Yearning for Canada’s high north

Visit prompts fond memories of caribou hunt in Yukon Territory


I spent most of the latter part of March in Vancouver, British Columbia. I have friends and family there, and when the cherry and magnolia trees blossom and the mountains still gleam with snow, Vancouver is a very special place to be.

On my first morning there, I was enjoying a late breakfast at the rather trendy waterfront Granville Island Public Market, when who should turn up but Crown Prince Naruhito! He passed right by the table where I was sitting with my daughter Miwako and her partner, so I got to my feet — at which a burly Canadian in a suit snarled at me not to try to get close. The Crown Prince stopped, looked at me, and came over to shake hands. “Mr. Nicol! What are you doing here?” he asked in Japanese, seeming as surprised as I was. For my daughter and I, that chance encounter certainly made our day!

That afternoon, though, I had a much sadder duty. I have a young friend, aged 41, who is almost as close to me as my son. He was a journalist in Japan for seven years and did some outstanding research on Japan’s homeless. He spent a lot of time in Kurohime, staying with me up here in the Nagano hills or with my friends at their nearby pension, where his easygoing nature and sense of humor made him very popular. He is tall, well over 180 cm, and because his name is Trevor Greene, Japanese friends called him “Tree.”

After leaving Japan and doing a stint in the Canadian navy, Trevor decided that he wanted to do something positive in Afghanistan, so he joined the Canadian army and volunteered to work with a joint civil-military Canadian unit operating in remote villages. Just before he left, he wrote me a very personal letter, telling me how much he believed in the job he was being sent to do.

One day, Trevor was sitting with a group of Afghan village elders, listening and taking notes on what they needed. Out of respect for the elders, he had put down his weapon and removed his helmet. A jihadist, with a crude ax hidden in his robes, came up behind Trevor and hit him in the head. Trevor keeled over, terribly wounded, and in the ensuing firefight the attacker was killed. When the shooting was over, his men found that Trevor was miraculously alive, so they called in a helicopter to take him out.

Road to recovery

After treatment at a military hospital at the headquarters base in Kandahar, Trevor was flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for surgery. When it was safe enough for him to be moved, he was then flown home to Vancouver, where his family graciously put me on the special list of people who could see him. I visited him for a second time the day before I came home to Japan, and although he still couldn’t move or speak, his eyes opened wide, tracking me when I moved and looking at me intensely as I spoke.

I am not happy at all with what is going on in Iraq, but after hearing some of the things Trevor told me about the atrocities committed by the remnants of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — and the hopes of the majority of the people of Afghanistan — I believe that for him to put his life on the line there was both courageous and noble.

Now, though, all that his family and friends can hope and pray for is that the damage to his brain will gradually heal. I certainly wish with all my heart that he will also be able to start putting his thoughts and feelings down on paper again, as he was one of the best, fairest and most gutsy young writers I’ve ever met.

As might be expected, the attack on Trevor has caused a furor in the Canadian media, but when my friends showed me printouts of some of the nasty, vicious stuff on Internet blogs, my dislike for people who cannot put their name to what they write, print or say was considerably reinforced.

However, such bile seems far away as I write this in my study in Kurohime. It is a warm, sunny spring day and the Torii River is rushing by with a roaring flood of meltwater. Before Japan embarked on its love for concrete and dams, the Torii was a notable salmon river. Now, it has only small char and miller’s-thumb fish. When I think of the mighty Fraser River, the crystal-clear Capilano and the other salmon rivers that run through the city of Vancouver, I can only sigh.

I am very happy to be in Japan, but as spring comes along, I yearn for the Canadian high north. Recently some old negatives of photographs I took back in October 1972 turned up and my daughter had them printed. I took the pictures when I was doing research on the Porcupine River, a tributary of the Yukon River in Yukon Territory, Canada, and had a chance to join a hunting party of Van Tat Gwich’in people from Old Crow. In order to ambush the great migrating caribou herds, they had recently set up a canvas lean-to shelter a day’s journey from the village .

The rule in camp was no talking, no sudden noise or movement. We cut young spruce boughs and stuck them in the ground, bending them over to make a springy mattress. A “reflector” of logs was set behind the fire so that no flames were visible from the outside, and the smoke kept most of the insects away from the shelter, but was not enough to bother us when we sat on the bedding. Because the shelter was shaped like a big ear, it gathered in sound.

Autumn hunt

A large herd of caribou — snorting and farting and with antlers clacking, knee joints clicking, guts rumbling and hooves rattling on rocks — make a sound like distant thunder, audible from a long way off. The hunters did their best to shoot the caribou either in the river or on the banks — a marksman could easily take 30 a day. Afterward, they would be put on a log raft and towed back to Old Crow to be skinned and hung in cold houses.

Caribou hairs are hollow, and at that time of the year, autumn, the animals have fat on their backs, so thanks to both those features they float well. The nights were getting chill, so there were few egg-laying flies, and by then skims of new ice were forming on the river and the water was very cold.

This kill of wildlife may seem excessive to a city-dweller, but caribou, together with salmon, were the mainstays of life in Old Crow. (In many parts of Japan, deer and wild boar are culled and their bodies just dumped. I met one farmer in Hokkaido who told me he shot on average over 100 deer a year and dumped them in a pit — now that shocks me.)

I haven’t been back to Old Crow since then, and 34 years have passed, but I’ll never forget the tang of buckskin, the smoke of the fire, the scent of the spruce bows on which we laid caribou skins and sleeping bags; the gorgeous yellows and reds of autumn foliage and the flocks of southward-migrating ducks and geese that passed over us as we waited for the caribou to come; or, as it grew dark, the aurora borealis dancing for us way up in the sky.

Years later I borrowed the idea of an open-fronted shelter that could gather in sound, with a fire reflector (which we built of stones) to enjoy the sounds of our forest here in Kurohime, and as a place to tell stories.

Actually, in case you were wondering, the main reason I went to Vancouver was to record a song and a story about salmon for Japanese children. I love to tell stories, but I do wish I could just take the children to our Torii River and show them returning salmon glittering and leaping through the rushing water. Only 50 years or so ago, I could have.