Wilds of the West

Tales from a photographer's encounters with the transients of Canada's West Coast.

Ongoing project

Read the review by Emily Bremner in Ciel Variable Magazine, October 2020

Lenny Prince, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

As it happens in Dawson City, I befriended the dog before the man.I first knew the exuberant Lenny Prince as belonging to Atreyu, a gorgeous white mutt that was surprisingly more curious than his eccentric owner. I could see instantly that these two suited each other. They had the kind of rare bond that two wild beings form only when they find a compatible traveling mate. I would hear Lenny yelling for his new pup around town, telling him to keep up, to get out of the river before the strong current carried him off into the Yukon dawn.  “ATREYU! Get back here!” was called out with the kind of pride felt when one is fully responsible for another.Lenny had a kind familiarity about him - an energy so beautifully bound in youthful pleasures, yet paired with a compelling ability to see what others need to feel at ease. In this way, he too exuded dog-like qualities. “It’s harder to hitchhike with a dog of course, but it’s worth having his company. Atreyu is my best friend on the road. I would feed him before I feed myself. One day he’s going to save me in return.” We joked about this kind of karmic loyalty, but it’s clear that this dog had already given Lenny much more than simple companionship.

Mo Haroun, Nelson, British Columbia

The owner of the cafe was a soft-spoken man whose whispers bore pain and analytical thought. Each word was a long-considered exhale from his fragile heart. The hurt behind his eyes told me that he had worked hard to own optimism. He was nervous to discuss his childhood as a refugee, growing up in Jordan and never allowed to return home to Palestine. Mo Haroun was gracious and open, a lost yet hopeful soul in the same way everyone in Nelson seemed to be. This city was the safe place they had discovered to work on themselves. Mo immediately offered chai iced tea and his apartment above the cafe as a place to rest my head for the night, inviting me to partake in the celebration of solstice. The apartment was empty save a few sticks of frankincense, a couple of mattresses, and strings of holiday lights and candles to set the mood for an evening of deep contemplation. “Don’t count yourself unlucky, life shines through the cracks of the darkest places," he began softly. "Don’t pick sadness to hide behind but happiness to peer out from. Don’t be too proud to judge what life has chosen for you, each moment was yours and won’t last forever. Just like a seed softens with rain and grows into the light, your heart softens with tears to grow into the love.”

Jessica "River" Nguyen, Victoria, British Columbia

Live music drifted down the suburban street in Victoria. Folks of all ages gathered and swayed. In the middle of the street I met River. She blew bubbles and danced as if in one continuous motion, free from the confines of a society that taught me to be embarrassed by dancing in the middle of the street alone. I was envious of how freely she blew her bubbles. River smiled at me, her voice even more bouncy than her body, and she whispered, "I moved here last week," and pointed at the big white house behind her. "Here we are all sisters, brothers, lovers, friends. We live together, sleep together, wash together." She had discovered a haven for her free, polyamorous spirit. She had found a community that embraced her. She had found her people. And so she was beautiful. 

RJ, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

He let his friends do the talking. Stood with intensity, watching, nothing but a small smirk to break his lips. Perhaps he was more afraid of me than I was of him. RJ leaned on his pool cue with an air of impatience and a touch of entertainment. It may have been the scene where he was placed, the withering wallpaper, posters calling on gentlemen from gold rush days gone by. A saloon air without the smoke. Everyone knew how to hit the balls to work with the gradual lean of the dilapidating floorboards. RJ stood silent and waited for his partner to strike. His hands were calloused, his pants dusty, and the layers of ash that had built upon his skin over the weeks of mushroom picking were finally starting to wash away. Like his forefathers, he had made his fortune, and now was the annual pitstop in Dawson City to burn it.

Mitch Pridham, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Mitch was the only person in Dawson City that made me nervous. I could sense that he was skeptical of me and my shameless camera, my summer on the road meaning little compared to his life on it. Even his fellow vegabonds would tell you: if there was a spectrum for nomads, he was the more extreme of wanderers. There was little help he would accept. He knew what kept him alive and completely abandoned all the rest. All of his possessions he carried with him in a brown leather satchel around his shoulder. Anything else apart from his guitar was too much additional baggage for someone who preferred to train hop his way from coast to coast, believing it was more authentic than hitching rides. To me, he was the epitome of timelessness, straight out of the 1800s as comfortably as he was out of the 1900s, save the septum piercing.The true drifter, beautiful and untouchable. I had to capture him. I asked. He said no. He told me he had never allowed anyone to take a portrait of him before. He often felt like folks made a spectacle of him as he busked. Tourists snapping pictures without asking his permission, intrigued by the tattoos, the old clothes, the idiosyncratic lifestyle. I stopped bringing my camera around him; there was more to inherit from him than a photograph. On my last morning in Dawson, I made the rounds with my camera in an attempt to immortalize all of the transient souls I had befriended. Mitch's acceptance was wordlessly acknowledged as he posed for the first portrait of his life. To be transported into his world...www.smokeandbones.bandcamp.com.

