Yukon’s northern charms hard to resist

The Edmonton Journal featured an article about the Yukon in its Saturday travel section and a friend forwarded it to me. Of course I couldn’t resist writing in! My letter was published today (but the photo’s my little blog addition):

Edmonton Journal December 7, 2010

Re: “Yukon’s northern charm beckons; Newcomers thrill to area’s rich history,” The Journal, Dec. 4.

I got a real kick out of reading Andrew Renton’s travel piece at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, after several days of 40 below weather.


I arrived in the Yukon Sept. 23 just as a blizzard moved into the territory. Tourist season was definitely over: The SS Klondike was dry-docked; the White Pass railway was shutting down; and many spots from Whitehorse up to Dawson were boarded up, their owners having gone “outside” for the winter.

Now that I’ve been here for three months as writer-in-residence at Pierre Berton’s childhood home, I feel I’m halfway between the “Cheechako” and “Sourdough” Renton talks about. I’m still excited by the Air North service and food, and now I know the de-planeing drill for refuelling on the “milk run” between Whitehorse, Dawson, Old Crow, and Inuvik (and use the “seat taken” slip like a pro).

I’ve seen the Yukon River freeze up and gone to Bombay Peggy’s for season close down. I’ve done the Sourtoe Cocktail, driven part of the Dempster Highway in whiteout conditions, and spent a night at Muktuk Adventures being serenaded by 130 huskies. So far the aurora borealis have been elusive, but I’m hopeful I’ll catch a glimpse before I leave: with sunrise at 11 a.m. and sunset at 3:30 p.m., there is plenty of night sky to scan.

While I’m looking forward to being in Edmonton in time for the holidays, I’m already planning a visit back “up here” next year. These northern charms are hard to resist!

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, Dawson City, Yukon

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

Read more: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Yukon+northern+charms+tough+resist/3936945/story.html#ixzz17RVPcqrP

Dawson Walkabout

I love to walk, and since arriving in late September I’ve tried to get out and explore the town of Dawson (and environs) on foot as much as possible.

Heading out my door and across Eighth Ave I can join up with the 9th Avenue Trail behind Robert Service’s cabin, which links up to the Crocus Bluffs trail and up to the cemeteries on the hill. Apparently here you need to watch your step, as this sign indicates: “Please watch for open holes on fence line.” Gotta plan ahead for the tourists (and writers-in-residence) that don’t make it through the winter, I guess…
If you don’t fall into an early grave, you can continue up Dome Road past side roads named for famous locals: Pierre Berton, Dick North, and Jack London among others.

Back in town you might end up in the alleyway between Second and Front St. where the recycling depot is. I love how the sign says it’s closed holidays and -40…
Further down Front St. there’s the Anglican Church looking out over the river. You might stop in here at the thrift shop on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, but other days you’ll just carry on, eyeing the ravens perched on rooftops, streetlights, and cleaning up after recess at the schoolyard. They seem pretty docile, but if you’re anything like me you will think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when you see more than two together.
Crossing over the dyke, constructed around the river to protect the town from seasonal flooding, you always find surprises. With so many artists and students in town for KIAC and SOVA there are sometimes rocks painted blue, red wine designs in the snow (with the bottle in the middle), or various other artistic offerings. I like this snow couple and their house the best so far.
If you need to warm up, the SnakePit in the Westminster Hotel is a good place, especially in the early evening Thursday-Saturday when Barnacle Bob is pounding out tunes on the piano (often accompanied by guitar and fiddle). But it opens at 9am, so you can pretty much drop in any time!

As you head north out of the Snakepit (if you happen to be there during daylight hours), you might stumble upon this piece of Robert Service wisdom… something to contemplate for the chilly walk home.

