Called Into Service

The view of the Robert Service cabin from Berton House.

When I write, I frequently stop and stare away from the keyboard, preferably out a window. It’s become such a part of my creative process over the years that I’m barely conscious of doing it anymore. Here at Berton House, I am doubly blessed by having two windows I can look out. If I turn my head to the right, I gaze out at Dawson City and the hills rising up on the west side across the Yukon River. But when I turn to my left, the window overlooks Robert Service’s cabin, which is right across 8thAvenue from me. It’s a small and rustic little hut, but even though I’ve been staring at it daily for six weeks now, I never tire of the sight. Service departed from his cabin a hundred years ago, but as far as I’m concerned he’s my neighbour.

So, on Saturday night, I attended the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City. It is an annual event put on by locals, of Scottish descent and otherwise, with help from the Dawson City Community Library. It commemorates two poetic sons of Scotland, Robbie Burns and Robert Service, who both have birthdays in January. The celebration took place at the town’s Legion Hall on 3rd Ave.

Chris Collin parades the haggis at the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City.

Chris Collin parades the haggis at the Double Bob Celebration in Dawson City.

Given that it was partially a celebration for my neighbour, and also that I hold the lofty title of Writer-In-Residence, I was happy to participate. There was also another good reason to go — it was a potluck event, and I’ve quickly learned that’s how you get to taste the yummiest dishes of Dawson, and I was not disappointed. Being partially a Burns Dinner, the program included the traditional parading and approbation of the haggis, which begins “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” The haggis was delicious, by the way. We then spent the rest of the evening taking turns reciting (or singing, in one case) a poem by either of the two bards. Not surprisingly, however, Service poems dominated the evening’s recitals.

Now, I will confess that I was only moderately familiar with Robert W. Service when I came up here. Oh, I’ve heard The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee recited a gazillion times since boyhood, but didn’t really know the poet’s history or fully appreciate his body of work. So, while here, I’ve taken the time to find out more about both the man and his writing, and have been blown away by both. (I have even been moved to dabble with a Service-style ballad of my own, but that will not likely ever see print).

Service was only in Dawson City for about eight of his 84 years, but he is venerated as the Bard of the Yukon, and he loved the place back. The Robert Service cabin is a local historic site and a leading tourist attraction during the summer months. Inside the small and simple log structure, they display historical artifacts from his era, including several of his personal items. There are also performances with people dressed in traditional Klondike Gold Rush attire, including actors doing recitations in the Robert Service role.

Robert Service in front of his Dawson City cabin circa 1910

Robert Service in front of his Dawson City cabin circa 1910

Service came to Dawson City to write full-time after quitting his day job as a Whitehorse banker, and penned several volumes in that small log cabin. He, along with Jack London, who is also revered locally, captured the true spirit of the Klondike Gold Rush. (By the way, Jack London’s original backwoods cabin was re-discovered in 1936, and has been moved to Dawson City, just down 8th Ave. from us, to serve as the Jack London Cabin and Interpretive Centre.)

Although many literary purists turn up their noses at Service’s poetry, and he even referred to himself as just a “versifier,” his writings were wildly successful, and made him a wealthy man. Service went on to briefly serve as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star, drove an ambulance in WW I, and eventually settled in France. He lived in Paris at the time when the city was a Bohemian mecca for writers like Samuel Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, and he is reputed to have been the richest of the lot, although he remained unpretentious and preferred rubbing elbows with the down-to-earth folk — a trait perfected in the Yukon, I have no doubt.

If you read through Service’s rather extensive body of work, consisting of hundreds of poems, some of which he continued writing into his eighties, much of it is indeed tongue-in-cheek folklore and kitschy rhymes. But it would be a serious mistake to dismiss it all as pulpy genre poetry. Service was a humanist, a nature lover, and an egalitarian, witty, irreverent, and not afraid of speaking his mind. If nothing else, most of his poems are a joy to read, especially aloud, but you’ll find among them many profound and stirring nuggets.

