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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ghost Town

Having arrived at Dawson City in winter, I discover that I am living among ghosts.

The most noticeable of these are antique buildings that date from the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, an event which still defines this town’s spirit and collective unconscious over a century later. Formally designated a National Historic Site, and protected by stringent heritage laws, most of the old structures are immaculately preserved. Several carry museum-like window displays of tools and goods and signs dating from circa 1898, when Dawson City was the biggest Canadian city west of Winnipeg.

But Dawson’s current population is now barely a tenth of that size, and these buildings are unoccupied relics — empty shells whose spirit from a past life can only be glimpsed and viscerally felt. Like all ghosts, they merely give the illusion of being alive. Some are dopplegangers carrying vintage signs that proclaim them to be the Bank of British North America, or the Post Office, but where no actual business can be conducted. You have to go elsewhere in town, to the living places, to do that. On 3rd Avenue you’ll find an entire block of old structures — weathered, crooked, some teetering on the verge of collapse — which have been left that way on purpose, as a  dying testimonial to the potential hazards of building on permafrost.

Those empty heritage buildings, which are maintained by the Klondike Visitors Association, should not be confused with the businesses in town, many of which reside in equally old structures, that are sitting shuttered up at the moment. In winter, a great number of the local establishments, especially those that mine the summer tourist bonanza, shut down for the season, and their owners and workers migrate south to warmer climes — perhaps to Vancouver, or all the way to Mexíco. The population of Dawson plummets to a few hundred, turning it into a veritable ghost town compared to the manic, bustling days of summer, when visitors abound by the tens of thousands. Combine this wintertime exodus with sub-arctic temperatures that routinely dip below -30°C, and on a weekday it’s not uncommon to walk through parts of town during the few hours of precious daylight and not actually see anyone on the street. Oh, you can spot ethereal clouds of smoke wafting and shape shifting from chimneys, and you regularly pass a vehicle parked on the side of the road, its engine idling but no driver visible behind the wheel, but otherwise the avenues and sidewalks can often be eerily empty.

Then there are the classic ghosts. Every old town has them, or at least stories of them, but Dawson seems to have its disproportionate share. And it’s easy to imagine why. The Gold Rush brought a stampede of people to the Klondike, mostly poor and desperate, quite often ill-prepared for the hardships they encountered. If the harsh climate and brutal conditions didn’t kill you — if you didn’t die in a cave-in, or from rot-gut whiskey, or a gangrenous frostbitten limb, or gonorrhea, or go crazy from cabin fever — then the hustlers and claim-jumpers would probably do you in. Very few actually made their fortunes, and the bubble burst quickly, so it’s easy to understand why the local ghosts often are reported to appear like they’re gravely seeking something. Several places in town have a reputation for being haunted, among them Macaulay House, the billet for the Artist-in-Residence sponsored by the Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture (KIAC). The artist currently staying over the holidays has prior experience with Macaulay, however, and this time wisely brought along some of his dead father’s ashes as a talisman against the bothersome spirits.

As for my own place, well, if any dwelling could sustain a ghost story, it should be Berton House, a house of writers. The building creaks, and thumps, and sighs constantly, especially this time of year when the furnace and radiators are working full-out against the cold outside. But despite several comments about the noises recorded by past writers in the house journal, no one has yet to make any actual claims of spectral invaders. Nor will I. Once you get used to them, the noises are oddly comforting, especially when you consider how warm and cozy the place is compared to the icy menace that lurks outside its walls. No ghosts, then, but there is definitely a spirit — that of Pierre Berton, and the 50-odd writers who have used this place as a refuge, hoping for a speck or two of gold among the words that flow from our fingers.

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The Artic Circling

 Hawker-Siddeley 748 getting refueled in Old Crow

Our Hawker-Siddeley 748 awaiting refueling in Old Crow, Yukon

The first time I looked up Dawson City’s exact location on a map, having just received notice of my residency here, I was disappointed to discover that I would come out 200 km-or-so short of the Arctic Circle. Too bad, I told myself. If you’re going to have a northern experience, it would be nice to go for the gusto. Yesterday, however, that geographical shortcoming was neatly rectified thanks to Air North, the Yukon’s airline, and the weather.

Our venerable old Hawker-Siddeley 748 was on the final approach of its 80-minute run from Whitehorse to Dawson City, landing gear down, massive Rolls-Royce engines throttled back. I had a good view from my window seat, and having also had the benefit of flight training in my youth, was the first of the passengers to realize that something was amiss.

A snowstorm was swirling in the twilight around us, and I had been marveling earlier at how the pilots could land in those conditions. Whenever I managed to glimpse the ground, it showed mountainside remarkably close by, although I was more enthralled than nervous, totally trusting the skill of the ice pilots who routinely make this run year round. Then I heard the engines rev up to full power, watched the landing gear retract, and saw our nose lift. I knew we had aborted our landing attempt, but kept the news to myself. The fellow in the seat beside me had been uneasy enough about traveling in a 40-year-old prop plane in the first place, so I waited for the flight attendant to break the news over the intercom.

Our stop was only the first for this flight, which was also going on to Old Crow and Inuvit before looping back to Dawson City. We would just have to try again on the return leg, we were told, and hope the snow had stopped by then. So, this planned short final hop of my journey would turn out to take longer than my flight from Toronto to Vancouver and Vancouver to Whitehorse combined.

Airport in Old Crow, Yukon just before noon.

We were required to deplane at each of our stops. Old Crow is the northernmost town in the Yukon, and had a lovely small wooden airport terminal. It had been a balmy 0°C in Whitehorse when I’d arrived there the day before, but when I stepped out onto the windswept and ice-covered tarmac in Old Crow,  I got my first taste of true Arctic cold. Fortunately, I was wearing my parka, and had hat and gloves stuffed into its pockets, so I quickly bundled up for the 50-yard trek to the terminal. A couple of my fellow passengers had not anticipated needing cold-weather gear, and were noticeably frosty by the time they dashed into the terminal.

The building was quite busy with holiday travelers, mostly members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation making their way back to villages for Christmas. There was also some intense discussion going on in the corner of the room between three Mounties, and rumour was whispered that they were on the trail of some desperado, but we didn’t get to stay long enough to see any drama play out. We took off again into a gorgeous sunset — at 1:15 p.m.

Stuffed polar bear guarding the terminal in Inuvit, Northwest Territories

Stuffed polar bear guarding the terminal in Inuvit, Northwest Territories

Inuvit sits where the Mackenzie Delta empties out into the Beaufort sea, and with our arrival there I can now say that I’ve been to the Northwest Territories as well. The airport was surprising large and new (a testimony to the clout of the oil, industry I would learn later), but also gave some indication how important eco-tourism was to the local economy. A large stuffed polar bear also graced the terminal.

Finally we took off to return south. Word had been passed via cell phones that the snow had stopped, and our arrival was being anticipated. Needless to say, we were happy to finally make it to Dawson, landing amidst applause on a runway covered in snow.

So, as I write this, I am comfortably and happily ensconced at the lovely old wooden desk in Berton House, even if I am nursing a slight hangover from my first encounter with the Dawsonites yesterday evening. More to come later about my experiences here, but I just wanted to report that I’ve arrived safely, and am settling in for a happy, and very white, Christmas.

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