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.

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Dawson City Goes to the Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuikon Quest musher's camp at West Dawson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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