I want to tell you about our visit to the Yukon. If you’ve never been before, you need to go sometime. If you have, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s beautiful, fun, gritty, historic, saucy, sunny, enticing, enlightening, artsy, exhausting, yummy, enthusiastic… oh, I could go on and on! As the sign says, it’s “larger than life”.
This was my first trip to the Yukon, so I was wide open to its charms. We started in Whitehorse, which is a town of about 23,000 people and almost as many dogs, I think (including the sled dogs). The town became the Territory’s capital in 1953, taking it over from Dawson City. It is the Canadian end of the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest (the other end is in Fairbanks Alaska) – they alternate where the dog sled race starts each year. Any way you do it, though, it’s called one of the toughest races in the world.
People love it in the Yukon, or they leave. Whitehorse is cold in the winters (it has an average low temperature of -22C and a record low of -52.2C in January), and comfortably warm in summers (we saw mid-20C temperatures and sun, sun, sun). Right now, the days are very long, and in fact it never does get completely dark. That’s too bad, in a way, because it’s also a really nice place to see Northern Lights (but it has to be dark to see them….)
We did some Museum hopping while we were there, including the Transportation Museum, where we saw float planes and machines they used to build the Alaska Highway (amazingly, it only took them 7 months to build all 2700 kilometres of it from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction Alaska during WWII!!!). Outside this museum, which is right beside the airport, is a DC3 airplane mounted on a support that allows it to move around – this means that it is the largest weather vane in the world!!! A few years ago, it was “yarn bombed”, which was amazing.
Next to the Transportation Museum, there’s something called the Beringia Museum, about the land (mostly in Alaska, but some in the Yukon) that escaped the last Ice Age. There were the most incredible animals living on the grasslands! Huge bears, huge lions, and woolly mammoths, too!
This fellow was there to greet us at the centre.
That evening we went out to see a band playing at the Old Fire Hall. Yukon musicians have really come into their own in recent years, and it seems like a VERY active scene. I had heard that the daughter of a fiddle player and good friend I worked with in the late 80s was going to be singing that night. It was amazing to see and hear Kate Weekes playing jazz with her partner Grant Simpson and band, and hear her own songs about living in the North. The last time I saw her, I was playing marbles with her on the floor, and she was a lot shorter!!!
We only had a day in Whitehorse, but were coming back soon. We continued on north towards Dawson City. Of course, everything up here boomed when the Gold Rush in the late 1890s happened, and everybody in the world (it seemed) wanted to get to Dawson City. It’s now very much a tourist town, with only about 1300 permanent residents. In summer they have lots more. But, again, those who fall in love with it stay and make an amazingly welcoming community. I began to fall for it in the three days we were there.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of paved streets. Once you get off the highway, everything is gravel, and there are wooden boardwalks instead of paved sidewalks in front of people’s houses. The houses have old-fashioned fronts, and they are all built right on the ground. The permafrost is so close to the surface here, that they can’t build many basements; there are only a couple in town.
The buildings are brightly painted, and there’s a festive air about it all. Names like “Klondike Kate’s”, “Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Saloon”, and “Bombay Peggy’s”, hint at some really raucous and retro activities inside. They did not disappoint.
In fact, our first night there was quite memorable. We checked into the 5th Avenue bed and breakfast and met our hostess, Tracy. She suggested we might go to see the show at Gertie’s that night, as she was in it. She didn’t tell us SHE WAS GERTIE!!!
It was fun – lots of singing and there were four excellent dancers. She came around with a microphone, and we all sang along. Then two of the dancers came out to pick two men from the audience, and taught them how to do the can can dance on stage. Guess who they picked?
It was great fun, even when they gave him the dancer’s garter….
The next day I taught about 11 quilters a class in Mock Mola, and we did a concert in the Museum that night.
There’s something about long days at this time of year that gives you lots of energy. Although we are still almost a month away from the summer solstice, we’re so far north that it doesn’t get dark in Dawson at night. It means that 8pm looks like mid-afternoon, 10pm looks like dinner time and midnight looks like this:
We didn’t get to bed before midnight at all!
We started Saturday with a guided walking tour of town, complete with costumed helper. The Parks Canada people are really experienced, knowledgeable and fun!
We had time to visit the SS Keno, the last and smallest paddle-wheel steamer that plied the waters of the Klondike. There was a wonderful CBC television documentary shown aboard from the 60s, when it made its last voyage up to Dawson (down the Yukon River) from Whitehorse.
From there, we walked up the hill a bit to take a tour at the Robert Service cabin. It turns out that Service didn’t live in the Yukon during the Gold Rush, but afterwards he worked at the bank in Dawson. He heard a lot of stories about the old days, and spent his off-hours composing verses about them. One of the few poets in the world who became rich as well as famous, he retired to France after having worked for years as a bank teller. He never panned for gold, and he never lived rough. He was very self-deprecating and avoided the limelight, living in a small cabin with two rooms and rarely going to events held in his honour. And he never thought of himself as a proper poet.
We just had time to get back to the Palace Grand Theatre for a tour. It used to be the centre of the cultural life of Dawson in the early 1900s, but fell into disrepair when the boom times were over. The climate is not kind to buildings in the Yukon. When Parks Canada took it over in the 1960s, they had to rebuild the whole thing, including the foundation. It’s a lovely theatre, with lots and lots of stories. Backstage, all the actors have signed their names on the walls. I found a signature from Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion, if you remember), who was in the first show after the theatre re-opened
We were totally exhausted after this full day of walking! It was late afternoon, on the last day of our visit. We caught a quick nap, and kept going. We had been invited to a pot luck barbecue at the house where two Artists in Residence live. One is just about to leave, after two months in town, taking pictures and drawing every resident in town! There’s a huge arts community here, including filmmakers, writers (often visiting writers will live in Pierre Berton’s childhood home, which is now a writers’ retreat), painters, musicians, etc. It was great to meet some of them, and begin to understand their great enthusiasm for the place. It’s a very tight community. I actually met someone at this party who knew me 35 years ago in Ottawa! She’s been living in Dawson City for 28 years.
Not finished the day yet! We caught the second show (10:30pm) at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, featuring the other “Gertie”. There are three shows every night, each one getting raunchier as the audience gets more into drinking and gambling. This establishment is run by Parks Canada, too, and, although the gambling is real (roulette, slot machines, poker), all the proceeds go back into the community.
On our way home we stopped into see what was happening at Bombay Peggy’s Pub and “The Pit” – a “grungy-in-a-cool-way-but-I’d-never-go-in-there-by-myself” tavern with a great band fronted by an unassuming guy called “Harmonica George” who surely knows every song ever written.
We fell into bed at about 1am, exhausted, and drove back to Whitehorse the next day.
We have been seeing SO MUCH wildlife on these long drives. Lots of bears (black and grizzly), caribou, moose, a porcupine, ground squirrels, foxes and today we got into bison country. Never before in all our drives in Canada or out, have we seen so much. And the gorgeous views of mountains, lakes and trees are magnificent. I’ll leave you with one last view that took my breath away.
The trip continues. More later.