In Conversation with Amy Gillan

Barry Lovegrove

Amy strumming next to the Salmon River. Photo by Barry Lovegrove.
[This article ran in the April/May 2012 issue of The SCOOP.]

Soon after the distribution of the latest SCOOP, Angela, The SCOOP’s editor, Karen, The SCOOP’s new publisher and designer and myself sit around Karen’s kitchen table and start planning the editorial content for the next edition of The SCOOP. Amy Gillan’s name has been brought up a couple of times as being a person with an interesting story to tell. I volunteered to give her a call to see if she would be interested; we hooked up a couple of weeks later. It was an unusually warm afternoon in March when I went over to see her. Spring was certainly in the air, birds were singing and geese were flying low overhead as we walked to the end of her driveway and sat on a fallen tree. I knew a little bit about Amy as we teamed up for a while at one time and played some music together.

Amy, the daughter of Ron and Mary Lynn Gillan, was brought up, along with her brother Darrell, in Tamworth. She attended Tamworth Elementary School and Napanee District High School. After finishing high school, she got itchy feet and wanted to spread her wings and explore life beyond Tamworth. With that in mind, she applied to take a course in Interior Design at Algonquin College
in Ottawa and was accepted. Amy ended up living in Ottawa for about six years working for a firm in the Commercial Design industry doing design work for the Embassy of Finland, Tyco and other big corporations. But the long hours and stress were wearing so after a while the old itchy feet syndrome started to set in and the appeal of a city lifestyle started to wear thin. Just around that time, she received an email and a phone call from a friend asking her to come on over to Asia: I’ve got a place for you over here and a bit of work, her friend told her.

Amy went on to tell me, “I was just finishing off a restaurant design project and asked the restaurant owner if he needed me as a project manager. When he told me that the contractors could take it from there and that my drawings were in order, I told him that it was perfect since I would be leaving the country shortly.

“It didn’t take me long to pack my bags and get on a plane to Taiwan where I based myself because it was a good jumping point to all the surrounding countries. When I was there, I joined the GAA, the Gaelic Athletic Association, and played in the Gaelic football (rugby) league, which worked out great because I was able to travel with them but mostly I travelled through Asia on my own. I had many good experiences, travelling on a scooter and seeing the various countries and meeting its people. Unfortunately, one of the big problems was getting clean drinking water and the air pollution; I ended up getting quite sick so I decided to head for home for some fresh air and familiar faces.

“I hadn’t been home for long before I heard from a friend who was living in Alaska, training and mushing sled dogs. When she asked me to come out there and help her, the timing was right so I packed my bags again and off I went to the wilds of Alaska. I really didn’t know what to expect and it turned out to be a real hands-on-job. The first day on the job was spent picking up dog poop and feeding the dogs and eventually training them. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the place and its surroundings. I got to love the sound of the dogs especially at night; their haunting howls would carry over the cool Alaskan night air. It sure was a special place.

“The kennel that I was working for had several small cabins for us to live in. It was modest living but I came to like the one that I was living in. The staff worked well together. It was definitely a different lifestyle and it suited me. Working, training and living with the dogs - I felt like something in me was changing and I was finding a deep connection with the people and the animals around me.

“After a while, I ended up moving down the road to another kennel where a musher wanted to get his dogs ready for the Iditarod – an event that’s equivalent to an Alaskan Super Bowl.” (The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome Alaska. Mushers and a team of 16 dogs, of which at least 6 must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 9–15 days)

“In the new kennel, I had the opportunity to run the dogs each day. I would start with six dogs then work my way up to ten. These young dogs had never been harnessed up before so they chewed through the ropes and fought with each other. My job was to teach the dogs to run with harnesses through the backcountry. This involved going up twists and turns, dodging trees, standing moose, and running upriver for distance trailing. We encountered many irritated cow moose with their babies and escaped some really hairy situations. I was using a sprint-sled so we were able to cover a lot of ground. One winter alone we ran about two thousand miles through the Alaskan trails. I sang out loud while running them, which upset my boss who thought he would have to sing to them during the Iditarod race. Those dogs that I helped train have just finished this year’s 2012 Iditarod Race and placed very well.

“Other responsibilities while working and training for the race was to butcher meat and make food packages to drop off at strategic places along the route so the dogs could feed. Being brought up in the country and since my dad is a hunter, I’ve seen wild animals being field dressed so the butchering didn’t bother me too much. I was there for about two years: it was hard work and it had started to take a toll on my body. I ended up with a small injury, which was enough to help me make the decision to
return home to Tamworth.

“It was hard at first but getting a job here and there, and with some good support from people here in town, I started to settle in. In some ways, I feel that I have brought back a little of Alaska with me. Especially now that I’m living in a cabin on the Salmon River. I’m currently working for Karen Whiteman, owner of The Bee Queen that produces honey and beeswax products. Working with bees is a humbling experience and I have so much to learn; luckily I have a great teacher to learn from.

“I have always enjoyed singing and I have always wanted to play the mandolin. When I met Bruce McConnell who plays the banjo, he started teaching me how to play the mandolin. We have spent many hours in our little bit of Alaska on the Salmon River playing and practicing together learning Bluegrass, Jazz and even some Country tunes. Fiddle player Andrew Richmond has joined us, so we formed a little band and call ourselves The River String Band. I’m very lucky to be playing with such
talented fellows!”

So folks, keep your eyes and ears open this summer. The River String Band will be playing in and around the neighbourhood and Amy would love to have you come out and see them!