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.

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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.

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.

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

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.

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.