Heather and Andrew Finton have spent 20 years building Sundog Retreat, a business that has evolved into a cluster of seven cozy, private log cabins and gathering spaces where travellers can soak their cares away in hot tubs and view the aurora from the floor of a valley nestled next to the Yukon River.
As seasons go, 2020 will likely be remembered for its devastating decline in bookings—down 90 per cent during the usually bustling summer time due to the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent travel restrictions. But, this season may also be remembered as a time of creative leaps, of finding ways to give back, of learning and building at a time when the only certainty is uncertainty.
Sundog retreat sits on more than 100 acres, much of it arable land, next to the Yukon Grain Farm. Until now, though, farming was never part of any business plan. “With the shutdown of tourism and borders, we needed to do something different this year,” says co-owner Heather Finton.
“The honest truth is that this is a creative experiment in the face of a really challenging year, and there is no guarantee of success. I think that’s a richer story in some ways or a more authentic story than saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we had this great idea, now we’re going to pivot, it’s going be awesome,’” says Finton, reflecting on the challenges of surviving a season during a global pandemic. “We’re acting with a lot of courage and, I like to think, a lot of authenticity and trying to be in line with our values in what’s going on in this really challenging moment in history.”
Accompanying the rustle of a breeze through the aspen trees, there’s the sound of laughter and labour as an excavator makes space for irrigation and holding ponds, and a work crew moves dirt and rocks to install a black liner that absorbs the warmth of the sun.
The crew, ranging in size from 10-20, depending on the day, have broken ground here—digging, planting and weeding two and a half acres of vegetable crops, including potatoes, carrots and peas. This small and amicable group, about half of whom are youth, has also helped raise the roof on a high-tunnel greenhouse; an attempt to extend an already abbreviated growing season. The cost of their salaries is shared by Sundog and a combination of territorial and federal wage subsidies, along with other COVID-19-related financial relief programs.
The tourism downturn presented the Finton family with an opportunity to work on an issue of long-standing concern for them and for the North: food security. While the yield from this first crop remains uncertain, the family has raised community funds to grow much of the bounty for the Whitehorse food bank. In the process, they’re also developing knowledge about farming in this area, with the potential for future expansion.
“I think a lot of people right now are understanding that a lot of what we all thought was for sure, has a bunch of question marks around it,” says Finton. “If we can help encourage young people to grow food and learn new skills and work together, I think those are going to be really valuable transferable skills that they’ll take into the future.”
“Three months ago I was cleaning cabins and worked for a tour operator in town. And now I am building greenhouses and ponds and we’re doing vegetables and gardening to give back to the community. It’s just amazing. It’s just wonderful. —Antje Schiebel, 39
“I think it’s just so valuable because it goes to show you never know when that big event could come that just sets everything off and wipes us back a couple hundred years. If we have the knowledge and the know-how to make our own food for us in our communities, then you’re doing something in the right direction.” —Cole Sinclair, 20