Therefore, I’ll end this blog post with a quote from one. Now, technically, since Service didn’t die until 1958, this poem is still under copyright. But I’m going to go ahead and use it here anyway. I don’t think my neighbour will mind lending me a cup of poetry.

Then let us mock with ancient mirth this comic, cosmic plan;
The stars are laughing at the earth; God’s greatest joke is man.
For laughter is a buckler bright, and scorn a shining spear;
So let us laugh with all our might at folly, fraud and fear.
Yet on our sorry selves be spent our most sardonic glee.
Oh don’t pay life a compliment to take it seriously.
For he who can himself despise, be surgeon to the bone,
May win to worth in others’ eyes, to wisdom in his own.

From Laughter by Robert Service

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Dempster Driving


Several times since coming here, I’ve overheard the phrase “up the Dempster” in local conversations. I thought it might be a euphemism at first, but now, one-month veteran of the Klondike that I am, have come to know its real meaning. And yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be invited along on a road trip to go up the Dempster, albeit only partially.

The Dempster is in fact a highway, which starts just outside of Dawson City, and runs 736 km north to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. This time of year, with the addition of an ice road extension, the highway technically runs another 194 km to Tuktoyaktuk (the Harper Government has made noises about making that into a year-round road). The Dempster Highway has the distinction of being the northernmost highway in the land, since it is Canada’s only all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle. It is named after legendary Mountie William Dempster, who routinely ran the dogsled trail from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, NWT a hundred years ago.

Our expedition consisted of a small herd of local visiting artists, songwriters, and filmmakers, two of whom were scheduled to fly back to Whitehorse that afternoon. There had been live music at The Pit the night before, followed by parties that ran well into the morning, so it was a sedate, but enthusiastic bunch that bundled into the van early on Sunday. Everyone was commenting on what a comparatively mild day it was when we set out (around -28ºC after a solid week of -40ºC weather) but it was also gray and overcast.

In the handful of hours at our disposal, we couldn’t go very far, so it was really a tourist sightseeing daytrip — more of A Taste of the Dempster. Most of the highway is an unpaved and unforgiving gravel road, which in summertime has the reputation of chewing up the tires of those that make prolonged runs along it. In January, however, the road was icy and tricky, but not treacherous. Besides, we had an excellent and experienced driver and guide in Eldo Enns (a current Yukon College instructor and KIAC (Klondike Institute of Arts & Culture) associate, and former city manager, who seems to do or have done just about everything in his time).

Dawson City Artists-in-Residence Ed Pien and Johannes Zits take in the Ogilvie Mts. along the Dempster Highwa

Visiting Artists-in-Residence Ed Pien and Johannes Zits take in the Ogilvie Mountain range as they tour up the Dempster Highway

We went far enough that we transcended the tree line, where the great northern boreal forest ends, and the arctic tundra begins. We got a little past Tombstone Territorial Park in the Ogilvie Mountains before having to turn back, but the sight was awe inspiring, with jagged, ghostlike white mountains standing guard over barren expanses of snow covered valleys.

Calgary artist Sarah Smalik, who is currently exhibiting at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City,YT, laughs off the frost sculpting her eyelashes as she takes in the Dempster Highway.

Whatever “this ain’t cold” bravado we might have felt at the start of the trip was soon lost, though, as the wind came blowing in over the tundra and fingers began freezing on camera triggers. Parka hoods quickly went up as we explored outside, and there were always exclamations of relief when people jumped back into the warmth of the van. As short-lived as it might have been, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this unique and beautiful piece of Canada.

In summertime and fall, the parks and wilderness areas along the highway are a mecca for hikers and other visitors, and I strongly urge anyone interested in an unforgettable adventure to drive up the Alaska Highway from B.C. to Whitehorse, YT, then take the Klondike Highway to Dawson City (do plan to spend some time here) and finally, after picking up a spare tire or two, go on up the Dempster to where it ends near the Beaufort Sea. It is a haj I think all Canadians should do in their lifetime, and one I hope to more fully undertake in the future.

