Symeon van Donkelaar

Artist, Colourist, and Teacher

Pilgrimage on the Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway, in the Yukon, is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. As it winds it's way north, it would have eventually lead all the way to the arctic circle (although I never quite got that far!). The landscape changed with every rounded hill or crested mountain. It went from a winter wonderland, with every mountain covered white with snow, to a spring-like tundra, where I needed to take off layers of clothing. Thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of the people in Dawson City, I had the opportunity to travel it twice. Both times it blewn me away.
The Dempster Highway travels a big and open landscape. It's full of animals, trees and plants, but not a lot of people. While travelling on the highway over a ten to twelve hour trip, we never saw more than a dozen other people. Anytime we wanted to stop and look at something, we just left the car on the road and walked off in that direction.
The wildlife here is incredible, too. While on the Dempster Highway I got to see many animals from the north that I hadn't seen before. I was very lucky, and saw ptarmigan, dall sheep, caribou, moose, black and grizzly bears, and even a couple of black wolves! But what surprised me most was that most of these didn't seem perturbed at our presence. They either ignored us, or sauntered away at their own pace.
And, of course, there is the landscape's local colours! On my first trip with Dan, Laurie, and Jillian, we found the brightest red ochre I could image. It floated ephemerally on top of the spring foam on Engineer Creek (a week later, when I returned, it had all dissipated). There was also a deep black earth run-off along this bank. And, once we got to the Ogilvie Ranges, some areas of bright yellow ochre. All these colours were enhanced by the love of the landscape that Dan and Laurie shared with Jillian and I.
My second trip was taken with Tyson and Kay, and had a bit more of a goal in mind. On the first trip, I had seen a hill with a bright, red patch on our way north, but driving south we couldn't find it again. So, on the second trip, I was hoping to find it, and explore it. We happened to meet Sylvia along the way, who grew up along the Dempster Highway. She, right away, knew where we should go to collect ochre (and even drew me a map!).
When we got to the spot on Sylvia's map it lined up perfectly with the hills we saw. But, it was obvious that we'd have to hike through some pretty wet areas to begin ... And, there would be a bit of a climb. But, all Tyson said was, "Well, let's get you up there". By the time we got up there, I had had a couple of soakers, but when we came to the top of the hill this red put my wet feet out of mind.
The red here is a bright, blood red that covers the side of the whole hill. I wasn't the first person to collect colour here, either ... I have no idea when it was started, but underneath a stunted silver birch tree, was a little pit that another had dug. After clearing away many years of leaves and mulch, I continued the digging begun before me. The ground was mostly frozen, but I managed to collect a little baggie of colour. Then, I put everything back—returning the ground to how I'd found it.
Somehow, before coming to the Yukon, I thought that such an open landscape would be a lonely place. But, having now spent a month hiking and exploring, I've realized that its a big space full of wonders and beauty.
On the way back down the Dempster Highway, I thought about how lucky I 've been out here. The landscape is rich in local colours, a joy to explore, and full of supportive people from Dawson City.
Special thanks to Dan and Laurie, Karen, Vivian, Gaby, Kiersten, Meg and Chuck, Tyson, Kay and Jillian, as well as everyone else who's supported my work during this time in the Yukon.



  1. Caroline on May 9th, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    Wow! What an amazing landscape – and such a great red! I hope you share the resulting colours.

  2. kelly c perry on May 10th, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Symeon looks like you had an amazing trip, such beautiful country. Looking forward to seeing your red on your paintings.

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