SUMMER IS THE TIME TO PULL OUT RECIPES FOR OLD FAVOURITES, LIKE BANNOCK AND PECAN SQUARES, AND SERVE THEM AT FAMILY REUNIONS, COMMUNITY PICNICS, OR SPECIAL EVENTS LIKE THE CARCROSS/TAGISH FIRST NATION ELDERS GATHERING, AT BENNETT, B.C.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2014 (V8I2) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
The White Pass and Yukon Route train hugs the shoreline of Bennett Lake as it travels from Carcross, Yukon, to Bennett, B.C. The old wooden coaches rock from side to side as an interpreter tells gold-rush-era stories over a loudspeaker that crackles and hisses, her voice intermittently audible above the clickety clack of iron wheels on narrow-gauge rails. Passengers crowd to the windows and snap pictures of blue, glacial water and mountains that rise straight up from the lake.
When the train pulls into Bennett, the world opens into a clearing of light and space. An isthmus connects the sites of the station and the historic town, and the water sparkles on either side. The red station house is a stone’s throw from the shore where, more than 100 years ago, stampeders built the boats they hoped would take them to Dawson’s goldfields. Today, Bennett is part of the Chilkoot National Historic Site and the last stop for hikers who’ve walked the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea, Alaska.
In the summer of 2013, Cathie Archbould and I arrived at Bennett to begin a two-day adventure. I was the volunteer cook and Cathie the photographer for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elders Gathering, an annual summer event hosted by Parks Canada. As soon as I stepped from the train I noticed the air— clean, dry, and scented with sub-alpine fir—and I was convinced that way at the back of my throat I could discern the faint tang of the sea, brought in from the coast through the mountain passes. It was the first day of August and 27 degrees; the lake was riffled glass, the mountains receded down the long line of the lake in waves of shadow and light, and we were in heaven.
Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder Mrs. Edna Helm trotted nimbly down the path from her cabin to meet us, pushing a yellow wheelbarrow. Edna was our host for the next few days, and this was our first glimpse of her no-nonsense, get-it-done style. We loaded up and bumped back along the path to the Helm cabin, the only inhabited dwelling in what used to be a thriving town of hotels, stores, and saloons.
Today, there is a church, a shoreline littered with rusting artifacts, the Parks Canada shelter and campground, and the Helm’s homestead. Tourists often mistake their trapping cabin for a national historic site, and sometimes Edna has to put a “No Trespassing” sign on the outhouse. This is the Helm family’s traditional territory; here they have fished and trapped since long before the gold rush. Although they have a house in Carcross, Bennett is where their hearts reside.
The Helm family has played a central role in the Elders Gathering since the early 2000s. They cast nets in Bennett Lake for the lake trout and whitefish that are the centerpiece of the luncheon, along with Edna’s bannock. Parks Canada brings in a cooler of sockeye salmon for backup and commissions a large, celebratory cake.
Edna’s husband, Walter, and their daughter, Nancy, arrived by boat from Carcross, as Parks Canada field officer Christine Hedgecock came out of the cabin to greet us. She is an adopted member of the Helm family and was officially adopted into the Ishkìtàn (Frog) Clan. The gathering is primarily Christine’s responsibility, and it was her job to shepherd the rest of us into some semblance of order.
Timing is tight on the day of the gathering. The Elders arrive on the 11:20 a.m. train, walk nearly a kilometre to the Parks Canada shelter, have lunch, and walk back in time for the 12:35 p.m. return train to Carcross. (One year, Edna’s wheelbarrow was pressed into service as Elder transport.)
The next day the serious work started. We set up a potato peeling, washing, and chopping station on the steps of Edna’s bathhouse. Parks Canada field officer Stephanie Ryan and promotion officer Lily Gontard peeled and chopped like seasoned camp cooks. Nancy brought out a folding camp stove and balanced it on the roof of a small cupboard beside the bathhouse while I rigged up a shelter against the wind with a piece of plywood and set the potatoes to boil. Walter sat on a bench under a spruce tree a few metres away and told stories to Cathie and Christine. I could hear his voice rising and falling over the roar of the stove.
When you’re cooking outdoors in unfamiliar surroundings everything takes longer and potato salad for 40 people becomes an epic task. I got to know the system at Edna’s—which barrel to get the water from, how the pump worked, where to dump the potato water, whether it was okay to enter the cabin and bug Edna for a spoon or a pot. Of course it was okay. The Helm’s place was like a summer cottage: relaxed and homey.
In the late afternoon, Walter, Edna, and Nancy took the boat out and set fishnets in a small cove across the bay. Some of us walked down to the shore to watch. Walter drove slowly in reverse while Edna held the net open from the top as she and Nancy guided it into the water hand over hand in an action both graceful and ancient.
The next day, Cathie and I got up at 6 a.m.—she started the coffee while I set up the cooking station and got the hot water going. The Parks Canada gals came over one by one, rubbing sleepy eyes as we put coffee into their outstretched hands. Edna appeared at the cabin door with a plateful of bannock. “So you can keep up your strength!” she exclaimed.
At 8:30, Walter said, “If we’re going to go and get that net, it’s now or never.” He and
Nancy took off in the boat accompanied by Cathie and her camera. Fifteen minutes later, they were back. Cathie came up from the dock. “So?” we asked. “Two small lake trout and a sucker,” she replied. “Skunked!” Edna said.
