79-year-old N.W.T. elder joins overland journey to Old Crow, Yukon

Gwich'in Tribal Council Chief Ken Kyikavichik, right, with his uncle, 79-year-old Ernest Vittrekwa. (Ken Kyikavichik - image credit)
Gwich'in Tribal Council Chief Ken Kyikavichik, right, with his uncle, 79-year-old Ernest Vittrekwa. (Ken Kyikavichik - image credit)

79-year-old Ernest Vittrekwa has learned a thing or two from the many times he's made the overland journey from his home in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to Old Crow, Yukon.

"Once you get over the mountain, you're OK. But you always got to be prepared," he said this week, after his most recent snowmobile trip between the two remote communities.

"For me, it's fun. I don't talk about stuff, I do — then I talk."

Vittrekwa was part of a group of about 20 people that made the trip last week. The group comprised young and old riders, many of them making the journey for the first time.

The route between Fort McPherson and Old Crow has a long history among the Gwich'in, and the two communities share deep historic and familial ties. Only about 200 kilometres separate the two, but there is no easy way to drive or fly between them. Both are above the Arctic Circle, and there are no roads to Old Crow.

Vittrekwa remembers travelling the route by snowshoe years ago, which he said would take about four days.

By the 1970s and '80s, the route wasn't used as much. Then in the 1990s, the late Chief Johnny D. Charlie decided to make the trip once again so the traditional trails would not be forgotten. Dozens of people joined him and an annual tradition was born, named for Charlie.

"Whenever we do the trip, it's in his memory,"  said Ken Kyikavichik, grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council and Vittrekwa's nephew, who also made the journey this month. It was a lifelong goal of his to make the journey, and this was his first time.

"To be honest, it was a little disappointing having to come back," Kyikavichik said.

"You seem to be more active, eating better and sleeping in a wall tent, and being able to have those discussions and laughter ... was really special. And every day seemed to be an adventure."

Apart from the odd mechanical failure, the group had no real setbacks or crises. The weather co-operated, and they were able to take in the awesome sights along the way.

The group was also joined along the way by another group from Yukon University who were taking part in a new two-eyed seeing program for land guardians. Among them was Donna Wolfe of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in southern Yukon.

"It was beautiful. I learned a lot. I really, really enjoyed this trip — my first time to Old Crow," Wolfe said.

She described how the trip incorporated both Indigenous knowledge and western science, and what a profound experience that was for her.

"It really, really opened my eyes. It was beautiful, and also to have the scientific and Indigenous working together, it made me really, really happy — because it's not only the bush people, it's the city people," she said.

Kyikavichik describes how moved he was to see people learning and practicing traditional skills while out on the land.

"To see our young people, some as young as 13, 14 years old, harvesting and working with caribou meat and preparing it was just on awe-inspiring," he said.

But travelling along with his uncle Ernest was a special treat.

"Seeing him be able to still undertake this trip at 79 years old was very impressive," Kyikavichik said.

"Numerous times I hear elders talk about being out on the land, and their mind still wants to get out there but their body is preventing them from doing so."

As for Vittrekwa, he hasn't ruled out joining next year's trip.

"They think I'm too old, but I tell them oh no, that is B.S.," he said.

"Just do it, if you're able to do it. And while you got sense. That's what I did all my life."