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  Bookends: Dan Davidson
 

The Cinnamon Mine

Reviewed: June 7, 2011
By: Ellen Davignon
Publisher: Lost Moose
204 pages, $18.95

Our first stop at the Johnson's Crossing Lodge would have been around 1980, when we stopped there before we took our first truck and camper up the Canol Road that summer. I think it was still a Lodge then.

On a later journey down and up the Alcan, I recall noting that the place had sprouted an RV campground, and I think we might even have spent a night there.

I used to enjoy reading Ellen Davignon’s column, "Lives of Quiet Desperation" in the Yukon News, and was pleased to find the occasional addition to that series on the Mac's Fireweed website for a time while she worked there.

The original orange covered edition of The Cinnamon Mine has been sitting on my shelves for years, but I've never done more than dip into it. The arrival of this attractive new Lost Moose edition made me sit up and take notice, and then it made me sit down and read it.

While the book is subtitled "An Alaska Highway Childhood", and does present an outline of the Porsild children’s lives, it is also very much the story of Ellen's parents, Elly Rothe-Hansen Porsild and Robert Thorbjorn Porsild.

That means that it’s a love story that deals with the lives of two immigrants from Greenland and Denmark, who took on the Canadian North on their own terms and were successful.

It doesn't start there. It starts with Ellen taking a walk with a friend and reminiscing about the cinnamon mine where she and her siblings used to play. It was a fabulous find which was going to make them all rich eventually. Then there was the big, rusty red brick house that she and brother Aksel were going to live in.

The imagination shown in the games the Porsild kids used to play, whether in Whitehorse, at Johnson's Crossing, or even earlier, at Sixtymile, meant that they were never going to be impoverished, even though they might never be rich.

The Porsilds were in on the ground floor of the highway lodge business, an industry that we have recently seen coming to an end as lodge after lodge has boarded up its windows and posted hopeful "for sale" signs. It had begun to decline while I lived in Beaver Creek in the late 1970s. I recall two families along that route that purchased lodges and never bothered to take down the “for sale” signs.

The Porsilds made their start on a property loaded with abandoned goods left over from the Canol Road oil pipeline project, living, at first, in Quonset huts that remained on the site.

The lodge began with those leftover Quonsets. One became home for a time; another became a café; another housed their first regular overnight guests until Robert was able to float a loan from a farsighted bank manger and get the lodge built.

Never exactly a thing of beauty, the lodge was a rough-hewn utilitarian affair that did its job well in the early days of the even rougher hewn Alaska Highway. Davignon paints a fond picture of life as they lived it, and always manages to work in something worth a chuckle or a smile. There’s the tale of the first customers the kids handled alone, the story of the unheated rooms and the nightly round with extra blankets and hot water whisky bottles, the saga of the brand new water heater and how proud of it her father was.

This edition has about 15 pages of new material in an epilogue after the bookend narrative that closed off the original book. When she first published this memoir in 1988 Davignon still lived at the lodge. They sold it in 1992, after having it on the market for less than a year, a remarkable thing. The new owners ran the place only seasonally, and unheated, empty winters have been the death knell of many a Yukon building. They need to be lived in.

After just four years it was torn down and replaced by a single story structure better suited to the RV focussed business. Since then it has changed hands again. Davignon has seen what the latest owners are doing and gives them her seal of approval as the book comes to its new end.

She saves her last words for a memory of the past.

“… I thought again of the old lodge, remembering that un-pretty old building that had provided both shelter and industry for forty-five years, and the two good people who had turned industry into a lifestyle, the shelter into a home.

“And in remembering, I am filled with and sustained by the essence of those happy seasons of the heart.”

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