Writing Component, Printmakers’ Ambition Grow at 6th Dawson Print Fest

Parks Canada has graciously opened the heritage Dawson Daily News building each year for the Print & Publishing Festival.

Having been involved from the inside with the Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival since its conception and inception seven years ago, it is easy to lose one’s perspective. But taking in this year’s activities I was suddenly struck with how the Festival has grown and matured in both size and scope. For starters, having its own standalone date, and now running from Wednesday through Sunday, the Festival is no longer just a subdued weekend event bundled in as part of another happening, but carries its own presence and authority.

But there are more dimensions to the evolution than simply length. The Writing side of the festival, which has been my greatest area of interest, has blossomed, thanks in no small part to the support of the Writer’s Trust of Canada and Yukon Public Libraries. This year’s visiting writers included Ivan Coyote, Carleigh Baker, Laurel Perry, David A. Robertson, John K. Samson and Christine Fellows. From a spectacular Friday night ensemble performance at the newly re-opened Palace Grand Theatre (which was broadcast live on CFYT 106.9 FM, “The Spirit of Dawson”), to well-attended, individual writing workshops held throughout the weekend in the classrooms of the Yukon School of the Visual Arts, these authors and storytellers covered a variety of topics, from memoir writing to reconciliation and indigenous issues. Local media guru Chris Healey also gave a presentation on the potential impact of block chain technology on writing in the future.

A rapt visitor takes in the printmakers’ work at the 6th Dawson Daily News Print & Publishing Festival

Saturday night’s keynote address was by Winnipeg writer David Alexander Robertson. Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, discussed the role storytelling has played, and can continue to play, when it comes to reconciliation in Canada, and about how Indigenous history can be taught through literature.

Presentations/workshops are just one way that the PrintFest has striven to foster the local literary arts. Thursday night also saw an Open Mic night at local watering hole The Pit, hosted by Dawson poet Tara Borin. It was a lively and well-attended event (on both sides of the stage), but what was most impressive (beyond the enthusiasm of the presenters) was the variety and quality of the pieces delivered during the evening, lending testimony to the artistry that runs rampant in Dawson City.

In a similar vein, I had the privilege to co-host “End Quote,” the Festival’s concluding Sunday night event, also broadcast on local radio. In addition to headliner writers (comprising the past, present, and future of the Berton House writing residency), the evening’s focus was local talent. The audience was treated to prodigious samples of poetry and prose (both fiction and non-fiction), as well as song-writing, from Dawson literary artists.

Visiting printmaker Ryan O’Malley works on carving a wood block plate.

Even the familiar visual arts aspects of PrintFest seem to have matured and matriculated. The printmakers come (some, Like Peter Braune and John Steins have been there from the beginning) and still demonstrate, teach, and evangelise about their craft, but during their occupancy of the heritage Dawson Daily News building each year the variety and quality of prints produced has blossomed. So has the participation from local artists and tourists wanting to learn about printmaking, and these students of the craft also dazzled with some of the prints they created with help from the visiting masters, such as Joyce Majiski, Cassie Normandy O’Malley and Ryan O’Malley, and Ken Anderson.

If nothing, the physical size of both the prints and the ambition of the printmakers conceiving them has certainly increased. In addition to the printing of two impressive large works that occupied a full sheet of plywood, the printmakers went outside on Saturday afternoon to try printing with some less-than-conventional means. First, a road packer (I personally still think of them as steamrollers, even though steam hasn’t powered them in a century) was trucked in to press a series of multicolured abstract prints. Then local musher Brian Wilmhurst brought in a team of his sled dogs to tug a roller across a series of block prints. (This particular demonstration did not go completely according to plan. The dogs, now that they were artists, decided they were going to shatter convention (as well as the roller’s bolt) and escape the confines of pedestrian expectation.)

Plans are already underway for the 7th Edition of the Festival, and if the previous six years are any indication, the event will only continue to gain in popularity and impact.

The Dawson City Print & Publishing Festival is Presented in partnership by the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, Dawson City Community Library, Writers’ Trust of Canada, and Parks Canada Klondike National Historic Sites with generous support from the Yukon Tourism & Culture Arts Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts.



A True Canadian Rock Star


A consummate showman, Joseph Burr Tyrrell poses in the studio in his exploration clothes.

When I first moved into my “new” house here in Dawson City, someone commented to me, “Oh. So you bought the Tyrrell House.” The moniker meant nothing to me at the time, but since I knew my two-story log home was quite old, I just assumed that was the name of some local family that had once lived in it. Although that guess proved to be technically correct, I have subsequently discovered much more about the person who has lent his name to my dwelling, and in true Yukon fashion, the story is larger than life.

