of doughnuts and fiddling, met us at the airport after having been up since 4am that day herself, making doughnuts all day and then selling them. We get back to her place and meet Bob, her dad, who loans us a sweet rebuilt Harmony guitar for the tour.
Day 0 (Jan 31): I teach a fiddle workshop at Bob’s music shop but first we go and check out the start of the Yukon Quest dogsled race. It’s very cold outside and very exciting. We learned later on that that hardest part at the start of the race is keeping the dogs from running off too soon. They are just ready to go and you have to anchor the sled to keep it from going too soon. And then once they start running they will not stop for anything, you have to throw some hooks out to catch the ground and force them to stop or else they’ll run themselves to death, apparently. After all that we went to the CBC studio and had a nice interview with Dave White, and then we went out for our first sushi in the Yukon. The temperature was -40. (About the same in C or F.) We also saw a sundog!
Day 1 (Feb 1): Our first concert, in Whitehorse. Our first taste of amazing salmon. Our first hosts, Fia and Joel and their lovely daughters Ava and Lily. A good show with a nice crowd and we started improving our sets. We learn about engine block heaters — All the cars have a little plug dangling out the front of the hood and you’re supposed to plug that in at night when it’s especially cold so the car will start in the morning. It worked for us!
Day 2 (Feb 2): Crag Lake with Greg, Krystal and a 14-year-old Oscar. We had our own cabin down the hill from the house where we played and it even had heat. Saw more stars than ever. Also saw some Aurora borealis.
Days 3-4 (Feb 3-4): Atlin, BC (should be YT) with Chris and Stuart. Really good show, more amazing sockeye salmon, lunch with remote-nurse Leanne and her delightful salad and oh those butter tarts! and her picturesque cabin with the view all obscured by falling snow, visiting John the hoarder and his house of marvels, getting to know him a bit and try to understand what it’s like to be a multi-dimensional creature, playing at the rec room on our day off and having jams both nights, meeting a local 90-year-old fiddler and hearing him play a tune on my fiddle and hear some of his stories, the views of the lake, more butter tarts, and we are sad to leave this place.
Day 5 (Feb 5): Marsh Lake with Shirley and Gerald and their big black dog, kicksledding to the lake and I’m somehow the one who is supposed to know what to do with the can of bear spray should we need it.
Day 6 (Feb 6): Haines Junction with Ryan and Meghann, Margaret (age 6) and Benji (age 3). Such beautiful scenery, the mountains, the light. Seeing the sun go down around 5pm and rise at 10am, the pink light on the snowy mountains, Margaret playing her fiddle for us, another great show with an all-ages audience, eating bison steaks Ryan harvested himself. Apparently this area has an overpopulation of bison. Also, one of them will feed a family of four for a year, with extra for guests.
Day 7 (Feb 7): Whitehorse again. Eileen, Ruth’s sister hosts us, along with Sohil and Rohit. Lacey, Ruth’s daughter made delicious salmon for us. After the show we went out with new friends Ellorie and Aly to the Old 98 for Fiddle Night. This Yukon fiddler has been playing at this place every Thursday for the last 40 years. We met his guitar player, Paul, two nights before in Marsh Lake and we saw him there. Also saw Ollie (sp?) who was at the fiddle workshop the week before. Roughly half the people in the room were fiddle players. The music was great. I saw people jigging to Red River Jig in a casual, nonperformative manner, which I suppose I’d never seen before.
Day 8 (Feb 8): Got up early to teach a fiddle lesson to Ellorie and Aly before heading to Lisa and Vince’s in Faro, our first long drive of the tour. Vince welcomed us in and shared his tasty homebrew with us. Small turnout that night but a good feeling.
Day 9 (Feb 9): Mayo. Big group effort from the local committee. Communicated with one person leading up to it, got let in to the church where we played (our first house concert not in a house) by another person, had dinner at another person’s house and slept at a guest house. They’d been heating the church up since that morning with the wood burning stove and it was almost warm enough to feel my toes. Still, good turnout and a great time.
