OLD CROW INFO
WHEN TO GO
• March is an ideal month to see Old Crow in winter. The light is returning and days are warming up, making for ideal dog sledding and cross-country skiing. It’s also an optimal time for spectacular northern-lights displays.
• To get a taste of Gwich’in culture and heritage, visit Old Crow during the May long weekend for Caribou Days, celebrating the Gwich’in peoples’ connection to the Porcupine caribou herd.
WHAT TO DO
• Book a tour with Josie’s Old Crow Adventures to dog sled or see the northern lights, or join his Town and Mountain Tour any time of year to learn about Old Crow’s history and see its significant sights. josiesoldcrowadventures.com.
• Visit the airy John Tizya Centre to take in displays highlighting the culture, history, and traditions of the Vuntut Gwich’in.
• Go see the Edith Josie House, where world-renowned journalist Edith Josie wrote her column, “Here are the News.” Josie was recognized nationally for her work, receiving the Canadian Centennial Award, the Order of Canada, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award.
• The listing, weathered Kenneth Nukon Cache near the centre of the village was once used to store meat, fish, and fur supplies, as well as personal belongings such as snowshoes, hunting gear, and harnesses that could not be stored inside a house in winter.
• Stephen Frost Sr., Old Crow’s oldest resident, erected the community’s Antler Pole in the 1980s. Over the years, the pole has become an icon, with Yukon artist Jim Robb featuring it in one of his prints.
Air North services the community daily from Whitehorse, with rotating stops in Dawson and Inuvik, N.W.T.
WHERE TO STAY
• There are several accommodation options in Old Crow, with most offering basic rooms with full kitchens. A room at the Co-op cost $250/night. For a current list of accommodations, visit oldcrow.ca/accomm.htm.
WHERE TO EAT
The Co-op is a full-service grocery store offering fresh produce and staples labeled in both English and Gwich’in.
Whistling for the Auroae
By Genesee Keevil, Photos Paul Josie
There are meaty slop buckets in the home’s entrance, a pen of scrabbling husky pups behind the woodstove, and a baby crawling around on the floor.
Paul Josie is at the stove making lunch. He spent the morning hammering bits of fur, scraps of leather, and various metal latches to a piece of plywood to entertain his 11-month-old daughter.
Most afternoons, he hooks up a team of tugging, screaming sled dogs and runs them up the bald mountain behind his home in Old Crow, Yukon, his daughter bundled tightly in rabbit fur for warmth.
“We have survived in this area under harsh conditions for 24,000 years,” says Josie, “and now with climate change, what I want to teach my daughter is how to adapt and survive for thousands more.”
Josie used to be a council member for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Last year, he launched Josie’s Old Crow Adventures, offering local tours by snow machine and dog sled to the smattering of intrepid tourists, government workers, and scientists who visit this far-flung hamlet north of the Arctic Circle.
Perched on the black-spruce-covered banks of the snaking Porcupine River, Old Crow’s clusters of log cabins and vinyl-sided bungalows are topped with caribou antlers and satellite dishes.
At the local school, children learn Gwich’in and how to tan muskrat alongside their ABCs.
There’s no road connecting the community to the outside world, and almost everything comes in by air. Sometimes, if winter conditions permit, snowcats haul supplies over the rugged Richardson Mountains for a month or two. Last year, the cats hauled in hundreds of solar panels—part of Old Crow’s plan to reduce its reliance on diesel generators in keeping with a recently passed Vuntut Gwitchin resolution to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Television and phones didn’t arrive in Old Crow until the late 1970s, and though the community has Internet and cell service now, some things haven’t changed since caribou-bone tools dating back 24,000 years were first used to scrape hides in the Bluefish Caves, downriver.
The Vuntut Gwich’in remain dependent on the Porcupine caribou for survival. The herd calves in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a delicate swath of tundra in the midst of being repurposed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s fossil-fuel strategy, which environmentalists argue is one of the most destructive policies to emerge from the current administration. Oil-and-gas leases in the refuge could open as early as this year—a move the Vuntut Gwich’in are calling cultural genocide.
“Our connection to the land and our respect for the land is a big part of how we survived,” says Josie. The Vuntut Gwich’in’s traditional territory is one of the earliest known sites of human occupation in North America.
“People come up here with no idea about Old Crow and our history,” he says, “so I want to educate them on who we are. I got this direction from the Elders who talk about educating the outside world about why this way of life is so important to us.”
It’s –25°C and dark when Josie fires up his snow machine, throws a caribou skin—or cha— in the plastic sled he’s towing, and roars off to pick up tonight’s client. The woman who booked this northern-lights tour lives on the East Coast and is in Old Crow to help the Co-op, the
community’s only food store, with administrative matters.
“My father was born in a wall tent where the Co-op sits today,” Josie tells her, as they glide up the mountain, the lights of the community disappearing below.
Old Crow has its share of notable citizens. Josie’s father is now executive director of the Vuntut Gwitchin government, while his grandmother, Edith Josie, wrote a long-running column on remote northern life for the Whitehorse Star—syndicated to papers around the world—called “Here Are the News.”
Tourists from as far away as Japan, Switzerland, and Germany have approached Josie asking to see his grandmother’s home and be introduced to well-known local ski champion Martha Benjamin, who competed across Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
As he nears the top of the mountain, Josie pulls off the main trail onto a narrow track through stunted spruce, bumping up to a canvas wall tent framed by rough-cut poles. Inside, he turns on his headlamp, fires up a cracked barrel stove, and arranges a couple of plastic chairs.
Though nine-to-five jobs and the pull of modern life mean many of Old Crow’s inhabitants no longer spend as much time on the land, this way of life remains familiar and treasured, with some young mothers still teaching their toddlers to walk on the uneven bounce of spruce boughs.
Josie, himself, embodies this mix of new and old, wearing beaded, fur-trimmed mukluks and Cabela’s camouflage. He puts a kettle of snow on the stove and pulls out homemade bannock and jam. Then, quietly, without small talk, begins.
“Muskrat and beaver were friends who lived on the Porcupine River. Beaver was big and dragged his big tail, and he wanted to know what was on the other side of this mountain.…”
The stories continue past midnight: tales of ice bears, when the fur traders came, mastodon, starvation, and a time when only dog teams travelled this wilderness.
Josie periodically pokes his head out of the tent and checks the northern lights.
“Wow, they’re dancing tonight,” he says. “Don’t whistle.” When he was little the Elders warned him not to whistle at the northern lights or they’d snatch him up. Josie chuckles. “I’m not so scared anymore,” he says, giving a low whistle.
The lights start dancing.
The woman working with the Co-op—neck craned, watching the sky—asks Josie if there’s work up here for mechanical engineers. That’s what her husband does, and she wants him to join her. “He’d love it,” she says. “Maybe we could stay.