Brad, Nelson, British Columbia

Brad exuded a kind of suffering that was easy to misjudge. He moved his long blonde hair aside to reveal bulging eyes, a gaunt face and yellowing teeth. His jeans hung loosely on his sickly frame. At first glance, he was a frightening man. “Actually, I prefer the term creature, because we’re all just creatures after all,” he said. As he spoke, he shared insight that only one desperately obsessed with enlightenment could accumulate. I quickly adopted an instinct to comfort him, while admiring his strength to become a better person than life had set him up to be. I don’t know where the conversation had its start, what spiralling thoughts encouraged Brad to tell me that he has HIV. He told stories of leaving South Africa; of living with disease; of holding a lover as he died, his warrior body decomposing with time and the final breath of recognition as it left his tattooed face. He told me of meeting other people in Nelson who understood the urgency of finding peace, love, and answers for our existence; of his shifting priorities; of his pain. I cried for Brad. We cried together for the task that is learning how to live, and the much more arduous task that is learning how to die. For Brad, the two have been forced to become the same.He looked deeply into my eyes with powerful acceptance. “If you ever need help letting go, I can help you.” A beautiful reconditioning of fate into a gift. While others enjoyed moments as building blocks in their tower of memories, Brad played a patient game of Jenga, recording the rules of balance and sharing the results. “There is a reason we met. I love you, sweet pea. You are so large,” he said. I took a photo of him that permeates resilience. This is the image I will keep should we never meet again before the end. I hope he retains his gumption - impossible to ask of a human being no matter how he prepares his soul. Yet Brad is a creature, and time is his opportunity. A creature wanting to fix his nature before it’s too late. A creature obsessed with enlightenment simply because he must be. 

Matt Soucy, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Walking into trouble all the time.
I'm walking two feet double time, eyes no longer blind.
Walking into trouble all the time. 
I'm gazing at the stars above my head. 
The stars on high say softly, "you might as well be dead." 
Walking into trouble they all said. 
Never has a rose once cut my hand.
Never had a thorn been loosed, made in my flesh its stand. 
Never had my baby said a word. 
All the birds are singing to the soil. 
All the worms are singing, "free me from hard work and toil."
Laying out their bodies to the birds. 
Cedar, oak, spruce and pine, hemlock fir and birch.
Robin roosting in its pirch, nesting in the vine.
Trouble clear and cast away, but I can't call it mine.
Walking into trouble all the time.
(Lyrics by Matt Soucy

Troy Benoit, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Troy reminded me of an old friend and of someone I had never met before. The familiarity came from within his work. In the universes, catacombs, worlds he created with critters that became surreal through the ways he reimagined them. Every dot seemed to be humanized. Throughout my days spent in Dawson, Troy quickly became a comfort. The one who invited me into the circle, who listened intently when sharing tales, and who parted ways with the most precious of gifts. "This is an emblem that each of us carry," he said, as he handed me a leather patch with one of his designs pressed firmly in ink. The leaf breaks light and shadow, like a third eye peering from the sun. I thanked him. The patch is sewn tightly now into the breast of my father's jean jacket. Every time I wear it, I am connected to the days I roamed Dawson, shortly lived alongside those who roam the world. Like Troy and his artwork, I escape into a time that feels only just imagined.

Patchy Owl, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

It took two days to track down the nomadic tattoo artist who would commemorate my latest adventure with a permanent stamp. Patchy had left his mark on several other eager folks in Dawson City, conducting stick-and-poke tattoos as a means of making extra cash while on the road. Many of the transient kids made a living this way. A gruff voice crooned to a classical guitar as I approached the most popular picnic bench in the park, the sun dipping (but never setting) over the Yukon River. I held out my hand to the fellow with the brightest smile. “Hey, are you Patchy?” Ignoring my hand and pulling me into the warmest embrace, he exhaled deeply and whispered, “let’s do this together.” I lay back on top of the blanketed picnic table, my pillow a coyote fur he had salvaged from road kill. He inquired about the meaning behind my design, dipped the needle into the ink, “ready?” I see the tattoo today on the inside of my bicep, inspired by Shel Silvertein’s short story 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' and am reminded to continue to evolve. I recall the gumption I had that late afternoon in the Yukon to strive to be as unapologetic as Patchy and his people. How ironic that his name was Patchy, when the tattoo he gave me represents that which continues to mend my holes.

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