A Journey Long Time Ago
To Aino Ida Kaakinen*
Some journeys can take years, even a lifetime to complete.
I was about fourteen years old when I got a National Geographic atlas for Christmas. The atlas had lots of detailed maps of countries but one of these caught my attention. I was amazed by the hugeness of Canada and how sparsely populated it was.
I had recently read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild
With the help of the summers I spent in eastern Finland and London’s book, I tried to visualize what those small towns and landscapes of northern Canada looked like from my home in Los Angeles, California.
Did they bare any resemblance to the sublime, Sub-Arctic landscapes of Finland since they were located north of the 60th parallel? Was northern Canada like Finland? After acquainting myself with the map of , my eyes traveled east. I must have noted a conspicuous body of water called the Great Slave Lake.
Over thirty-five years ago, towns on the shore of the huge lake like Yellowknife (population of 3,741!), Rae, Hay River and the former mining hamlet of Pine Point were the only ones connected by a highway from Edmonton.
As the years appeared and slowly turned me into a man, my fascination with northern Canada never ceased. The same questions that awoke my interest as an adolescent continued to fascinate me: How is it possible that the Northwest Territories, which is about the size of Continental Europe, only housed 25,000 souls?
Who could live amid such far-flung isolation? Such people must have been a brave group to defy desolateness, I thought.
Certainly gold and hopes of attaining riches brought in1896-99 tens of thousands of people and a handful of Finns to Dawson City, the heart of the Klondike.
Canadian historian Pierre Berton writes in Klondike a short tale told by a miner: “All my life,” he said, “I have searched for the treasure. I have sought it in the high places and in the narrow. I have sought it in deep jungles, and at the ends of rivers, and in dark caverns – and yet have not found it.”
“Instead, at the end of every trail, I have found you awaiting me. And now you have become familiar to me, though I cannot say I know you well. Who are you?”
And the stranger answered: “Thyself.”
While DawsonCity shrunk from a city of about 40,000 inhabitants during the gold rush days to about 2,000 today, what had lured such a few souls to the Northwest Territories?
I’d never know the answer to that question if I didn’t visit the region.
An opportunity came in summer. I was invited to give a talk at a FinnFling festival at Thunder Bay, Ontario. If I didn’t take advantage of this chance, I knew I’d have to wait many years, possibly forever, to visit Canada’s north.
When the plane from Vancouver began its slow descent on Whitehorse, the spectacular barren scenery below revealed itself in full splendor.
There they were: the towering so silent mountain wilderness, untouched specks of spruces and snow-fed pristine rivers and lakes inhabited by the ghosts of London’s tales. As the airplane circled over Whitehorse, the city appeared like a flat spread-out oasis hugged by wilderness and the mighty Yukon River running next to it like a liquid superhighway.
Southern Yukon is mountainous and covered by abundant black spruce forests without any granite formations. For these reasons, the scenery doesn’t resemble Finland.
Of all the towns I visited in the Yukon, Dawson City is the most impressive. In its gravel streets you not only commonly brush shoulder to shoulder with the famous gold rush days but may discover a secret about ourselves on its gravel streets: We die penniless no matter how much material wealth we accumulate.
Even Buck, London’s famous imaginary dog, must have died “old and poor” after finding its lost freedom with the wolves of the wild.
After brief stops at Old Crow and Inuvik, I eventually made it to Yellowknife by plane. The capital city of the Northwest Territories was a disappointment. It had grown since the 1960s to about 20,000 inhabitants and looked like any modern urban center of southern Canada.
I did find some parts around, with birches, alders and red granite, which looked like Helsinki.
While I experienced the same friendliness from Yellowknifers that I had witnessed elsewhere on my journey, I understood that I’d have to travel hundreds of kilometers to find the magic that had lured me for so long to the Northwest Territories.
The 550-kilometer journey by car to Hay River from Yellowknife did the job.
It was late in the evening when I arrived with a friend from Thunder Bay to the small town of 3,500 people. We lodged at a campground six kilometres away. A beautiful sunset greeted us gleaming distantly like a surreal blanket over the Great Slave Lake.
The following morning the awesome scenery revealed itself with the sound of soft waves splashing on the shore. We visited a fisherman’s market and got acquainted with the town. We even had the opportunity to see a fastball game and a First Nations (Amerindian) council meeting.
It was one of the most memorable journeys I had ever made, even if it began a long time ago.
* A wooden board nailed to an old tree at the Dawson City cemetery caught my attention: In loving memory of Aino Ida Kaakinen, born October 24, 1904, died September 1, 1905.
It was the only grave I found that had a Finnish name. Records show that the baby died of “pernicious malarial fever.” I couldn’t find much about the baby except that her parents were Finns. Her father’s name was Emil, a miner, and her mother Ida owned a restaurant on 519 Craig Street, today Second Avenue.