Wilds of the West

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

Ongoing project

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, British Columbia 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

RJ, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

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

Troy Benoit, Dawson City, Yukon Territory

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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