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the wake

I leave camp by 9AM and cycle without a break to the campsite at Takhini River, a campground fifteen kilometres off the main highway. At the site, a group of women and one man – who passed me earlier on the road in a convey of four vehicles – are occupying a site surrounded by numerous small dogs.

It’s 3 o’clock and a hot day and I’m not sure which I need most, lunch or a swim. Food wins and I cook noodles, my dish of choice for a leisurely lunch. After lunch, as I walk past the other group on my way to the river the rat pack races out yapping hysterically and snapping at my ankles. A woman comes to scold them half-heartedly – these dogs are clearly not often disciplined – and we introduce ourselves. She has come from Whitehorse, with her friends, to spend the evening here in memory of her husband, who recently passed away. I go on my way to the river.

The river is wide, cold – snow banks are visible on the surrounding hills – and frighteningly fast. I duck under the surface, close to the edge, in a quieter backwater and then sit in the sun to dry and write a while. The man stops by on the river bank and asks me all the usual questions.

I go back to camp and start putting up my tent. One of the tent poles, which cracked the first time I put the tent up in the howling wind on the tundra out of Deadhorse, gives way and I am struggling with finding a solution to this problem when the man appears and asks me if I want to join their party for dinner. I hesitate for a moment, considering the propriety of gate-crashing a memorial dinner, but the cyclists’ desire for food wins out over any misgivings.

I eat steak, ribs, crab rolls, macaroni and potato salad drenched in mayonnaise, corn on the cob – a feast – but the party is fractious and tense. The women fret and fuss about the flies and the wasps, about if everyone has enough to eat. The bereaved’s mother refuses to eat. She gets into her car with her silky terrier, complaining of her back and turns on the air conditioning. Glenda, her daughter, fusses over people’s plates, pressing food on everyone, but serves herself barely anything. The dogs – Cindy, Susie and others whose names I have forgotten – snarl at each other under the table, gnawing on ribs bigger than they are.

From time to time a member of the party makes a lugubrious reference to the deceased. “Eddie would have been proud of you, Glenda, for whipping up this spread.” I am informed in a whispered aside that he was a chef. The mother leaves before the ceremonial scattering of the ashes: I also make my excuses and leave for my campsite with a plate of chocolate cake and strawberries. After a time, the party leave and we wave our goodbyes.

I light my first campfire. Spruce burns hot and fast. It is peaceful to be off the highway – lovely not to hear the constant sound of traffic.

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