RiverNation – Journey Through The Bloodlines.
By Paige Hopkins.
Photos by Agnieszka Pajor.
Video by Lancelot Burton and Agnieszka Pajor.
Our Water, Our Land, Our People.“When you look at the hard times, you say ‘this is what I need from you and the rest I don’t need no more’ you never look back at it again; because it will come forward to meet you again. And part of that healing is your journey for tomorrow, and the next day, that’s the plan you have to stick with.” – Elder Besha BlondinRiver Nation: Journey Through the Bloodlines, began as a project to learn about Yukon First Nation governance.
The Youth Of Today Society, along with its partners, coordinated a canoe trip for youth, to visit neighboring communities. The Journey was taken in Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s traditional dugout canoe and their support boats. Participating youth learned about the different governance structures of the First Nations situated on the banks of the historic Yukon River. The task for the Shakat team was to document the experience during the eleven-day journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City. which included interviewing youth, Elders and those who came to support our project. The footage, we collected will be developed into several video assignments. Our expectations didn’t extend past the challenge of filming a crew of strangers in the outdoors.
However, as those in creative industries know – the story you set out to cover is rarely the story you end up with. This could not have been truer for the following story.The vast landscape along the blue-green Yukon River is a diverse tapestry of dense boreal forests, immense mountains and distinctive cliffs of clay. This is the warp and weft of Yukon’s ancient and unfolding history.
For those who have been on the land, it is known that the body, mind and spirit can find space to heal there. Looking forward and leaving the past behind, no matter how painful it may be is the only way to survive on the land. Living moment-to-moment, stroke-by-stroke, step-by-step, mends your mind and your body better than any rehabilitation program. Dealing with the things that are right in front of you is a tonic for the mind; “As a personal note, I know that I have never been so clear headed as when I was on the river. This is the medicine of the Yukon.”
“Going back to your past is the wrong direction. You have to move ahead to make a good plan. Every single day is a new day; so how do we make those plans?” – Elder Besha Blondin
Not every day on the river was sunshine and rainbows. (Although participants did see a number of them!) We met challenges, both physical and mental, at every bend. Lake LeBerge was the first; the ferocity of the water and the vastness of the lake was staggering to those who had not previously experienced it. The apprehension of the Five Finger Rapids, although intense, was dispelled, as quickly as the affair itself. We paddled through rain, wind, searing heat and smoke from a forest fire, along the way. Some days we were on the water for 12 or more hours. We had to cope with the strain on our bodies, as paddling a four hundred pound canoe is taxing work. Not to mention, hauling the canoes and gear onto shore and back each day. Surprisingly, it was rare for spirits to wane before the setting of the sun.
Physical work has a way of putting you to sleep at night, making your sleeping pad softer then your bed at home. Eating food cooked over a fire, with wood that you gathered and water you hauled from the river is fulfilling to more than just your stomach. For most, the experience on the river was life altering. It was healing and a confidence booster. We learned to let things go, to move on and to set our sights and energy on today and the future, instead of the past. We grew confident in ourselves due to our ability to handle difficult problems in stressful situations. We learned how much discomfort we could tolerate and met this discomfort with a smile on our face. I know for me, it’s the first time in my two years living in the Yukon, I felt safe. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by wild animals or getting hurt, lost or stranded in the wilderness. I accepted everything that came my way without overthinking as I normally would.
We connected with people we never thought we would have met otherwise. It is difficult to determine, if it was being on the land together for two weeks or being packed into a canoe for 8 plus hours, a day, but no one can deny the journey and experience brought us all closer together.The people we met, including the wonderful, wise Elders, helped us to understand what a special community of support we have here. Everyone wanted to help; everyone wanted us to succeed.
Our resident Kwanlin Dün First Nation Elder, William Carlick, began each day with ceremony. He spoke of many things, but mostly he spoke about respect. Respect for the ancestors, for the animals, the environment and each other. Standing in a circle we each shared our hopes and feelings for the day; holding hands, we listened as William prayed to the Creator to watch over us. These were ways that we were drawn into Yukon First Nation Culture.
Being immersed in this experience was just as spiritual and cultural, as it was physical. By the end of the canoe trip we didn’t want to get off the river. “I, wanted to keep paddling as well as sleep in a tent, collect firewood, eat food cooked on a fire and, listen to Elders talk about the land, and on and on.”“From my perspective, coming back to my apartment, in Whitehorse, after two full weeks outdoors, was an ordeal. Being between four walls and a roof was claustrophobic. It felt too warm, too close. Shifting from our insulated canoe community to the ‘bustle’ of the city was over stimulating. Driving a car to work, instead of paddling to my destination, felt disappointing and underwhelming.
“The story, I left the river with, evolved into a story about friendship, self-confidence and learning. Instead of being an objective observer of a group of youth, as they navigated along this journey, I was sucked in and made part of the pack.” Writing this article was difficult as I found looking back, to describe the experience, felt contrary to what I learned. Why look back? The Yukon River only flows in one direction – forward. To share our experience, so that readers might appreciate the journey too, is of course part of it.This story flows with us, with each paddle, each step, each new day.