Pole Dancer

Aurora Borealis seen from West Dawson on Valentine's Day 2012.

One of the beauties of my residency here at Berton House has been the lack of stress in my daily life. Oh, the odd nagging issue from back home has worked its way north, and there was the time the blackjack dealer at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s dealt herself twenty-one on the last hand of the night just as I was figuring to turn a profit for the outing, (and a couple of other what-happens-in-Dawson-stays-in-Dawson episodes best forgotten). Otherwise, though, I have been floating around here in a state of Zenlike tranquility.

One thing was starting seriously to eat at me, however. After six weeks here, I still had not yet seen the Northern Lights. I came up to the Yukon with a city boy’s preconception that the Aurora Borealis would, well, just be there. They turned out to be a frustratingly elusive quarry. There was, for example, a massive solar event on January 25th that enabled people to see the Lights quite far south, but wouldn’t you know it, Dawson City was in the midst of a snowfall that night. In fact, we have had an atypically cloudy winter overall, which was starting to raise my angst that I was going to have to go back to Toronto and tell my peeps that I was still an auroral virgin.

When I mentioned my disappointment to one of the bartenders, he just growled sarcastically, “Oh, no problem. Let me go outside and turn the damned things on for you.” The other locals were more sympathetic, but ultimately ended up adding insult to injury by regaling me with stories of the mind blowing displays they have witnessed in the past. On a couple of other occasions it was reported to me that the Lights had been out overnight, while I slept soundly through it.

I came to the conclusion that the Lights are like a beautiful woman. The more badly you want her, the more likely you are to get rejected. So I stopped obsessing about it. I no longer gazed constantly upward whenever I was out at night. I blew away the bookmarks to the four-or-so aurora forecast websites I had been haunting daily trying to get a read on probabilities. “I don’t care if I ever see the Lights,” I announced to the heavens.

And, lo and behold, as I was coming out of the Pit a couple of nights later, there they were — and they have kept on appearing. I’ve seen them almost daily now for the past week-plus, including one full-on horizon-to-horizon display on Valentine’s Day that even had jaded native Dawsonites outside on the street gawking.

NASA image of the Aurora Borealis as seen from space.

The Northern Lights are hard to describe precisely, because they are different every time. The effect is caused by the solar wind rubbing against the magnetic force field that surrounds us here on Sol III, so there are multiple variables that control their form, size, and intensity. Because of the way the earth’s magnetic field curves down at the North and South Poles, it is largely confined to these regions, with the Aurora Australis being the southern equivalent.

Sometimes, they are a mere glow on the horizon, at other times they are huge dancing and rippling sheets, or they can be a series of twisting and interconnected spirals. The Lights are generally green and white, but can have other colours — like reds, blues, and purples — during especially active outbursts.

There are many myths surrounding this beautiful natural polar light show, but even the various First Nations cultures that live beneath the Aurora Borealis don’t agree on them. Some say that if you whistle at the lights, you can make them dance; others say never whistle at them, especially when they’re low to the ground, because if you attract their attention they’ll steal your life essence. Many Japanese think a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be especially blessed, and there’s a thriving tourism trade offering excursions to the North specifically for open-air auroral copulation.

If you whistle at the Northern Lights they will dance for you ... but then they will have to kill you.

Then there is the question of whether the Lights generate sound. Scientists will show you the physics that proves this is an impossibility, but I have talked to eyewitnesses who beg to differ (although they will admit it is rare). Some Dene traditions even speak of the smell of the Aurora, although it’s almost universally believed that inhaling the Lights is especially dangerous.

All I know is that, having finally met her, I am in love with Aurora. She is ethereal and sensual, complicated and unpredictable. She makes my heart beat faster every time I see her, even if it’s just a glimpse from afar, and makes me want to stay up all night to be with her. This Pole dancer moves beautifully and gracefully. Yes, she can be a tease sometimes, and even when she does put in an appearance, she may only stay for a few minutes. But, oh my, when she’s in a party mood, Aurora can dance non-stop for hours, and all you want to do is watch her.

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Dawson City Goes to the Dogs

The Dawson City "chute" for the 2012 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race

Even in the dead of winter, I’ve found there’s usually something going on around Dawson City. But since many happenings — like dinners, or art shows, or concerts, or an excellent reading at the library by the Writer-In-Residence this coming week — all take place indoors, on the outside the action may sometimes be hard to spot.

This week, however, the buzz around Dawson City was palpable and impossible to miss. The downtown streets were suddenly teeming with vehicles and visitors. It was all because The Yukon Quest had come to town.

