Talking at the Woodpile

Stories of the Yukon

David Thompson

In this humourous and refreshing collection of short stories, David Thompson reveals the charm and grit of life in the Yukon. Talking at the Woodpile is a masterful blend of fact and fiction, history and the contemporary and intriguing stories that begin as long as 10,000 years ago. An unsuspecting miner discovers a frozen carcass while digging for gold. After much to-do about the origin of the gigantic creature, the mammoth and its unfortunate victim are laid to rest by the local First Nations community.

In a moment of wry humour, Thompson describes a small town rivalry that ends when a firewood thief blows his fireplace sky high, to the delight of his victimized neighbours, and in the collection’s title story “Talking at the Woodpile,” two long-time friends unwittingly challenge each other to a talking duel, which ultimately leads to a nasty case of frostbite, and an even nastier case of cold shoulder.

In his first collection of short stories Thompson portrays life in a small Canadian community, weaving his characters in and out of each other’s tales and in and out of the history that shaped the great Canadian North.

Frozen in Time

 

In a cramped tunnel deep in permafrost on top of bedrock—fifty-nine claims above Discovery, where Adam’s Creek meets Bonanza Creek—Wilfred Durant worked late into a sub-zero Yukon night.

Candles in tarnished tin holders cast shadows of his toil as he stooped in the low headroom. His breath rose in wavering columns to blanket the ceiling in a field of white crystals. The tunnel was bridged with rough timbers oozing amber sap that stuck to Wilfred’s clothing and tools. He preferred to cut the sap out of his hair rather than wash it out.

The barber will straighten it once I’m in town, he thought.

The dank air smelled of wet wool, pine lumber and lately—barn animals.

Wilfred had an idea what the smell was. Parts of ancient horses, camels and a giant sloth—all well known to placer miners—had washed out in his sluice box over the years. He reached into his
waistcoat pocket to take another look at the stained ivory carving  he’d found a week ago. He planned to show it to Chief Daniel and the Han elders.

Wilfred shovelled tons of overburden and pay dirt into a wooden cart balanced on rickety lodgepole pine tracks that led to a vertical entrance. There the Arctic air dropped like an anvil onto his shoulders and back. He scooped the ore into beaten metal buckets and hand-cranked them forty feet to the valley floor above. His palms were sore from the manila ropes, and working back and forth from the relative warmth of the tunnel to the outside air inflamed his arthritis. He had just turned forty but at times felt ninety-five.

At two o’clock in the morning Wilfred put down his tools. He was played out; he could barely raise his arms. He trudged up the hill to the comfort of his cabin. The sparsely furnished single room was dim, since its rough log walls absorbed much of the oil lamp’s light. A table and two chairs stood between two lumber-framed beds and the stove, and rough plank shelves supported cans of butter, sacks of dry goods and other groceries. Dog-eared magazines and newspapers lay stacked everywhere. A pastel doll-faced 1931 calendar girl invitingly held out a can of evaporated milk next to where Wilfred sat. He crossed off the days with a pencil hanging from a string he’d tied to a nail in the wall.

In the middle of the floor sat a galvanized washtub half full of silt-grey water. When Wilfred needed money, he thawed a bucket of frozen pay dirt and panned out the gold. Working by the light of the wood stove’s open door, he would sort nuggets from the gravel—the wheat from the chaff.

Wilfred cooked his meals to last a week and scooped them from a cast-iron Dutch oven. He washed down his pork and beans with the blackest of coffee, then he boiled dried fruit and topped it with crushed arrowroot cookies and milk. Life on the creek was hard, but Wilfred had come to work and work he did. Comfort would come later. After stoking the stove, he climbed into bed and fell asleep. His mother said that Wilfred slept the sleep of the just.

David Thompson is profiled by the Yukon News