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
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
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
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.”