Northern Beards, Moustaches, and Movember

The Yukon has a long, distinguished history of bearded men. Images of hairy-faced fellas abound from the gold-rush era. There were many good reasons to grow a beard in those days: warmth, protection from the elements, plus it was a good place to stash gold nuggets…

Flash-forward to the 1940s and well-coiffed moustaches were the rage across the Western world. But ‘up here’ men were encouraged to grow a beard to support the “Days of ’98” winter carnival. In the January 10, 1947 edition of the Whitehorse Star the following rules were shared:

1. Beards must appear below the mouth from January 1 to February 23, 1947.
2. Age limit: All men under 50 years of age must grow a beard.
3. All personnel in uniform are exempted due to regulations beyond our control.
4. All ministers are exempt.
5. All individuals handling food products are exempt.
6. Any others desiring exemption must present their case to the committee.

Part of this ‘encouragement’ was a Kangaroo Court – later the Keystone Kops – who went around trying and fining men without the requisite facial hair. Now the “Days of ’98” festival has been replaced by the Sourdough Rendezvous each February in Whitehorse, but a beard-growing contest continues to be popular with the 20,000-odd folk who attend each year (and apparently non-bearded men can still be “fined”).

While it may be well into the negative numbers on the thermometer, many men north of 60 are foregoing their beards this month in support of Movember, a fundraiser and awareness-raiser for prostate cancer. Begun in Australia in 2003 over a few beers (go figure!) the campaign has spread like wildfire across the world and last year over 1 million donors raised $47 million for the cause.

On my recent trip back to Inuvik, NWT I was reunited with several friends – most of whom usually rock a beard or clean-shaven look. Team Meximo could possibly be the most northern Movember team in the world, and it is certainly one of the most colourful. Each decided to embrace a different stereotypical mustache and in this shot they had ‘enhanced’ their Mo’s with mascara to intimidate their curling opponents.

They won their game, and hopefully their efforts will help researchers win the battle against prostate cancer, the type of cancer that affects men the most.

I proudly support the Movember campaign as a Mo Sista and encourage you to as well either by donating, fundraising yourself, or pasting on a moustache for a night of awareness-raising.

And while I can’t enter the Sourdough Rendezvous’s beard competition (despite local rumours after I won a beard trimmer for my cousin at the museum auction), there’s always the lady’s hairy leg contest…

Doing the Mighty Sourtoe

Dawson may be known for the Klondike gold rush, Jack London, Robert Service, and Pierre Berton. But it has another claim to fame – the Sourtoe Cocktail – and last night I was inducted into the club as member #39600.


After dinner at the Drunken Goat we ambled over to the Downtown Hotel, home of the Sourtoe. We sidled up to the bar and announced to the bartender, a lovely aussie lady, that we were there for the toe. After steeling us with a round of liquid courage, our barkeep went into the backroom and emerged with a medium-sized wooden box. From that box, she removed a large dessicated toe from a jar of coarse-grain salt. And she put it on a napkin on the bar. In front of us.
We all looked at this salt-encrusted toe for a moment, remarking that it looked like a large dried date. Except if you looked closely you could see the toenail (my advice – don’t look closely). The next step: selecting our liquor. It has to be over 40 proof and tradition dictated Yukon Jack, so that’s what we did. Also, since it’s 80 proof we figured we were twice as safe!

The other rule? The toe must touch your lips!

Elaine went first since she was desperate to get ‘er done and over with. With a swift movement of the wrist she downed her shot and kissed the toe in one go. She was officially in the club!

Next up was Sandra – our friend’s mother – who had just arrived in Dawson the day before. Our bartender removed the toe from Elaine’s glass and placed the now-glistening appendage back on a napkin. Now it looked more like a sundried-tomato straight from the jar. Nevertheless, this farmer-rancher and liquor store owner from Alberta did us all proud. Another one joins the club!

Finally it was my turn. Glass of Yukon Jack in hand, toe in glass, audience in place I gulped it down, feeling the giant toe hit my lips (which were closed as tightly as possible since I’d heard one guy swallowed a past smaller toe!). Putting the glass down on the bar with authority, I tipped the Downtown Dick hat at my friends: I was now part of the club as well.

I’m still not sure what it is about humans that nearly 40,000 people would pay good money and travel to Dawson to do such a strange ritual. I know many folks think it’s ridiculous. And it is. But it’s fun – so join the club!