Cold Cuts

"Don't stare, dear, it's not polite."
"But ma, that brass monkey has no balls!"

Last night the temperature here in The Town of Dawson City dipped down to -45°C (-49°F). Admittedly, that’s still a ways from the record low of −55.8 °C (−68 °F) set in 1979, but I’m not going to lie to you. That’s cold. And, yet, we go about our business. In fact, many people I’ve talked to have been openly wishing for such a prolonged cold spell. (So have I, although in my case I just wanted the bragging rights.)

It’s actually been unseasonably mild since my arrival here just before Christmas, for which I’ve been trying to take full credit. Temperatures have routinely risen above -20°C. That may still seem cold by Toronto standards, but it’s funny how quickly you get used to it. Suddenly, minus twenty is the new zero.

The reason many Dawsonites didn’t like those warmer temperatures is simple, and it’s something many Canadians can identify with. They don’t like shovelling snow. When the temperatures dip far enough, it’s too cold to snow, whereas because of the recent mild streak, we’ve had significantly more of the white stuff than normal.

Now, I have to clarify one thing. We don’t have that much snow here. Maritimers, Quebeckers, and even many Ontarians would scoff at the three feet that’s on the ground. Hell, in Buffalo they get that in a bad lunch hour. Dawson City, though, may get dumpings in November and March, but in between we can pretty much put away the snow shovel. This year the populace, myself included, has already been out a half-dozen times clearing their sidewalks and streets, and the local Klondike highways have been a bit of a mess.

Noon sun trying to peek through the ice fog on Front Street, dawson City, YK.

Noon sun trying to break through the ice fog on Front Street.

The other nice thing about really cold weather is that the skies are clear. Although the sun is slowly making its way back to Dawson City (I was able to bask in sunshine on Front Street for a full twenty minutes yesterday), we’re still only getting about five hours of solid daylight daily. To have it cloudy during that brief interlude of sun is insult to injury. Clouds also makes it impossible to see the Northern Lights at night. Unfortunately, when it gets to -40° C/F you also sometimes encounter a condition called ice fog, as we did today, where fine ice crystals get suspended in the air, blanketing us in mist.

So, you might ask, how does one cope when the temperature’s that cold? Well, given a choice, you stay inside. Berton House is warm and cozy. The local liquor store is well stocked. I have internet and cable TV. The town has its own back-up diesel generator, which kicks in within ten minutes of a power failure from the main Yukon Electric supply (as has happened three or four times since I got here).

Wimpy Torontonian Dan Dowhal braves the Yukon cold.

Woosy Torontonian bundles up against the Yukon cold.

When you do venture outside, though, you simply make sure you’re dressed properly. Good fur- or felt-lined boots and a down-filled jacket are the foundation. A hat and gloves are essential. When it gets really cold, or the wind picks up, covering your face with a balaclava or scarf is advisable, so you become nothing more than a pair of eyes, lashes tipped with hoar frost, peering out at the world through the periscope of a parka hood. Bottom line: don’t go exposing any skin. You’ll know pretty quickly, though, when you do. Want to know the secret to winter in the Yukon? Well my friends, I have four words for you: “layers.” (You probably think that was only one word, but you just didn’t see the other three, which were underneath it, keeping it warm).

Now, admittedly, I’m just a visitor from the deep south, and while I’m far from the only person on the streets who goes heavily bundled up and looking like the Michelin Man, I often see others who wear far less clothing, and who seem to shrug off the cold. I’ve even been told (and here you have to wonder if your long-john-covered leg is being pulled) about a local teen who wears shorts year round. Mind you, I walk everywhere, whereas most resident Dawsonites drive, even when their destination is just a half-a-block away, and seem to be outside only as long as it takes to make the dash from their vehicle to the building.

