Do you dream of escaping the grind of city life?
I did too. However, I had no idea that when I finally did escape it would be to a remote community in Canada’s far north.
I’m originally from Australia and had fallen in love with Canada during a year in Toronto while on a company transfer. I returned to Australia filled with the desire to one day make it my home. That dream eventually came true and, ten years to the day after I’d first set foot here, I finally walked off the plane into my new country.
Initially headed for Vancouver, I was, at the eleventh hour, offered three months work in the Yukon. Never one to pass up an adventure I decided this one was too good to miss. Maybe it was the allure of escaping the rat race, or just one too many episodes of ‘Northern Exposure’, but two days after landing in Canada I found myself in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon and just 900km shy of the Arctic Circle. In the middle of winter. ‘Culture shock’ doesn’t begin to cover it.
From Sydney to….where?
Flying in, you get an idea of just how remote it is – 35,000 people living in an area roughly the size of California – and you’ll find most of those in Whitehorse. I could have walked to the North Pole from there and probably never have seen another human being.
Moving from downtown Sydney to this small community at the edge of known civilization in northern Canada wasn’t without its challenges. Aside from the usual hurdles of being a new immigrant – and there are a surprising amount of them even when you speak the language – life that far north is a long way from ordinary.
Of course, the most obvious difference is the weather. Canadians have turned weather conversation an art form. In the North it’s an obsession. And with good reason. When it’s forty below plus wind chill you don’t want to mess around. As the mercury drops the layers of clothing go on. Cars are plugged in to keep the engine warm. Only the foolhardy would venture onto winter roads without packing survival gear. But despite the ever-present risk of frostbite and limited daylight hours, life slows down very little over winter. Long nights just mean more time for watching the northern lights.
Even though the winter may be cold, the people most definitely are not. The Yukon is a tight-knit community and Northerners are famed for their hospitality – they welcome newcomers like family. There aren’t too many places left in the world where a total stranger will introduce themselves with a handshake just because you happen to be standing nearby. Its a place where people take the time to get to know you.
Calling all free spirits
A magnet for those with an independent spirit, the Yukon is home to an eclectic community of musicians, miners, artists, government workers, eccentrics and refugees from urban jungles around the world. Most go looking for a lifestyle change. They’re down to earth, practical, resourceful people who maintain a sense of the pioneer spirit. It is, after all, one of the last remaining frontiers in the world.
But despite the fact that Canadians further south chuckle when you tell them where you live, Yukoners are on to something. During my time there I commuted three blocks to work. Compare that to the 90 minutes of traffic snarls I had to endure in Sydney each way! At the time I moved to Whitehorse in 2006, hardly anyone I knew owned a mobile phone. Of course with the coming of cell service that has since changed, although not everywhere. Some who live out of town don’t even have indoor plumbing. And work is how you earn a living, not a lifestyle choice.
They’ve discovered a highly sought-after secret – the almost mythical work-life balance.
Perhaps because of this, life is very relaxed. For a girl from the city it took a lot of getting used to because things don’t happen on city time. They happen on “Yukon time”. Meaning it will get done when it gets done. Plus a few days. Add to that the fact that while the Yukon enjoys all the conveniences of southern cities, virtually everything has to be shipped in. I quickly discovered that patience was a virtue you needed in good supply. Advanced planning skills, a sense of humour and adaptability came in handy as well!
But the best part of living in this part of the world is the environment. A wilderness playground with endless boreal forest, lakes, rivers and mountains is ten minutes from downtown. No more long drive just to get out of the city. The outdoors is a way of life and connection with nature an integral part of the Yukon lifestyle.
Secrets of a happy life
Somehow three months turned into seven years. But that’s a common story. It’s a place that gets its hooks into people and they just never seem to leave. What kept me there for so long was the warmth of the people, a simpler life and the magnificent landscape. Living in the North taught me to slow down and enjoy the beauty of each day.
I used to have a shelf full of books promising me the secret of a happy life. But in finding myself in such an unlikely place, I finally found the inner peace and happiness that was so elusive in the rush of city life.
This artwork is my homage to my former home. The photograph was taken on a day in late autumn in the hamlet of Carcross. The aspen trees were glowing, the first snow was creeping down the mountainsides and there wasn’t even the whisper of a breeze. I can still remember the feeling vividly as I took the shot – there was a quiet hush….as though the silent landscape was relaxing into its long winter slumber. I felt like the only person on earth. Witness to this magnificence.
These days I call Vancouver Island home, but a part of my soul will always belong to that mysterious and captivating land up north.