Battening Down the Hatches at Bombay Peggy’s

When I first came to Dawson in late September and scoured the town for hangouts, Bombay Peggy’s floated to the top of the list. Don’t get me wrong, the Billy Goat, Downtown, Eldo and the Pit are fun, but Peggy and I became fast friends.


Maybe it’s the sense of history, or the original art on the walls, or the great bar staff. Maybe it’s the proximity to KIAC, making it a natural gathering place for avant- and apres-shows. Or maybe it’s the martini menu – “the sassiest in town” – with names that make hardened miners blush.

In addition to finding new hangouts, I felt it was important to establish a few goals when I first came to Dawson. Chief among these was trying each of these cocktails, except for the “Bloomer Remover” since my palate has not yet been able to distinguish between a gin martini and nail polish remover.

Steadily over days and weeks I worked toward my goal, encouraged on my journey by various new friends. By last night, the close-down-for-the-season party at Peggy’s, I was to have tried them all. As the good people of Dawson and environs crowded into the cozy space, though, the liquor ran dry and my goal remains just out of reach: I never had the Flagrante Delicto.

It was hard to be too disappointed, though, surrounded as I was by friends at one of the biggest cold season whoop-ups of the region. There were the writers and artists, the nurses and doctors, the mining explorers, and one ponytailed guy in a sheepskin vest dancing to beat the band. Server and sometimes burlesquer Rachel Wiegers (who was profiled in this month’s Up Here magazine) was in her fish-netted finest. There was a general atmosphere of good ol’ fashioned fun.

I heard rumours that at least one person stuck in West Dawson during this extended freeze-up called upon the services of Trans North Helicopters for an airlift to the party!

I’ll miss Peggy and my other new friends – some of whom are leaving town this weekend – but I know I’ll be back. After all, I still have one martini to go!

Doing it All in Inuvik

Flying from Old Crow to Inuvik I managed to snag a window seat away from the wing, but it was an overcast day so I wasn’t able to glimpse the scenery below too often. When I did, somewhere over the border between the Yukon and the NWT, it looked pretty unforgiving and I couldn’t help but think of some of the crash stories I’d been hearing during my research.

When I landed at Inuvik airport I felt a bit “bushed” – which people warned me I might feel after 2 months in wintertime Dawson. But after two days in Old Crow? But sure enough, the sight of a luggage carousel in the airport and the hustle and bustle of an airport with multiple flight agents and a restaurant, was a little overwhelming.

Luckily Kyle Kisoun Taylor of Up North Tours came to pick me up (along with his adorable daughter), and they whisked me off to my hotel. Having no idea what to expect at the Nova Inn at the edge of town, I was very impressed with the room and the common area. A word to the wise, though: call them directly for their $99 rate – it’s a minimum of $135 if you book online from what I could see.

Before I left the airport, however, Kyle’s friend Chris appeared looking for someone to sub for a curling game that evening. Kyle, with a daughter in arms and baby at home, had a very good excuse not to. Me, the unsuspecting writer fresh of the plane? No excuse at all, especially when I was informed that this curling team was made up of pilots and that I would be blocked from interviewing unless I played. Blackmail? Maybe. Did I play? Darn right. Anything for my research!

We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose too badly, and by the time I had my ‘loser’s beer’ in hand, I was chatting with folks from Gwich’in Helicopters and Aklak Air. I also got a grand tour of the Inuvik nightlife with my new friends: the Shivers Lounge, the legendary Mad Trapper Pub, and then on to someone’s house. I got home long after the carriage turned into a pumpkin but luckily Inuvik has a thriving taxi service and you can get anywhere in town for only $5!

The next evening my new friends invited me over for the best northern-mexican fusion meal ever: moose burritos with home-made tortillas and salsa. I got to help grind up the moose meat, which the boys had hunted last spring. They’d just bagged another one and so it was time to make some room in the freezer. Glad to help by filling my hollow leg!

After learning I’d never been hunting or driven the Dempster Highway before, I was invited to join in another adventure on Sunday. When we left Inuvik it was about 9am and still twilight but relatively clear.