My house was in fact built in 1901 by Joseph Burr Tyrrell, who was born in Weston, Ontario in 1858 and, in his 99-or-so years of life, went on to become famous three times over — as an explorer/cartographer, geologist, and pioneer paleontologist. It is the latter for which J.B. is perhaps best known, since he discovered the Albertosaurus bones in Alberta’s badlands. The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta is another building named after him, specifically for that find. I’m not jealous, though … I happen to know he never slept or shat there.


Tyrrell relaxes in his office, located in the living room of our house.

Originally a lawyer by training, Tyrrell was advised against the profession for health reasons, and told to find work outdoors. (Wow. If only more members of the legal profession would heed that call).

So, J.B. joined the Geological Survey of Canada and traveled to the far North, where he did mapping and exploration. Tyrrell initially found fame as the leader of 1893 and 1894 expeditions into the “Northern Barren Lands.” It was the first visit to the Kivalliq Region (in what is now Nunavut) by a non-native since the 1770s, and included first contact with a number of Inuit peoples.


Tyrrell’s bust at the Mining Hall of Fame

Tyrrell’s career switch to geology worked quite well, so much so that he has also been inducted into the Mining Hall of Fame, as a result of his lifetime of geological accomplishments. It was that endeavour that brought him to Dawson City in 1898 during the great Klondike gold rush, where he promptly quit the Geological Survey (it’s said he was dissatisfied with the lack of promotions anyway) and went instead into the gold business — a career that ended up lasting 50 years. It was shortly thereafter that he built this house, which also served as an office for his geological business. The building was first located down on Church Street, but, in 1905, following one of Dawson City’s many floods, Tyrrell had the house moved up here to Seventh Avenue.

During his Dawson days, Tyrrell’s business was doing so well, he even had his own steamship, which he named after himself.


The steamer Tyrrell across the Yukon River from Dawson City in 1902.

The man was certainly not shy, posing for studio shots in explorer gear, and effecting a Teddy Roosevelt look. Eventually J.B. moved back east, although gold stayed in his veins, and he later went on to manage a gold mine in Kirkland Lake for many years.

I’ve always appreciated renaissance men, so one thing I admire about Tyrrell is how multi-talented he was. Among his other accomplishments, he edited and published the biography of explorer David Thompson, after coming across the man’s voluminous journals and field notes. And following Tyrrell’s retirement to northeast Scarborough on the Rouge River, he established substantial apple orchards and interest in grafting and breeding. The expanded orchards, later managed by his son George, are now the site of the Metro Toronto Zoo.


Tyrrell House, with the sign for J.B.’s geological business, shortly after its construction in 1901.

Throughout it all, Tyrrell was also an avid amateur photographer, and there are hundreds of his pictures available in the University of Toronto archives. For me, to come across photos of the Tyrrell house that I now own, dating from the gold rush era and actually taken by the man personally, is a real kick.

The only fallout from uncovering Tyrrell’s story, however, is that I can no longer look at this dwelling the same way. It seems to me I can feel the man’s presence whenever I move about the old place, especially the living room where he once had his office. It is nonetheless a warm feeling to know that I have stumbled into stewardship of an interesting piece of Canadian history, and I’ll be framing some of Tyrrell’s photos to put up on my, or rather his wall, as a bit of a tribute.

A Winter’s Tale

You can feel things beginning to stir from their winter stasis here in Dawson City, and hopefully this blog will be no exception. While many of you may think that winter would be when I had the most time on my hands for writing and pontificating, the opposite has proven to be true, and I have been surprisingly busy.

One contributor to my occupied state has been the variety of recreational activities that I endeavoured to sample during the winter months. Many were things I had never done before, so while I spent a great deal of time sliding along the learning curve, I also enjoyed the personal challenges, and had a lot of fun, even if I sometimes had a few scrapes and bruises to show for it.

Lead Dog Sunny, who once ran the Yukon Quest, has taken me skijoring and mushing.

Lead dog Sunny, who once ran the Yukon Quest, has taken me skijoring and mushing.

A sled dog sits atop the Yukon Territory’s crest, so I was quite excited to get a chance to try some dog-propelled sports for the first time this winter. Skijoring was first on the list for me. For those not familiar with the term, it refers to cross-country skiing while harnessed to dogs (although horses and reindeer are also used around the world). I started with one older and smaller, albeit very hard-working dog, J.V., and eventually graduated to assorted pairs of more vigorous pullers who were able to get up quite an impressive pace requiring minimal poling on my part. My antique cross-country skis wore out before the dogs did. I must say, once you’ve been towed around by a pair of huskies, it’s hard to return to self-propelled skiing again.

