Faces of the Preserve: Maureen

12 min read –
It takes drive and passion to support a non-profit organization which works to be a living center of Yukon’s wildlife, with informed voices that speak for, and connect others to, the natural world. Who is the team making this happen?

Meet Maureen. She’s a Yukoner with a rich and varied history – just like Yukon Wildlife Preserve. Here she shares what she loves about the Yukon, working as a Wildlife Interpreter, and how that happened in the first place.

“I had always wanted to visit the Yukon. I moved to Whitehorse in 1970 and knew from the start this would be home. In 1973 I moved even further north, to Dawson City, and have spent the next 50 years between the two communities.” As many Yukoners know, successful longevity in the Territory can require versatility; Maureen has this in spades. She joined the team in 2013, drawn to Yukon Wildlife Preserve through a combination of knowledge and understanding of animals, Interpretive experience, and an enjoyment of speaking to people.

Whether in her fox scarf, or her fun moose toque and Covid-19 mask, Maureen helps guests learn about animals.  L to R: Maureen shares knowledge about Wood Bison; Maureen teaches about moose; Guided Bus Tour guest enjoys a close up of Bison while listening to Maureen.

“For 20 years I worked as a commercial fisher(wo)man on Yukon River and Lake Laberge. I spent 30 winters as a trapper, operating from a cabin with no electricity and no running water and 10 years as a placer miner. Finding prehistoric bones while placer mining, that’s very interesting – the most interesting part of placer mining in fact. I have always had an interest in archeology, turns out I had no interest in gold via placer mining! Finding bones:  that’s an immediate link to history and the land. Combined, these are years of experience which had me on the land and water, harvesting, observing and getting in tune with nature, the seasons and animals. I learned a lot, during those years, about animal life cycles and respect for animals. I would say I have more appreciation for wild animals because I understand more about how hard life is for them.

I’ve worked for Parks Canada as an Interpreter for 25 summers at sites such as Dredge #4, Bear Creek, Dawson City walking tours and SS Klondike. I’m a Certified Interpretive Guide with the National Association of Interpretation. All those years talking to people, connecting them with history and the Yukon; I bring that to Yukon Wildlife Preserve. My appreciation for and understanding of wildlife, in addition to my skills of observation learned from my years living and harvesting on the land, really assist me in helping to connect our visitors to Yukon species. Specifically, my tracking skills help me observe wild animals in their natural habitats, as well as to understand the story of what I’m watching them do, in that moment. I enjoy sharing those skills and helping visitors learn how to “see” animals that are excellent at camouflage and how to take that beyond their visit to the Preserve, to their lives at home, wherever that is.

Visitors sometimes wonder how my years trapping, hunting and fishing can mean I have a strong appreciation for wild animals. I try to explain that I think I have a greater appreciation because of my experiences, because when you live in the bush, you live closer to the animals. Not only do I think I understand more about how hard life is for wild animals, but I depended on them for sustenance and my livelihood. This has allowed me to acquire a greater appreciation for wildlife. Living this close to nature, while raising a family, allowed me to pass on to my daughter how to observe animals, their natural behaviours and to listen to what their body language and actions are saying, and to then change my behaviour accordingly. We don’t have to speak the same language as animals to hear, and respect, what they are telling us. Humans, we learn that, and I’m pleased to have been able to pass on those teachings to the next generation.

I remember I once had a curious porcupine sit and talk to me, chattering on with its porcupine noises. It was very engaging, although I didn’t understand a word. I finally had to tell the porcupine that I had to leave to do other things that day, and I was the first to leave the conversation.

