Ghost Town

Having arrived at Dawson City in winter, I discover that I am living among ghosts.

The most noticeable of these are antique buildings that date from the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, an event which still defines this town’s spirit and collective unconscious over a century later. Formally designated a National Historic Site, and protected by stringent heritage laws, most of the old structures are immaculately preserved. Several carry museum-like window displays of tools and goods and signs dating from circa 1898, when Dawson City was the biggest Canadian city west of Winnipeg.

But Dawson’s current population is now barely a tenth of that size, and these buildings are unoccupied relics — empty shells whose spirit from a past life can only be glimpsed and viscerally felt. Like all ghosts, they merely give the illusion of being alive. Some are dopplegangers carrying vintage signs that proclaim them to be the Bank of British North America, or the Post Office, but where no actual business can be conducted. You have to go elsewhere in town, to the living places, to do that. On 3rd Avenue you’ll find an entire block of old structures — weathered, crooked, some teetering on the verge of collapse — which have been left that way on purpose, as a  dying testimonial to the potential hazards of building on permafrost.

Those empty heritage buildings, which are maintained by the Klondike Visitors Association, should not be confused with the businesses in town, many of which reside in equally old structures, that are sitting shuttered up at the moment. In winter, a great number of the local establishments, especially those that mine the summer tourist bonanza, shut down for the season, and their owners and workers migrate south to warmer climes — perhaps to Vancouver, or all the way to Mexíco. The population of Dawson plummets to a few hundred, turning it into a veritable ghost town compared to the manic, bustling days of summer, when visitors abound by the tens of thousands. Combine this wintertime exodus with sub-arctic temperatures that routinely dip below -30°C, and on a weekday it’s not uncommon to walk through parts of town during the few hours of precious daylight and not actually see anyone on the street. Oh, you can spot ethereal clouds of smoke wafting and shape shifting from chimneys, and you regularly pass a vehicle parked on the side of the road, its engine idling but no driver visible behind the wheel, but otherwise the avenues and sidewalks can often be eerily empty.

Then there are the classic ghosts. Every old town has them, or at least stories of them, but Dawson seems to have its disproportionate share. And it’s easy to imagine why. The Gold Rush brought a stampede of people to the Klondike, mostly poor and desperate, quite often ill-prepared for the hardships they encountered. If the harsh climate and brutal conditions didn’t kill you — if you didn’t die in a cave-in, or from rot-gut whiskey, or a gangrenous frostbitten limb, or gonorrhea, or go crazy from cabin fever — then the hustlers and claim-jumpers would probably do you in. Very few actually made their fortunes, and the bubble burst quickly, so it’s easy to understand why the local ghosts often are reported to appear like they’re gravely seeking something. Several places in town have a reputation for being haunted, among them Macaulay House, the billet for the Artist-in-Residence sponsored by the Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture (KIAC). The artist currently staying over the holidays has prior experience with Macaulay, however, and this time wisely brought along some of his dead father’s ashes as a talisman against the bothersome spirits.

As for my own place, well, if any dwelling could sustain a ghost story, it should be Berton House, a house of writers. The building creaks, and thumps, and sighs constantly, especially this time of year when the furnace and radiators are working full-out against the cold outside. But despite several comments about the noises recorded by past writers in the house journal, no one has yet to make any actual claims of spectral invaders. Nor will I. Once you get used to them, the noises are oddly comforting, especially when you consider how warm and cozy the place is compared to the icy menace that lurks outside its walls. No ghosts, then, but there is definitely a spirit — that of Pierre Berton, and the 50-odd writers who have used this place as a refuge, hoping for a speck or two of gold among the words that flow from our fingers.

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The Artic Circling

 Hawker-Siddeley 748 getting refueled in Old Crow

Our Hawker-Siddeley 748 awaiting refueling in Old Crow, Yukon

The first time I looked up Dawson City’s exact location on a map, having just received notice of my residency here, I was disappointed to discover that I would come out 200 km-or-so short of the Arctic Circle. Too bad, I told myself. If you’re going to have a northern experience, it would be nice to go for the gusto. Yesterday, however, that geographical shortcoming was neatly rectified thanks to Air North, the Yukon’s airline, and the weather.

Our venerable old Hawker-Siddeley 748 was on the final approach of its 80-minute run from Whitehorse to Dawson City, landing gear down, massive Rolls-Royce engines throttled back. I had a good view from my window seat, and having also had the benefit of flight training in my youth, was the first of the passengers to realize that something was amiss.

A snowstorm was swirling in the twilight around us, and I had been marveling earlier at how the pilots could land in those conditions. Whenever I managed to glimpse the ground, it showed mountainside remarkably close by, although I was more enthralled than nervous, totally trusting the skill of the ice pilots who routinely make this run year round. Then I heard the engines rev up to full power, watched the landing gear retract, and saw our nose lift. I knew we had aborted our landing attempt, but kept the news to myself. The fellow in the seat beside me had been uneasy enough about traveling in a 40-year-old prop plane in the first place, so I waited for the flight attendant to break the news over the intercom.

Our stop was only the first for this flight, which was also going on to Old Crow and Inuvit before looping back to Dawson City. We would just have to try again on the return leg, we were told, and hope the snow had stopped by then. So, this planned short final hop of my journey would turn out to take longer than my flight from Toronto to Vancouver and Vancouver to Whitehorse combined.

Airport in Old Crow, Yukon just before noon.

We were required to deplane at each of our stops. Old Crow is the northernmost town in the Yukon, and had a lovely small wooden airport terminal. It had been a balmy 0°C in Whitehorse when I’d arrived there the day before, but when I stepped out onto the windswept and ice-covered tarmac in Old Crow,  I got my first taste of true Arctic cold. Fortunately, I was wearing my parka, and had hat and gloves stuffed into its pockets, so I quickly bundled up for the 50-yard trek to the terminal. A couple of my fellow passengers had not anticipated needing cold-weather gear, and were noticeably frosty by the time they dashed into the terminal.

The building was quite busy with holiday travelers, mostly members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation making their way back to villages for Christmas. There was also some intense discussion going on in the corner of the room between three Mounties, and rumour was whispered that they were on the trail of some desperado, but we didn’t get to stay long enough to see any drama play out. We took off again into a gorgeous sunset — at 1:15 p.m.

Stuffed polar bear guarding the terminal in Inuvit, Northwest Territories

Stuffed polar bear guarding the terminal in Inuvit, Northwest Territories

Inuvit sits where the Mackenzie Delta empties out into the Beaufort sea, and with our arrival there I can now say that I’ve been to the Northwest Territories as well. The airport was surprising large and new (a testimony to the clout of the oil, industry I would learn later), but also gave some indication how important eco-tourism was to the local economy. A large stuffed polar bear also graced the terminal.

Finally we took off to return south. Word had been passed via cell phones that the snow had stopped, and our arrival was being anticipated. Needless to say, we were happy to finally make it to Dawson, landing amidst applause on a runway covered in snow.

So, as I write this, I am comfortably and happily ensconced at the lovely old wooden desk in Berton House, even if I am nursing a slight hangover from my first encounter with the Dawsonites yesterday evening. More to come later about my experiences here, but I just wanted to report that I’ve arrived safely, and am settling in for a happy, and very white, Christmas.