There were six of us piled into Kylik’s extended cab truck and we pulled a trailer with a skidoo and tobaggan in case they bagged something big. As you can see, we also had a couple of spare tires, spare gas, along with hunting paraphenalia. The Dempster is one of Canada’s most scenic drives, but also one of its most treacherous. Just ask the folks on Ice Road Truckers.


A few hours into the drive, one of the reasons for this was apparent: the speed and ferocity of weather systems moving between mountain passes. We went from clear weather to a few flakes to outright whiteout conditions with 100km/hr gusts. Like the caribou, moose, and other big game, we decided to escape the weather.

A few hours later we were back in the outskirts of Inuvik and the weather was overcast but pretty warm. We decided to stretch our legs at this recreation spot and possibly sight some dinner. No such luck. After a short snowmobile ride and hike up a hill I was presented with my next Inuvik challenge, though: shoot my first gun.

Growing up in the wilds of suburban Ottawa, I’d never had the need or opportunity (or desire, for that matter). I went to the library, the mall, the bowling alley – not the shooting range. Even when I lived in Wyoming I didn’t practice my right to bear arms. But when hanging out in Inuvik you do as the Inuvialuit do, and when someone hands you a 12-gauge shotgun, you shoot it. (For the record, I kind of liked it even though it was very loud, the retort against my cheek hurt, and I could barely lift it. But look at me: I’m rambo-barbie!)

My final morning in town I was treated to a tour of the Gwich’in Helicopters base, which was really neat. A partner of Yellowknife-based Great Slave Helicopters, Gwich’in mostly serves oil and gas interests in the region but is often called for medevac and other operations.

I also got to see some of the town’s most recognizable landmarks, like the igloo church built in 1960.
I didn’t see any dog teams in town, but folks had already started driving their skidoos on the roadsides It was early October. Oh, and -21 with the windchill the morning I left. I can only imagine what it’s like during their roughly 30 days of darkness in December but this Tropicana commercial helps to paint a picture…

This may be a bit of a rough, frontier town, but if you can fall into the right hands you will have no shortage of northern hospitality. A good first bet: call Kylik and tell him I sent you!

A New Soul in Old Crow

On Wednesday, October 13th, after a day and a half to do laundry and regroup in Dawson, I repacked my bag and headed out. Destination: Old Crow, the Yukon’s only fly-in community.

Old Crow is not a hub of tourism. The group of us staying at Patti and Kenny’s Ch’oo Deenjik Accommodations was pretty indicative of those that come to the Yukon’s most northern community: there was me, a writer-researcher; Jeannie and Allen, early-childhood educators/entertainers from Whitehorse; and Joanne, who was in town teaching a session on videoconferencing.

I had never been to Old Crow before, but a quick look at Googlemaps convinced me I should probably bring some of my own grub. There was not going to be a Starbucks here! And while they do have a store in town, the cost of goods is so prohibitive (at least double the prices in southern centres, according to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) that I was very happy to ration my granola bars, soup, and other foodstuffs.

A hike in sub-zero temperatures is probably not the best idea when you’re on rations, but I felt very much out of my element when I first arrived in this remote community, and I often find going for a walk is a good way to settle in. So I left the warmth of the cabin and headed out past the end of the runway, and up a long, long road.
Along the way I passed all manner of cabins, signs, and animal tracks. This was my favourite, though – really brought me back to my grad school work at UBC, and the ongoing politics of contact relations. But the Yukon is a whole other context, and I’m learning by the seat of my pants… luckily I’ve been getting good guidance from the folks at the Vuntut Gwitchin FN (and hopefully soon the Tr’ondek Hwech’in FN here in Dawson).
A view from the top of Old Crow’s “end of the road.” You can see why the Vuntut Gwitchin call themselves the People of the Lakes. You can also see one of the most important waterways of the region, the Porcupine River snaking beyond. During my trip I heard stories of tens of thousands of animals from the Porcupine Caribou herd fording this river, but this year the herd has veered from its normal course and meat has been scarce.

