Carcross, Yukon, Canada: A small community with a big history. A short story from Alaska or Bust and Other Stories.
The Carcross Parrot
It was a Sunday afternoon with not much to do so we drove down the South Klondike Road to the picturesque village of Carcross. Built on the shores of choppy Lake Bennett, there was breathtaking wilderness all around. Mountains covered with carpets of wildflowers – red, yellow, pink, blue and orange – were as if not of this earth. Their exquisite scent filled the air. The main street was broad and dusty and burned with a heavy sun. The odd pick-up truck creaked by with a husky dog or two in the back, and then came the sound of tour buses filled with visitors, some off the cruise ships in Skagway, others directly off the Alaska Highway. The village was so small that with a blink of an eye one could easily miss it, but it was of historic significance. And who would have thought it came in “first” in several categories: for example, it had Canada’s first and oldest-running post office, the Yukon’s first operating general store, the territory’s first hotel. Home to the Tlingit First Nations People later it became a part of the historical mountain route taken by the Klondike gold seekers of 1898. During that time thousands of people filled the village and more kept coming in. The few inhabitants who lived there today were very proud of their history and welcomed the many visitors who traveled there during the summer months.
We stopped at the Caribou Hotel for homemade pie and ice cream. There were plenty of people in the restaurant, mostly from the tour buses, and they were sitting at tables eating and engaging in light conversation. The restaurant was a big room with a sense of space and it had a high ceiling and was full of light. Up against a huge picture window was a cage and inside the cage was a parrot. On the other side of the room, there was another cage with another parrot. How unusual for these brilliantly colored tropical birds to be here in the far north living upon permafrost. They appeared to be listening closely to what the guests were saying and they looked very intelligent.
A largish woman of late-middle-age and smelling of lilac perfume sitting at one of the bigger tables was telling her company a story and she looked very much involved. Wearing a little plastic badge with her name on it pinned to her bosom, she was one of several tour guides in Carcross. Noticeably animated she was talking about the Gold Rush days of ‘98 and about a parrot named Polly that had come to live at the hotel; in fact, in that very same dining room. She obviously was an expert on the history of the area and she took her work seriously. Her guests listened with excessive interest.
“You see,” she said raising her head, her voice in a sing-song, “Carcross was an important stop-over for the gold seekers on their way to the Dawson City gold fields. It was simply madness around here with stampeders passing through from all over the world hoping to strike it rich. They were brave souls these men (and women) with unforbidding spirits out to conquer the brutal wilderness. But the language they used: foul, foul, foul! And there was no limit to their drinking either.
“Polly the parrot was brought up the treacherous Chilkoot Pass by his owner and that’s when he came to live in this very hotel. Before long Polly too started becoming just as foul-mouthed as the miners. And the things Polly didn’t say! You wouldn’t believe. He said damn, hell, shit, son-of-a-bitch and a lot more. He bit people too and it was said he took to drink worse than a drunken sailor; scotch apparently was his drink of preference. This profanity-spewing bird became famous, or rather, infamous and people around the world came to know of him. He was heralded as an outstanding opera singer too and his favorite tune was The Barber of Seville. When he died he was 125 years old and he outlived most of the gold seekers. Mourners and important people from all over the territory came to his funeral. He’s buried right here in the Carcross cemetery.”
The bird by the window that was the more sociable of the two was listening intently. He made some kind of rustling sound and then waved his claw. Looking rather agitated, his wild instinct was to scream and that’s exactly what he did. He screamed, “Carcross cemetery, he’s buried right here in the Carcross cemetery!”
The guide didn’t appreciate being interrupted and gave the bird a stern, overdrawn look, but the bird kept at it. She tried to stay calm. There were more stories for her to tell, and when the bird finally settled down, she started in on the building of the White Pass railway: “The railroad was built during the gold rush days and over the most hazardous land. Its aim was to carry supplies and miners to Whitehorse, where they could continue on to Dawson by boat. Many said the tracks couldn’t be built through the granite of the Coastal Mountains. With 35,000 men on the job eventually the narrow gauge line was finished, all 112 miles of it from Skagway to Whitehorse. Still today they call it an engineering miracle! But the scenery is breathtaking – the mountains, the glaciers, the gorges, the waterfalls, and the wildlife couldn’t be more abundant – if you get lucky you might even see a bear! The train ride is the most popular shore excursion for people coming off the cruise ships in Skagway. I took the journey many a time, and each time was better than the last. But oh, the one problem is it’s so tight in there and there’s nowhere to move, everyone’s practically on top of one another. And the seats couldn’t be closer together. The last time the man next to me was practically sitting on my lap!”