Trapping and hunting has taught me to pay attention to the animals themselves, and to the signs they leave behind:  tracks, scat. The only way for me to be successful was to observe all these things within a species, and within the area I was harvesting. You have to know your area and the animals on it. You become part of a system when you’re harvesting off the land. You are a predator, and like wild predators, you don’t take all the prey out of your area. As a trapper and subsistence hunter, I participated in a relationship with the land, the animals and the environment; this allowed me to become in tune with the rhythms of life around me. There’s a balance within nature, if we noticed a shift in that balance, then we shifted to accommodate it. Yes, there were parts of this life that were hard and challenging, but it was also rich and rewarding – and very much a lifestyle choice.
I lived 30 years in a cabin in the bush. I stopped trapping and moved back to Whitehorse in 2009, because I like running water and electricity. While I miss the quiet of that life in the bush, well I LOVE the ease of modern life. After so many years without, I don’t take for granted things like lightswitches, kettles, showers or flush toilets. Living without for so long, that’s a hard life. Hauling water, in the winter, by buckets out of a frozen river means chopping holes in the ice with chainsaws or axes, and then doing it again when that hole inevitably refreezes solid. It really puts you in tune with the harsh realities of life and survival; I think it has helped me gain understanding and insight into some of the challenges wild animals face daily. They can’t just flip a switch or push a button and get food or shelter, they have to work hard, and constantly, to be successful in life at acquiring food, territory, shelter and to be successful at breeding and rearing young.
My favourite animal in the wild is the Lynx. They’re cool and simply the most beautiful animal. In the area I lived in the bush, lynx were rare and sightings were very special. Once, I heard a lynx scream. I’ll never forget that sound, or having to keep my dog under control to avoid him going to investigate. Here at the Preserve, my favourite animal is the Muskox. They are survivors and they are stubborn. I respect both those qualities. I’ve been in the Yukon a long time, but I’ve got nothing on the tens of thousands of years of Muskox. They’ve been stubbornly surviving since the last Ice Age.
Visitors to Yukon Wildlife Preserve, they are often curious about more than the animals at the Preserve. I enjoy the opportunity to connect with people of all ages. Some people want to listen, some ask a lot of questions or share their own experiences with me. No matter how or with whom the connection, I enjoy it most when people are interested and open to learning about respectful interactions with wildlife and the land.

Respect, observation, space, quiet, an understanding of the behavioural norms of the different species we can encounter:  this leads to successful interactions with wild animals – safe for us and safe for them. Animals don’t speak human languages, but they don’t need to. Humans can pay attention to the body language of an animal to hear what that animal is saying to us, and if humans don’t know how to do that, we can learn. I try to relate how to do this to visitors to Yukon Wildlife Preserve, and to teach those who are willing to learn.”

Maureen has had guests on her tours ask if she was a schoolteacher. “I was not a teacher.  To me, education sounds like sitting in a classroom. Instead of offering education, I prefer to think that I am helping people learn about the things I know about:  animals.”

Maureen is one of a strong community at Yukon Wildlife Preserve and part of a thread that weaves us together. The next time you visit, stop at the Reception Cabin and say hello, or share a story:  you might just learn something new from Maureen. “I hope that after I’ve talked to visitors to the Preserve, that they leave with a little more knowledge and understanding of the wildlife they might encounter. Also, a little more respect for those animals.”

Stories by Maureen Peterson.  Compiled and written by Julie Kerr.

Maureen Peterson

Maureen Peterson

Wildlife Interpreter

Maureen is originally from North Vancouver, BC, where she lived for the first 20 years of her  life. In grade 5 she did a project about the Yukon, which is when she decided to go there. It was at age 20, and the day after she was married, that she finally moved North.  The Yukon was everything the 10 year old Maureen thought it would be and she has never had any desire to move anywhere else.

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2 Comments

  1. Kirsten Scott

    I kind of want to be Maureen when I grow up! Thanks for the insight and sharing.

    Reply
    • Maureen Peterson

      Thank you very much for your kind comment. I like hearing from people who are willing and eager to learn. I hope very much to see you out at the Preserve. The seasons are changing and now so is the behaviour of the animals. I hope to see you out here.

      Reply

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