Race leader Allen Moore and his team handler ride to the restart line after their Dawson City layover.

The Quest is an annual dogsled race, on a par with the famed Iditarod in Alaska. Both men and women, varying in age from their teens to their sixties, compete equally in both events. Although the two races run for an identical 1000 miles, many feel The Quest is actually a more challenging race, since the distances between checkpoints are greater. It usually takes between 10 and 16 days to complete, depending on weather and trail conditions. (The longest race time was in 1988, when Ty Halvorson took 20 days, 8 hours, and 29 minutes to finish. In 2000, Aliy Zirkle became the first woman to win the race, finishing in 10 days, 22 hours, and 57 minutes. )

Many racers, known as mushers, compete in both events, although the Iditarod has more sponsors and a bigger purse. Still, over $150,000 in prize money goes to the top 15 finishers of The Yukon Quest, with the first across the finish line taking home $38,000. 2nd Place receives $30,000, while 3rd Place wins $22,000. The first musher into Dawson City, who was Allen Moore this year, will also receive 4 ounces of gold nuggets if he finishes the race.

Yuikon Quest musher's camp at West Dawson.

The Yukon Quest is an international race, in that it runs between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in the south of the Yukon.  (It’s also international because, in addition to Canadian and American mushers, there were two Russians and a Norwegian in this year’s 24-person field).

After some disagreement whether to run north-south or vice versa, the start and end points now flip each year. Either way, Dawson City is always the midpoint, and the beginning of a mandatory 36-hour layover for the racers. Here, veterinarians also check over the dogs to make sure they’re standing up to the rigors of the race. Mushers are allowed a team of 14 dogs to start, and will drop any dogs that are experiencing issues (physical or mental).

The Paws That Refreshes: Bedded down in a hay-filled tent, a dog team catches 40 winks during their 36-hour layover in Dawson City

Now, I have to note something here in case some bleeding heart type reads this and starts whining about animal cruelty. You only have to look into the face of one of these dogs as they mush by to see how much fun they’re having. These animals have been bred to do this, and live to run. They are superb athletes, balancing strength and size, speed and teamwork. (Picture a human running a marathon a day, for a dozen days — except that the dogs sometimes do a hundred miles in one day.)

They also have to have good feet since, to quote a mushers’ aphorism, “As go their feet, so go the dogs.” This means toes that are not splayed out, and paws that are resistant to both wear and injury. Nowadays, for long races, they also have special booties to protect their paws from the cold.

During their stopover here, a tent city forms in West Dawson (across the Yukon River from the main burg) and there, with the help of support teams, the dogs are bedded down in hay-filled shelters. The mushers usually grab a hotel room in town and catch up on some sleep before taking off for the final leg of the race. Departures are staggered, based on their arrival times into the Dawson checkpoint.

Yukon Quest fans check out the latest standings and calculate the next team's arrival at the Dawson City checkpoint.

One of the best things about the Quest is the variety in the people who come to town because of it. A finer display of fur and facial hair you’ll not see anywhere. The local Information Centre on Front Street becomes the official race checkpoint, and a hub of activity, including a fair bit of media coverage. The onlookers spilled outside to the official crossing line, known as the “chute” to cheer every time one of the teams came in, and especially when local boy Brian Wilmshurst arrived. Dozens of volunteers help out, and while the race is on, it’s also one of the best places in Dawson to get home cooked food.

Once upon a time dogsleds were the only practical way of getting around this part of the world in wintertime. Everything that moved during the frozen season — people and supplies — did so by dog sled. Planes, trucks, and snowmobiles have greatly reduced the dog team’s working role. The beautiful animals that now compete in dogsled races are one of the last reminders of this storied, centuries-old tradition, and I feel privileged to have witnessed these elite canine athletes in action.

Bellying Up to the Bars of Dawson City

I have been known to indulge in a pint of beer from time to time, and so during the six weeks that I’ve been here in The Town of Dawson City, I’ve had occasion to take a break after a hard week of slaving over a hot word processor to visit the local watering holes.

During the wild Gold Rush Days circa 1900, over 22 saloons were reported to be flourishing in Dawson City, many using women and gambling as an added incentive to lure gold-dust-heavy miners in to drink. Among the town’s heritage museum buildings is the Red Feather Saloon, beautifully preserved, which has a great window display about this licentious part of local history.