About the only locals who seem to totally relish the cold are the town’s dogs, many of whom display visible husky lineage. While most owners do faithfully walk their pets, even in the most frigid of conditions, it seems that when it gets this cold, some dogs are simply let outside, where you can see them romping around unleashed, acting a bit wild, perhaps displaying some of the wolf blood they’re said to possess. Otherwise, the only wildlife I’ve seen braving the cold so far (not counting some of the miners who occasionally come into The Pit, the local bar) are ravens. Lots of ravens. Big honking ravens. They’re like the pigeons of the Klondike, only way, way cooler. No wimpy migration south for them. They are beloved by the townsfolk and revered by the indigenous cultures and, when you see them sitting around in the trees or on top of the buildings, obviously owning the place, unfazed by forty below, it’s easy to see why.

With a Soft Chewy Centre on the Inside

In my last blog post, taking a bit of literary license, I may have mistakenly created the impression that, because the population of Dawson City plummets dramatically during the winter, and many businesses are boarded up for the season,  the town is dead during these months. This is happily not the case. It may be cold and dark on the outside, but it’s warm and shining on the inside.

For many non-migratory Dawsonites, winter is in fact their favourite time of year. “You’re seeing the real Dawson City,” I’ve been told more than once. As it’s been explained to me, during the manic summertime they are frantically busy earning money, building things, and grokking nature — making hay while the sun shines, so to speak, and in those summer months the sun can shine for a long, long, long time. The streets are teeming, but full of strangers. So this quieter time of year, when many outdoor activities are logistically impractical, offers the residual locals a welcome chance to catch their collective breath, and catch up with friends and neighbours. Dinners and parties abound, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to some of them.

The citizenry here is remarkably friendly and hospitable, especially from the perspective of someone who has lived his entire life in an impersonal metropolis. The simple act of walking down the street carrying a hockey stick, for example, seems inevitably to spawn a spontaneous conversation with a passerby. And while the native kids with whom I sometimes share the lunchtime ice at the arena admittedly don’t talk to me (then again, they don’t talk much to each other either), I have at least earned tacit nods of recognition from some of them — a sign of respect, I like to think, not for my hockey skills, which are laughable, but for our shared passion.

Now, I realize that hockey is beloved from coast to coast to coast, and small-town friendliness isn’t unique to Dawson City, but beyond that I have sensed a pervading personality in the people here that is, in my opinion, unique and laudable. It is non-judgemental, welcoming, and egalitarian. Much of that is due to D.C.’s ingrained Gold Rush Era tradition, I suppose, hailing back to those days when people from dozens of nations and all walks of life flocked here seeking their fortune. The Klondike welcomed them all (even if it did fleece and/or kill some) and continues to welcome them today. Hell, you can still stake out a gold claim if you want.

I also think a large part of the accepting and cooperative spirit here is a generally northern phenomenon, as severe climes and a tougher life become a great equalizer. The south is the nation’s soft underbelly, including Les Québécois (who also have us perennially by the balls), where 75 per cent of Canadians are said to live within 100 miles of the U.S. border (although, if you count Alaska, that’s technically true of Dawson too). But, the North may very well be the true heart of Canada, where much of our gritty national identity is forged.

And if Dawson City occasionally seems to be stuck in the past, it also fully embraces the future. This is a vibrant arts community, supporting musicians, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and writers, both formally — through the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), the Dawson City Arts Society (DCAS), and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation — and informally through an uninhibited artistic nature. This includes several ongoing year-round cultural residencies (mine included, bless their hearts). Then there’s the annual Dawson City Music Festival, Dawson City International Short Film Festival, and Yukon Riverside Arts Festival as well.

Dawson City is also home to the Yukon School of the Visual Arts (around town they just say “SOH-va”) that allows students to spend their foundation year of art college here, before going on to finish their degrees in B.C., or Ontario, or Nova Scotia. As a consequence, a significant proportion of this town’s winter population is comprised of art students who come from all over the country.

The intrinsic appeal of this place is pretty hard to miss. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve talked to here who tell the exact same story — they came up to Dawson City to visit, or work for a few months, fell in love with the place, and ended up staying. “Be careful it doesn’t get to you, too,” they warn me. In many ways, it already has.