On to Plan B: Parks Canada’s backup sockeye salmon. It was 9 a.m. and we had a lot of pan-frying to do. Christine taught us how to cut the salmon into portions. Nancy and Stephanie set up cooking stations on either side of the table with two burners and two frying pans each. Cathie shifted from photographer to cook, and she and I dipped an endless number of salmon pieces into Edna’s flour mixture. We burned the first pieces. “Elders don’t like burnt fish,” Christine said. We turned down the heat. Christine came back to inspect. “Better,” she confirmed. More Parks Canada workers arrived from Lindeman Lake, B.C., as well as a couple of Alaska State Rangers, and everyone pitched in.
Then we heard the train whistle. “All hands to the shelter,” Christine cried. There were 15 Elders, along with special guests from the Alaska National Park Service and Esau Schafer, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Elder and Parks Canada First Nation liaison officer from Old Crow who had never been to Bennett.
The Elders descended in a clump and took their places at picnic tables underneath a tarp extending from the roof of the shelter. Their caretakers and younger relatives swarmed in for their plates, which Lily and I were filling as fast as we could with bannock, fish, potato salad, and coleslaw. Word came back—don’t stint on the fish! We loaded the plates with three pieces instead of two.
Elder Winnie Atlin said a prayer in Tlingit, thanking the Creator for the day and the food. Esau Schafer stood up and thanked the Helm family and Carcross/ Tagish First Nation for hosting in this beautiful place. He said he came from a beautiful place, too, and he hoped some of the people here would come up and see him to keep this connection strong. Christine introduced Cathie and me. That’s when we realized we, too, were honoured guests.
Then it was time for cake. Christine and I carried it out so everyone could see the inscription: “It is good to see you,” written in Tlingit (Yak’ê ixhwsatìní) and in Tagish (Dahtseneh’įh sùkùsen). Everyone had cake, including hikers, the White Pass and Yukon Route conductor, White Pass passenger agents, Alaskan rangers, families, the Elders, and us.
It was 12:15 p.m., so we worked furiously inside the shelter to fill and wrap plates for those who couldn’t make it. Elders came in and thanked us for the great food before the whole group posed for a photo and 20 cameras whirred and clicked.
Suddenly, it was time to go. “I’ve saved the whitefish and the trout for our supper tonight,” Edna whispered. I hated to tell her that Cathie and I also had to get on the train. When I did, her face fell. “It’s going to be so quiet here when all you girls are gone.” We would have loved to stay and visit with Edna under the stars. Next time, we will.
Just before we left, Edna pulled us into the cabin. “This is for you,” she said as she put a small container in each of our hands. It was her homemade salve, made with the pitch of the sub-alpine fir. Now when I open the tiny box, I smell the sweet air at Bennett and remember the wind blowing down the passes from the sea.
Edna Helm’s Best Bannock
Edna makes the best bannock I’ve ever tasted. Christine says the secret is “she doesn’t rush
it and she doesn’t squash it.” Edna says the secret is cooking with a cast-iron frying pan on a cast-iron stove. Her measurements are approximate. I’ve tried to quantify them, but there is a certain amount of magic in making a great bannock. Good luck!
5 cups (1.2 L) flour
1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
2 tbsp. (30 ml) baking powder
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml) salt
3 to 4 cups (700 ml–1 L) water (enough so the dough has a biscuit-like texture) 1/2 cup (125 ml) solid vegetable short- ening such as Crisco
1 cup (250 ml) dates cooked in 1 cup (250 ml) water for 10 minutes,
1/2 cup (125 ml) honey
1/2 cup (125 ml) birch syrup or molasses 1/2 cup (125 ml) peanut butter or tahini 1 cup (250 ml) canola or sunflower oil 1/4 cup (60 ml) additional water,
1) Combine dry ingredients.
2) Add water, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thoroughly moistened— not too lumpy, but not as thin as pancake batter.
3) Over medium heat, melt enough shortening in a cast-iron pan so that it’s 1/4-inch (0.5-cm) deep.
4) Drop bannock into the hot fat from
a serving spoon (about 1/4 cup of dough). Fry bannock for 4–5 minutes each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a 200°F (93°C) oven until ready to serve.
Makes 30 pieces.
Birch Syrup Pecan Squares
Birch syrup plays a minor role in quantity, but a major role in flavour in these traditional pecan squares. The squares were a special favourite with the Elders at the gathering.
(Hint, hint, grandchildren!)
3/4 cup (180 ml) butter, softened 1/2 cup (125 ml) sugar
2 cups (500 ml) flour
1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml) salt
1 tsp. (5 ml) baking powder
2 cups (500 ml) chopped pecans
3/4 cup (180 ml) butter
1 cup (250 ml) brown sugar
2 tbsp. (30 ml) birch syrup (substitute corn syrup)
For the base:
1) Beat butter and sugar together until light. Add egg and beat until fluffy.
2) Sift together dry ingredients and beat into the butter mixture.
3) ) Press into a pan and bake at 350°F (175°C) for 10 minutes or until base just begins to colour. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before covering with topping.
For the topping:
1) Melt butter and sugar together over medium heat, stirring to combine. Stir in birch or corn syrup, and then add pecans.
2) Spoon onto cooled base and spread evenly. Bake in a 350°F (175°C) oven for 15 minutes or until entire top is bubbling.Y