The Big Chill and Other Ferry Tales

Waiting on the west side of the Yukon River for the ferry George Black to Dawson City.

While my former home in Canada’s deep south is still barely flirting with the notion, here in Dawson City winter has arrived in spades. It started last week with a couple of days of solid snowfall, which dumped nine-or-so inches on us. That was followed by progressively colder days, and nighttime lows approaching -30°C.

For many in Dawson this simply means donning long underwear, tossing another log on the fire, and going about business as usual. But for those across the Yukon River, in the off-the-grid communities of West Dawson and Sunnydale, the coming of cold weather has a profound impact. It means the icing up of the river, and the end of the warm-weather ferry service that connects them with the town.

West Side dwellers with jobs in Dawson, or kids in school, must relocate to town for a while during Freeze Up, and either rent rooms in the local hotels/motels, or move in with friends. Families are often divided in the process, when some members have to remain across the river to take care of cabins and dog teams (many choose West Side living because they are able to keep a number of sled dogs there, as opposed to Dawson where by-laws only allow a maximum of two canines per household within town limits). For those soon to be stranded on the West Side, Freeze Up therefore means stocking up on food, water, propane, and gasoline. Although a month is more the norm, it may take up to six weeks before the ice is thick enough to traverse, and even longer before an ice road that can support the weight of trucks reconnects the two communities. Residents need to plan accordingly.

Not surprisingly, much speculation, and some angst, runs rampant among West Dawsonites about when the ferry (named the George Black after an early Dawson politician) will be pulled. The date varies each year, contingent on ice conditions in the river. This year, the transition from a little bit of slush in the water to large ice pans floating by, took place quite quickly, and made for a rather abrupt decision that the ferry service would cease at 7 p.m. on October 21st — which was days earlier than most were anticipating. (A similar migration will occur in the spring, during Break Up … although the lead-up to the end of crossing is less rushed, as individuals choose at different times when it’s no longer safe to cross, and the lull before the resumption of ferry service is typically shorter.)

By sheer coincidence, I was actually aboard the George Black heading over to West Dawson when the pilot made the announcement over the loud speaker that ferry service was terminating in a matter of hours. Immediately, people were on cell phones to their neighbours, as well as informing the local radio station, and word quickly spread through the community. The scramble began for last-minute provisioning, and/or for packing up and moving to town.  One young couple with a baby failed to receive the news in time about the cessation of ferry service, however, and got caught with their pants (or rather their pantry) down. Fortunately, others in the community will rally behind them, and donate provisions to keep them going.

Technically speaking, the route to West Dawson across the river is part of the territorial highway system, and both the warm-weather ferry service and cold-weather ice road are maintained by the Yukon government. It’s certainly one of the only pieces of official highway I’ve ever heard of that routinely disappears off the map for weeks on end.

For those living in West Dawson, the ferry comes to overshadow their lives. During the summer, they must compete with an explosion of tourists, many hauling trailers or driving RVs, for space on the crossing, and this affects commute times and dependability of access to town. After Labour Day, when the 24-hour ferry schedule is shortened, night travelers must be careful not to miss the last ferry of the day, or they will get stranded and unable to cross until morning.

Over the years, proposals have surfaced for a permanent bridge across the Yukon at Dawson City, but this raises much debate in the community. The cost, both economic and aesthetic, are prime issues, but so is concern for those on the West Side as to how a fixed link across the river will impact their off-the-grid lifestyles. Until such a construction takes place, if ever, the rhythm of the seasons, and the freezing and thawing of the Yukon will continue to have a major impact, as it has since Gold Rush days.