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.