Yukon’s wilderness gives artist a new take on life

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Paddling adventure: McCrae’s Katrina Newman had the time of her life on the Yukon River with other artists. Pictures: Lisa Takkinen

JEWELLERY artist Katrina Newman, of McCrae, has returned from a Canadian Wilderness Artists Residency saying it was “an experience like no other”.

“I was surrounded by creative people and the voyage on the Yukon River was inspiring,” she said.

“I felt I had found my place and came to feel at home among 11 Canadian artists as we explored the Yukon Territory in a canoe.”

Arriving at Whitehorse, capital of the northwest Yukon territory, Newman met up with her trip coordinator, guides, and other artists in the group of two men and 10 women.

They spent a week preparing for the 24-day journey, meeting local artists and visiting their studios, hiking near Fish Lake, soaking in the local hot springs, and shopping as a team for supplies which was packed into barrels in order of eating.

“I was eager to get on the Yukon River,” Newman said. “I was looking forward to getting out of town, exploring the wilds and getting away from social media and email. The only internet I had was at cafes and the tourist information centre, but with access, there also comes an expectation that you’ll stay in contact with family and friends, keen to hear about your journey in northern Canada.

“I felt a relief to switch off when it finally came time to depart.”

The waters of the Yukon were like a crystal, with refractions of blue, turquoise, gold, and

white as the light faded; in the middle of the river were dark greens, blues and blacks.

“Every day on our journey the colours of the river changed and reflected the light, and the changing landscapes that we enjoyed.”

The paddlers camped at old settlers’ cottages, supply stations, and woodlots decomposing into the landscape. Three days they docked at Shipyard Island where an old paddle steamer was brought into dry dock for repairs – and never left.

Approaching rapids their guides had them practicing peeling and ferrying to prepare for a quick turn outs. “My anxiety was raised with all this preparation, but after all the fuss, there really wasn’t anything to worry about,” she said. “In fact I was a little disappointed that the rapids were not as wild as my imagination.”

Northern Canada is the Land of the Midnight Sun, with sufficient light to navigate around a campsite at night without a torch. “The slow descent of the sun made for remarkable light and the time to collect our thoughts, explore, relax, draw, paint, braid, weave, sing, dance, photograph, walk, swim in the cold water of the river and enjoy our surroundings,” Newman said.

Days on the river were filled with songs and banjo music. Treasured possessions were stories from ‘Yukon River’ by Mike Rourke which she took along on her journey.

The longest distance paddled in one day was 78km and a highlight was joining in a celebration of First Nations people at one stopover.

With the weather was warm and sunny for most of the voyage the artists enjoyed dunking in the cool Yukon water, but a change in the weather just a few days outside Dawson City brought rain and cooler temperatures. “It allowed us to climb into our warm clothes,” she said.

“It was wonderful to see the landscape change with the cloud and mist-covered mountains. With the dim light I fell in love with the Yukon all over again.”

There was also a change in water colour at the confluence of the White and Yukon rivers, with silt from the White River clouding the water and making it undrinkable.

For an Australian, used to the sounds of birds at dawn, the silence of the Yukon was surprising.

Drifting silently they came across a young black bear walking along the bank, and later saw moose, deer, sheep, frogs, squirrels, beavers, porcupine and a silver fox. From the comfort of their canoes they saw tracks of larger bears and wolves in mud on the bank.

“With temperatures often at 30 degrees, the animals would be enjoying the coolness of the forests rather than basking in the heat,” she said.

Bears were a real concern. Arriving at a camp site they found a poster warning of an aggressive bear in the area: they left, only to find another sign at the next campsite with the same message – and a fresh set of bear prints as an added warning. Time to keep moving…

“The highlights of the residency were the opportunity to connect with the land and its people, to be off grid, to take time out for introspection, to be away from all the distractions that consume our modern days and time,” Newman said.

“Since coming home all I have wanted to do is go back, but I realise that even if and when I do the experience will be different.

“I’ll probably be travelling alone – not with a group of young and vibrant artists full of energy that help to transform and make such adventures all the more worthwhile.”

The artist will be showing her works at her Cinerama Cr, McCrae, studio, 10am-5pm, Sundays 19 and 26 November.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 14 November 2017

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