Experienced skijorers will often have four dogs pulling them, and there is a competitive skijoring element that is part of the annual Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, and back. I’m looking to upgrade my skis and boots in the off-season, and attempt some longer distances next winter, although I’m a long, long way from competing in The Percy.

Before the winter trails began to melt, I also had an opportunity to do some dog sledding, starting with my first solo mush ever, which took place on my birthday. I admit that my small kick sled and quartet of dogs are a far cry from the 14-dog teams and racing rigs that compete in the Yukon Quest, but it was still a great rush for me. Lead dog Sunny, along with Snowy, Velocity, and Duke, took off with incredible enthusiasm, and within yards of the start, my sled tipped over. Although I got a frosty face-plant, I’m pleased to say I did not break Rule Number One that had been drilled into me by my coach and the dogs’ owner, Gaby Sgaga: “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the sled.”

Me mushing on my birthday, with Sunny, Snowy, Velocity, and Duke.

Mushing on my birthday, with Snowy, Sunny, Duke, and Velocity.

After dragging me for a bit, Sunny obviously sensed something was amiss, and brought her team to a halt. There are few things in life more humiliating than the look of disdain a team of sled dogs give you over their shoulders when they decide you don’t know what you’re doing. I soon got the hang of it, and went a couple of miles without tipping over again. With the help of a heavier, more stable sled, I then fared much better in my second outing, and am eager to do more mushing next winter with a larger team, if possible.

During the winter months I also got into curling, and participated in one of the Dawson City tournaments, specifically the annual Commercial Bonspiel — my first ever such event. (It’s fun just saying that word: bonspiel.) Organized curling in Dawson City goes all the way back to the gold rush days of 1898, and to the chagrin of many participants, 115 years later the town’s curling rink still has natural ice. Our team, which represented the aforementioned Percy DeWolfe race, finished with a respectable 1-1-1 record in the tournament, which featured a host of teams from local businesses and organizations.

The Percy DeWolfe curling team for the 2013 Dawson City Commercial Bonspiel  (L to R) Laurie Sokolowsky, Alyssa Friessen, Me, and Gaby Sgaga

The Percy DeWolfe curling team for the 2013 Dawson City Commercial Bonspiel (L to R) Laurie Sokolowsky, Alyssa Friesen, Me, and Gaby Sgaga

If nothing else, I now more fully appreciate the intricacies of the sport. Naturally, I knew there was considerable skill involved to reach the world-class level of curling competition you see on TV, but I never fully appreciated just how good those guys and gals really were until I slipped, slid, and stumbled through a bunch of games for myself. Although I’m a reasonably competent sweeper, my technique while shooting rocks, and understanding of the game, need a lot of work. I always thought getting my rocks off was a good thing, but now I know better. Nevertheless, it was great fun, and it turns out all those hours spent playing barroom shuffleboard were not wasted after all.

This winter, I also played for the Gold Diggers in the Dawson City Old Timers Hockey League. While I am no stranger to ice hockey, I did not actually take it up until adulthood, and am, frankly, lousy at it, despite being an above-average athlete in other sports. GoldDiggersLogoI quickly discerned that I am arguably the worst player in the Dawson league, but like to think I made up for a lack of skill with enthusiasm and hustle. It was the highest level of hockey competition I had ever faced personally, but playing twice weekly against better players makes for some great schooling. Certainly, by the end of the season, the game had slowed down for me from its blurred initial fast pace to something more mentally manageable — although then the playoffs began, and the speed picked up again.

If nothing else, I must have been a good luck charm for the guys, as our team went on to capture its first-ever Old Timers Championship, surviving a late rally by our opponents (the first-place-finishing Kings) to win 4-3 in the final game. The make-up of our team is quite diverse, representing a cross-section of Dawson citizenry, but hockey seems to be the great Canadian equalizer, and we have some seriously talented players whose enthusiasm for the game is as passionate as I’ve seen anywhere.

I am extremely grateful that the Diggers allowed an unskilled and middle-aged cheechako onto their squad. My only complaint is that the Dawson hockey arena has no ice making equipment, and as a consequence the natural ice makes for a short season — roughly mid-November to mid-March. Seems ironic to me to be living so near to the Arctic Circle, and yet not have it cold enough to play hockey in October and April.

The Dawson City Gold Diggers, 2013 2012-2013 Old Timers Hockey League Champions.

