Even as the truck bounced up the snowy road to Scroggie Creek, an abandoned gold-mining site 100 miles south of Dawson City, Jessica Simon had to get some ideas down. “She never stopped writing,” says her husband Mike, describing how, en route to the remote cabin and Yukon Quest dog sled race checkpoint, she would still type away at the laptop perched on her knees. The couple volunteered each year as “concierge to dogs” and welcomed tired mushers on the famed Quest trail. Together, they would stay on to help out and encourage Yukon Arctic Ultra’s two-legged racers, as they had every year since its inception.
Jessica always saw possibility, not obstacles. In 2013, she was waiting in the dogyard in freezing February fog when four-time Quest champion Lance Mackey pulled in at 5:30 p.m. She asked how many dogs Mackey wanted to drop—or leave at the cabin as he continued on—and the musher replied all nine. The dogs wouldn’t run. Jessica urged him to sleep on it before deciding whether to scratch at Scroggie Creek. Even if he flew himself and his dogs out, he would have to abandon his sled. Jessica helped Mackey settle in and together, they nursed his dogs through the night. By late-morning, the dogs had recovered enough to be run slow. “I ended up taking those nine to Dawson, putting them in my truck and going home,” says Mackey.
Jessica suddenly fell ill and died in September upon returning a day late from a four-day hike with her dog, Curly—a true Yukon mix. She was 53. Condolences came in from across the territory—from the Premier’s office to members of her writing cohort. Those who knew the Whitehorse-based writer and community builder remembered her volunteer spirit and tireless efforts to support and grow the territory’s literary scene since she came to the Yukon in 1986.
“She was always somewhere putting trail stakes out, helping at starts and finishes, loading straw or food bags, encouraging mushers and dogs alike,” says Elisabeth Weigand, a long-time friend, and Yukon Quest’s vice-president. “Her love for everything that stands for the North was enormous.” Jessica was clearly inspired by her close involvement with these endurance competitions—she set her first thriller, From Ice to Ashes, against the Yukon Arctic Ultra race.
Jessica was behind a number of writing projects, including the Parking Lot reading series that showcased locawriters and Cramped Hand, a free writing group that met once a month and was open to everyone. “I’m not sure how we’ll manage to keep her energy, spirit and enthusiasm going but I know that between all of us we will try,” says Joanna Lilley, a Whitehorse poet.
When Jessica learned Canada would be Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020, she made sure the Yukon would play prominently on the world stage. The guest country benefits from a boost in exposure of its literature and culture at the world’s biggest book fair. Jessica was already emailing the organizing committee before Canada’s executive director for the fair was even on the job. “She was a force of nature,” says writer Lily Gontard, who has since taken the lead on the Frankfurt project. “Jessica saw an opportunity to grow the Yukon writing community. She seized it with a dogged determination, not for herself, but for the whole.”
As Frankfurt 2020 moves forward, other initiatives disappear, says frequent collaborator, Kathy Munro. “That is how we all will realize how much she did for the literary community—because of the very noticeable loss.”
Under a brilliant sun and surrounded by the reds, oranges and yellow of fall, Jessica’s friends, collaborators and her husband Mike went for a day hike—hosted by the Hiking Queens, yet another group Jessica was involved with. They followed her last solo trek on Dawson Overland Trail with Curly. Even with her passing, she brings people together.