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.
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).
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.