The Gold Diggers, 2012-2013 Dawson City Old Timers Hockey League Champions.

Not Letting Sleeping Blogs Lie

Last winter, when I had the pleasure and privilege of being the Writer-In-Residence at Berton House, I did regular blog posts about my impressions of Dawson City and northern life. Although I feel my journalism training served me well and my pieces were by-and-large accurate, they were, I now know, skewed by the season in which I was writing. Having subsequently had the opportunity to experience Dawson in Spring, Summer, and Fall as well, I do think there are a couple of addenda to my past blogs worth posting.

Addendum to Bellying Up to The Bars of Dawson City

Although I still retain my  fondness for The Pit, I was able to explore several other local drinking holes that were not open during the winter. I found that The Midnight Sun, which almost rivals The Pit for general charming scuzziness, offered Soul Sundays, with a great local band performing Soul/R&B classics on Sunday nights, resulting in much enthusiastic dancing. Alas, Soul Sundays, like so many things in Dawson, are now a thing of the past.

For those who enjoy patios, The Triple J, the Aurora Inn, and the Westmark Hotel offer outdoor decks during the Yukon’s short-lived patio season, with the latter overlooking a beautiful courtyard garden.

Bombay Peggy’s is preparing to close for the season.

My new favourite establishment, though, is Bombay Peggy’s. Maybe it’s because it reminds me a lot of some of the West Queen West bars I used to frequent in Toronto, or perhaps it’s the Klondike Bohemians that frequent the place, but I feel quite comfortable there. The building that houses Peggy’s is actually a former brothel, and the owners have converted it into a beautiful little boutique hotel that preserves an aura of Victorian naughtiness. Happy Hour on Fridays is especially popular, and Peggy’s periodically offers live music, usually featuring local musicians, who proliferate in Dawson City. After the bar closes for the season in November, it lends its name to ongoing Bombay house parties, which take up the slack during the dark days.

Addendum to Stick Me Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Speaking of which …. The winter darkness I was speculating about in my very first Yukon post did indeed take some getting used to, but the fact that there was still a handful of hours of light each day allowed for sense of normalcy. It was, in fact, a lot easier to get used to than the constant daylight I subsequently discovered in summertime. I never fully appreciated how important the arrival of darkness was to my daily routine. Without twilight, it makes it hard to know when to call it quits and start heading to bed if you’re, say, sitting in a bar, or working on a construction project. Once, on a drive back from Whitehorse, the setting sun was so in my face that I had trouble seeing the road … at  11:50 p.m. “Welcome to the Land of the #@%&! Midnight Sun,” I caught myself growling. The one thing I’ve learned about soldiering through both light extremes is that you have to actually clock watch, and use the time, rather than external cues, to structure your day.

Addendum to Dawson City Goes to the Dogs

My blog post on the Yukon Quest took place while that famous sled dog race was still in progress. Since then, I’ve come to truly appreciate just how ingrained the event is in the local collective unconscious, and even clued in as to what that diamond-shaped motif the dog on the logo is sporting means (it’s the pattern the dog harness makes). But what was truly amazing for me was the conclusion of the 2012 competition. Within sight of the finish line, leader Allen Moore was passed by Hugh Neff, who went on to win by 26 seconds. Think about it … here’s a race that went on for over a week, covering 1000 miles, and the time separating the top two finishers was less than a minute. Now, admittedly, that was the closest finish in the event’s 29 years, but it still boggles the mind.

Addendum to Ghost Town

When I wrote about the closed-up buildings that you’ll find throughout Dawson, I didn’t realize I’d be working in one. Last August, though, I got to participate in the Dawson Daily News Print and Publishing Symposium, which was held in the old Dawson Daily News building, now owned by Parks Canada, and graciously opened up by them for the occasion. While many locals came through because of the workshops and demonstrations that we held at the symposium, a fair number were also curiosity seekers wanting to see the inside of the old building, which had not generally been opened to the public before. Many of the vintage printing presses were also still on the premises, making us feel like a bit of living history.

Addendum to Cold Cuts

It was -35°C this morning. That’s pretty darned cold for early November, even by Yukon standards, but we humans are nothing, if not adaptable. The thing is, you know it’s going to be cold, so you just dress for it. However, during the summer, the Dawson weather was a lot harder to figure out. It flirted with 30°C a few times when I was visiting, meriting t-shirt and shorts, but in a matter of hours you might find yourself shivering. I saw meteorological mood-swings on several occasions of twenty degrees or so over the course of a day. I know there’s a lot of other places on Sol III that joke, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes,” but during the Klondike summers, they really do live by it.

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.

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.

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.