Day 10-11 (Feb 10-11): Dawson City with Peter. I taught a fiddle workshop in the school Sunday before the concert with a few kids and grownups, learned a little bit about Yukon fiddling and the effort to bring it back (much like what was done in Cape Breton by the likes of Buddy McMaster a generation or two ago). Played at Alex & Misha’s house, who turns out to be a friend of a friend. The next day, Monday off, we spend two hours with 5th- and 6th-graders playing our music for them, taking their questions, and eventually making music to silent movie clips in real time. Later on we treat ourselves to a nice dinner at the El Dorado and then we go to the Downtown for the World Famous Sourtoe Cocktail. After that we tried to play at the Tavern with encouragement from our Captain Katie but it was too late so we went back to Peter’s house. He was sitting at the kitchen table working on Midnight On The Water so we messed around with DDAD for a little bit and went to bed to catch an early flight to Inuvik the next day.
Day 12-13 (Feb 12-13): Inuvik, Northwest Territories (Arctic!) with Sue, son Arlo (age 19) and husband Peter. We flew first to Old Crow, which we’d heard so much about but we didn’t stay. In Inuvik Sue met us at the airport, took us into town the back way on the ice road (i.e. frozen river) with Ben buried under all the instruments since the back of the truck wasn’t heated. What an amazing place. We’re in the Arctic. Arlo took us Skidooing over to their camp a few kilometers up the river. I sat in deep snow and saw and heard crows and ravens call and flap their wings very close by in perfect silence, which Arlo and Ben Skidooed around the frozen lake. (A Skidoo is also known as a snowmobile.) Caribou steaks and moose meatballs for dinner, also remarkable sourdough bread. It was perfect Skidoo weather, like -5 and sunny. The next day was more like normal, around -30 and windy. We took Jane, the youngest dog, around frozen Boot Lake. For dinner Peter grilled char (the Arctic kind, duh) for dinner. The concert at Mark and Berta’s was our best turnout and best performance and best CD sales of the whole tour. Amazing people. Hung out for a while after but eventually I went to bed. Ben went out to the Trapper and that’s another story. Good thing this was our last concert of the tour, but was it?
Day 14 (Feb 14): Peter took us to the grocery store and to see inside the igloo church before taking us to the airport. Flight into Dawson from the north was so beautiful, I really got inspired to revisit landscape art, e.g. Sounds of Mount Desert Island. Soon as we land we jump in the car and drive straight to Whitehorse (about 5 1/2 hours) for our final show. We made it in good time, saw Sarah again and gave her back Bob’s guitar he so graciously loaned us, and saw Leanne again and returned her ‘rescue bag’ she so graciously loaned us. (She was surprised no one else had made sure we were prepared and insisted we take a couple sleeping bags and some candles from her in case anything goes wrong with the car and we have to wait for help in the freezing cold.) Negotiating the details of this final gig was the worst and so unnecessarily stressful but the show itself went great.
Day 15 (Feb 15): Got up at 3am to prepare for 6am flight and get to the airport in time to find out it’s delayed. Somehow miraculously made it back to Toronto by way of Vancouver and Winnipeg but not in time to check out the square dance. Ate all the doughnuts Sarah gave us right there in the airport before boarding. Only one banjo case was seriously damaged in transit. Back in Toronto we picked up the things we left at Peter & Debbie’s and moved over to Conny and Rachel’s place. They are also patron saints of wandering musicians. The next day Ben flew to L.A. and I played a solo show at The Local and then picked up Billy at the airport (he was on the same flight I’d been on the day before) and took him to Kitchener, where I played the following day. Billy has been working in the Arctic and working closely with indigenous people there for some years now and he told me some interesting things he’s learned about the ancient Inuit lifestyle. But that’s for another time…
And here are some photos from the trip!
That’s a sundog (or sun dog).
CBC Studios, Whitehorse
Hamilton & Son Guitar Works, Whitehorse
Marsh Lake selfie and kicksleds
I’m not including a photo of the gnarly toe but I do have photos.
That’s it for photos my website would let me upload. For more you’ll just have to ask me in person or come over to my house and look at the SourToe Club certificate hanging on my wall.