It's a bumpy ride to the Dechenla Lodge and Wilderness Resort. Twelve artists and I jostle back and forth as the Land Rovers carrying us crawl over boulders and up a steep incline to the far-flung lodge, 27 km from the Yukon border, on the southwestern edge of the Northwest Territories.
Tim Schumm, a wiry photographer and painter from Victoria, B.C., is strapped atop one vehicle, enjoying the ride, snapping pictures. Everyone else is laughing. Many are familiar with challenging journeys like this one--some canoed the Wind River; others backpacked in Patagonia, the high Arctic, and Antarctica. You can’t scare them.
I, however, can be scared. We’ve already travelled two days along the treacherous but beautiful North Canol Road, which stretches from Ross River, Yukon, to Norman Wells, N.W.T. The highway is maintained on the Yukon side, but across the border the wilderness is winning the battle to reclaim the road.
This caravan of creatives and I have converged at the invitation of lodge owners Norm and Barb Barichello for the first run of what the Barichellos hope becomes an annual artists’ retreat.
Dechenla, a cooperative endeavour between the Barichellos and the Kaska First Nation, has operated for 25 years as a family-run naturalist lodge after Norm, looking for a career change, took over the operation with his wife, Barb. The pair hosts anyone wanting to experience a unique southern strip of tundra and “warm hospitality in the heart of the wilderness...far from the complexities of modern society.”
But the Barichellos have a warm spot for art and a real love for wildlife artists in particular. Hoping to see more people engage this unique place, the Barichellos have contacted their favourite artists, inviting them for a week-long retreat to see what they might produce from all this beauty.
Over bumps and bends, I ask my friend and travel mate, Joyce Majiski, a Whitehorse-based artist, about her artistic plans for Dechenla and am surprised to find she doesn’t have an agenda.
“I process things. I absorb a place,” she explains. “I’m going to see what’s there.”
The lodge, named after the Kaska word Dechen la, meaning “land at the end of the sticks,” lives up to its moniker: it’s past the treeline, accessible only by this road, where 15 km can take two hours to traverse. When we arrive, Barb beckons us inside for a candlelit moose-stew supper, but most of us stand in awe on the porch. Around us a wide swath of tundra reaches for a ring of majestic mountains. Sunset tips the peaks.
Later, Barb, Norm, and their son, Josh, guide a walking tour. They know the ridge where poppies grow; the wolverine lair; the best place to find alpine flowers; the good day hikes. Josh recommends a short romp up Windflower Hill so everyone can get the lay of the land.
From here, you can hear the world breathe, it’s suggested, as we reach the top.
Awash in the stillness of this near perfection, it’s easy to agree.
Though tranquility reigns supreme at Dechenla, time is still precious. Breakfast is served at 7:30 a.m. We amble out of our share cabins that found out from the main lodge and discuss the day ahead. The schedule promotes independence; we're to go to "our thing"--whatever that is for each of us. We scatter into the hills.
Artists Dominik Modlinski and David McEown set up their portable easels on the side of a high, windy ridge, preparing for plein-air painting--painting out on the land in the open air.
It feels invasive to follow artists into their space, but I’m eager to find out why they come to the wild. Modlinski, an Atlin oil painter originally from Poland, tells me he believes landscape artists are doing a service to the country by heightening awareness of disappearing wilderness.
“We’re recording fragile landscapes changing at a rapid pace. We make people consciously aware of these changes,” he says. “If an area is in danger, Canada sends our artists there to paint it.”
He dabs paint on the canvas in layers, building the mountain in front of us. He leans back to get the bigger view, then leans forward and highlights a cliff.
McEown, a watercolour painter and photographer from Vancouver, sets up farther away. He’s more philosophical when talking about painting and wilderness.
“There’s a lure to the remote,” he explains. “Wilderness areas are increasingly rare, but important. They help you come back to yourself.... Art is about being aware--awareness of place and my place in that space."
From McEown’s chosen spot, I have a perfect 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and a smattering of caribou crossing the tundra below. It’s an inverted theatre, where the show, Wilderness, is out there, and the audience is standing in a small circle of civilization and amazement.
I catch up to Majiski upstairs in the main lodge, painting with watercolours, trying out shapes and ideas she’s absorbed on one of her several hikes that day.
“I go out there for inspiration,” she says. “Going out there is as important for me as a person as it is to being an artist.
“I’m not trying to create anything here,” she continues. Instead, she wants to use her time to interact with the land. She wants to take in the colours. “I want to fill up my well.”
Later that day, I find Ann Mackenzie, a fibre artist in her seventies, with her cabin door open. She invites me in, and we talk as she forms felt into the likeness of a stone she’s found on the tundra.
I ask her why, after living in Whitehorse--the Wilderness City--she seeks somewhere further out.
“Whitehorse doesn’t seem like a wilderness anymore,” she says. “ATVs, planes--something mechanical happening everywhere. Here there is peace. I came here to get a bit of peace...and go hiking.”
It’s a refrain I’m hearing a lot. That peace and art go together; that wilderness brings peace, as well as inspiration.
I wander back to my cabin. At first I feel guilty for not being outside hiking like the others, but soon I make a fire and, for the first time in years, read a book for pleasure, a joy I’d forgotten in my day-to-day writing work, where the printed word is a commodity. And while others are busy finding their peace out on the tundra, I find my own right here, with the crackle of the wood-stove and the endless buffer of space between me and the world.
The artists have their own nighttime ritual: dinner, wine, displaying the day’s work on the wall, a slide show until there’s no more light. Conversation is served with each course of the meal. Soon, the artists are talking about what makes Dechenla and what it offers special.
Schumm explains his belief that we go into the wilderness to reset our inner clocks. “There’s a rhythm to nature that we shield ourselves from,” he says. “Concrete civilization never felt right for me.... You don’t have to go to the deepest darkest wilderness, but artists do need to go to the external.”
Schumm’s self-confidence builds in extreme conditions. Establishing a certain level of expertise and proficiency in the wild contributes to a feeling of self-sufficiency that’s useful to an artist, he says.
The room is dim, but Barb lights some candles so we can continue chatting. Some of us are sitting on the stairs, looking down on the dinner table that’s rapidly become an open forum.
Modlinski has travelled the world, painting landscapes and giving voice to the places he finds. “It takes a long time to understand the language of a place,” he says, describing the importance of immersing oneself in an area. “True home is where you are. You have to spend time there.”
Given the abundant inspiration at Dechenla, I wonder if returning home might be a letdown for the artists. Doesn’t time creating in the backcountry trump creating works on home turf?
Most of the artists say no, which is initially surprising, until I remember that the mission of these artists is not just to experience the beauty here, but also to imprint the place in their minds and return home with something to share with the world. They are here to translate where no words exist, to make visual what cannot be seen, and to make the silence and stillness sing far beyond the mountains and tundra of Dechenla.
And so, whether hiking up steep hills, idly daubing paint to canvas, or standing stock-still gazing from the deck, the artists are hard at work, taking their cues and directions from the motionless landscape around them.
Before the week ends, Barb shows me the resort’s guestbook, signed by Carl Brenders, Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowat, and a host of other dazzled visitors. One guest has quoted T.S. Eliot, calling Dechenla the “still point of the turning world.” It’s an apt description.
As the group prepares to return home their packs may be lighter, but they are undoubtedly fuller than when they arrived. Along with canvasses, cameras, and sketchbooks, they will carry even more precious cargo--a stillness they can share with the turning world. Left behind, Dechenla will remain stoically unchanged--a bottomless source of tranquility, where artists can fill up their well so they in turn can fill up ours. Y