I’m told that come the summer season, a dozen-or-so establishments will be in high gear in modern-day Dawson City, and there will be virtually round-the-clock partying to go with the round-the-clock sunlight, reinforcing a reputation as “the Vegas of the North.” But, now, in winter, many places are closed for the season, and there are basically four bars to choose from in town. In the interest of thorough journalism, I have investigated them all.

There is one Dawson tradition that a visitor needs to be aware of, by the way. Each drinking hole has a brass bell hanging over the bar. If you ring this bell, you’re buying a round for the house. The practice apparently hails to the days when miners would return from their claims with a big nugget in hand, and celebrate their good fortune — and allegedly this still occasionally happens today. I have rung a bell a handful of times, but I suppose those occasions when I’m the only customer in the place don’t really count.

Wooden sidewalks outside The Eldo

The Billy Goat Tavern (everyone simply calls it The Goat) is a bar attached to the local Greek restaurant, called The Drunken Goat. It seems to me they have the names backwards, but I’m just a cheechako, so what do I know? While the restaurant side closes down in winter, the bar stays open year round. Aside from offering some ethnic variety to the available local restaurant fare, I have a special fondness for The Goat because it was there that my four-person trivia team earned the title of undisputed Dawson City Trivia Champions.

The Eldorado Hotel, referred to locally as The Eldo, is a stately and well-kept building rebuilt in the turn-of-the-century frontier architectural style that is mandated by local ordinance, including the wooden sidewalks, which I love. Inside, there’s The Sluice Box Lounge, which is a spacious and comfortable bar, with a decent bit of variety on the food menu. The Eldo also has a large TV set behind the bar, giving it some of the ambiance of a sports bar, although most of the time the patrons seem to prefer rural-based reality shows.

A mummified human toe is used in the Sour Toe Cocktail.

The Downtown Hotel is somewhat similar to The Eldo, in terms of vintage and architecture, being first and foremost a hotel. Its watering hole, The Sourdough Lounge is legendary as the home of the Sour Toe Cocktail. This is a bizarre Dawson City tradition that involves an amputated human toe preserved in salt, which is ceremonially used in a drink. They have relaxed the original rules, and your drink need not now even be alcoholic to earn the official certificate, but, in their own words, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.” Over 65,000 imbibers are said to have joined the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. As I have tried explaining to the local ladies, my lips prefer touching toes that are sweet and attached, so I have not succumbed to this act of alcoholic cannibalism yet.

The Westminister Hotel on 3rd Ave. In Dawson City, Yukon, home of The Snake Pit and The Arm Bit bars.

The Westminister Hotel, home of The Snake Pit and The Arm Pit.

The bar at The Westminister Hotel, called The Pit, is the bar in Dawson City in my opinion. It’s hard to explain why, because on the surface this place has everything going against it, yet the uneven pieces come together in an odd and very cool way. First of all, I should explain that there are really two Pits, not one, right beside each other. The smaller lounge is known as The Snake Pit, and opens at 9 a.m. I choose to think some of those patrons come there for the coffee. It seems to be dominated by a boisterous local clique, but has some interesting Klondike décor. The main lounge, although officially named The Cabaret Lounge, is generally known as The Arm Pit. This one has live music on Fridays and Saturdays, and although it is often completely dead earlier in the evening (hence my bell ringing), inevitably has a lively and diverse crowd by last call. If someone says, “Meet me tonight at The Pit,” the odds are that’s the space they’re referring to.

The Westminster Hotel building itself is ancient, and there is not a straight line in the joint, although the locals joke that everything will appear plumb and level by the end of the night. During our recent cold snap, the story goes that the hotel guests had to be evicted, because their space heaters were blowing the old glass fuses, and a new supply had to be ordered up from Whitehorse. The Pit also has an off-license, which means customers can buy alcohol to take home — something you can’t do in Ontario. The Pit is purportedly one of the very last bars in North America to ban indoor smoking, a testimony more to the fierce independence of Yukoners, than the wisdom of wanting to light matches in an old building that just screams fire hazard. Mind you, I suspect part of their stubborn resistance to the change in smoking regs may have had something to do with not wanting to step out into -40° temperatures for a cigarette.

I have only one complaint about the saloons of Dawson City, and that is that they are located down near the river. Berton House, on the other hand, is at the very back of town. Five or six blocks may not seem like a great distance to walk, but it’s all uphill and sure feels like a struggle at the end of a night of investigative bar journalism. When you’re bundled up in forty pounds of cold weather gear, the home stretch up to 8th Ave., which has a serious slope to it, is especially the pits.