Suddenly there came a movement from the window – it was the bird again. He was hopping around in his cage and it was starting to move back and forth. He began screaming louder than before, repeating what the guide had just said. And this time he seemed to be laughing at her and mocking her too, “Practically sitting on my lap! The man was practically sitting on my lap!”
Giving the bird an angry look, the guide clenched and ground her teeth. She wasn’t about to have some feathered fowl steal her show. Trying not to lose her temper, she shouted back at him, “Shut up you stupid bird, just shut up!” When he wouldn’t stop she only shouted louder and then there came a shouting match between them. The guests were finding amusement in what was going on, their eyes on the bird, then on the guide, and then on the bird again. They started rooting, some for the guide, others for the bird.
A tall man in jeans and a blue T-shirt pausing by the door had something to say, and there was disapproval in his voice, “The bird must be going insane in captivity. How would you feel locked up in a cage day in and day out with no fresh air, no exercise; and how old is he, fifty, a hundred? A hundred years in a cage!”
Everyone took what the man said into consideration and they started feeling sorry for the bird. But the standoff continued. Somehow after several minutes things quieted down.
There was more on the guide’s mind and she was excited to start in on her next round of stories. She now wanted to talk about the boat building industry that sprung up along the shores of Lake Bennett before the railroad was put in. She began, “If you all look out the window to your left you can see Lake Bennett through the trees. That’s where they built boats to travel down the Yukon River to get to Dawson five hundred miles away. At the height of the gold rush, 3,000 boats were built in one month, if you can believe that! So many trees had to be chopped the whole area became deforested. Why, hardly a tree was left standing; spruce was mostly used. Even the steamboats were built here, but their boilers and engines had to be hauled over the Chilkoot Pass.”
Pausing briefly to take a drink of water, looking at her audience, she was very pleased with how things were now progressing. Then to her dismay, the bird started up again. He now seemed more restless than ever. He was making such a ruckus many guests had to plug their ears with their fingers, some even picked up and left. He repeated over and over, “Chilkoot Pass! Chilkoot Pass!”
“That’s it!” The guide slammed her fist on the table. “Damn you!” she shouted. “I’ve had enough of your squealing! I’ll show you!” Getting up from her chair she made for the cage and gave it a shake. When the bird wouldn’t stop raving she shook it harder but this only made him more aggressive and demanding. Not knowing what to do next, at the end of her ropes, she stuck her hand into the cage and gave him a knock in the head. The bird, flapping his wings, swinging round, in return bit her in the finger. This was now turning into an all-out fight, a real showdown. The guests cheered and clapped and egged them both on. Then somehow in the scuffle losing her balance the guide hit up against the side of the cage and both she and the cage went crashing to the floor. Somehow the door flew open. The bird got out! Everyone started to scream in panic, some made a run for the door, others hid under the tables. Mayhem ensued.
The proprietor, a little man with a bushy beard wearing a baker’s cap came rushing out of the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about.
The bird had flown up and had secured himself on one of the chandeliers and he was perched there unmoving not saying a word. He was acting very strange and he was no longer quarrelsome. What was wrong with the bird? It was as if a feeling akin to terror had overtaken him and he even appeared to be shaking. He looked very sad and his eyes were clouded. He was staring at the window.
As it turned out a sandpiper had landed on the sill and that’s what had caught his attention; he watched the little creature with great intensity as he hopped about, bobbing his head, shaking his feathers. This is what was going on in the parrot’s mind: he was wondering what it was like on the other side of that pane, to be that sandpiper, to be free. When the little bird, at last, picked up and flew away, it did so just like that, carefree and with no restrictions. But he too was meant to fly just like that sandpiper and to seek the companionship of birds. He imagined he wasn’t really on the chandelier anymore but on Lake Bennett high up in one of those spruce trees he had heard so much about. And now he was flying along the shores of the lake, with each minute soaring higher and higher, going farther and farther. He was now flying great and unbelievable distances and Carcross was miles behind him.
Meanwhile, the proprietor was full of grief and determination, and he was trying to think of ways to get the bird down. Finally, an idea came to him. He called out, “Come on Desmond. Come on down. I have a juicy fat apricot for you, your favorite. And look, I went shopping yesterday and bought you this tree branch perch for your cage, and it came with a ladder too. It’ll cheer you up. Come on Desmond, come on down!”