Near the top of the road, though, I did come across a man who had just caught a straggler. We had a good chat and I was so impressed with how quickly he field-dressed and loaded the animal onto his ATV (which is the main mode of transpo in Old Crow aside from boats in summer and snowmobiles in winter). He did tell me, though, that a grizzly had been spotted in the area and I really shouldn’t be up there without a gun.

Good to know. And time to high-tail it down the hill before Mr. Grizzly got scent of all that caribou blood!
The next day the sunny, relatively warm ‘fall’ weather (by northern standards) turned cold. Very cold. The kitchen heater in the cabin struggled to pump warmth into the bedrooms and midway through the night I decided to abandon privacy and open my door. And pile on the extra blankets…

Noon on an overcast, fall day.
The quality of the light “up here” continues to fascinate me.
As does the artistry of hoar frost.


During breaks from research at the John Tizya cultural centre, I wandered around, watching the river as it gelled in the cold.

I’d heard stories about northern communities supporting Pepsi and Coke products almost single-handedly. Here is one load of drinks coming in on the Air North plane (No pop for me, though: a can at the store cost $4 from what I heard). Soon my Old Crow diet was done and I was on the plane bound for Inuvik, with a great appreciation for this lovely community, its history, and its hospitality.

I really hope I get back soon.

[for more photos, check out fellow blogger http://www.michaelsmeanderings.com/]

Travels in the Borderlands

I left Whitehorse for Watson Lake on Sunday, October 3rd – a perfect fall day by any standard. Driving down the Alaska Highway with the sun on my face, rocking out to my mixed CDs (not many radio stations along this stretch of road), life was good.

I was headed to WL for a few days of northern aviation research. I had a list of names, a B&B; booked, and a vague idea of visiting the airport. Beyond that, this usually over-prepared author was playing it fast and loose. Oh god, I’m starting to go northern!

I wasn’t prepared for how lovely the Laffing Loon Bed and Breakfast would be: right on the lake with lots of room to spread out and make myself at home. Deb, the owner, and her little Bichon Frise were so welcoming, and I feasted each morning on her magnificent creations (and even one evening when she shared her batch of clam chowder with me!).

After the 4 1/2 hour drive from Whitehorse it was nice to walk around the property and stretch my legs. Then I went further afield, heading up the road where I just happend to spot a sign for a floatplane base. I would soon discover that WL is just like that: you trip over the aviation history there constantly!

The next day was beautiful as well and I crammed in as many interviews and visits as I could, finally finishing at sunset. Then I folded myself onto a lazy boy in the B&B;’s media room and watched a thriller about a writer who goes to a retreat and ends up being terrorized by ghosts… hmmm…. maybe not the best choice of movie for a writer headed up to a lonely retreat?

The time flew by in WL and before I knew it I was driving back northwest through wet snow with a notebook full of scratched-down interviews, leads for the rest of my time in the Yukon, and a couple of muffins from Deb’s oven. After a rainy-snowy drive to Teslin and a long coffee stop in the Yukon Motel with a local aviation enthusiast, I dropped on my cousin’s couch in Whitehorse.

Music of the Northland

Since coming to the Yukon I’ve been lucky to meet and hear some fantastic musicians. It may be a small territory population-wise, but it’s big on talent in this writer’s humble opinion.

I met Gerald Edzerdza (on right) in Watson Lake when I interviewed him for my book on northern aviation. It turns out another of his loves is making music and this spry 80-year-old regularly travels for fiddling competitions and concerts. He gave me a copy of a CD – The Tahltan Fiddler, Vol. 2 – and it is toe-tapping fun! To order your copy you can write to him: Box 333, Watson Lake, YT Y0A 1C0.

My next musical encounter was in the Whitehorse Airport one chilly morning. I was on my way to Dawson, and this fellow was on his way to Old Crow as part of a series of house concerts (these are quite popular in the Yukon, apparently). We made half-caffeinated small talk and went on our way.

The next time we met was in the airport at Old Crow as I was arriving and he was waiting to board the plane back to Whitehorse. Turns out he is Charlie d’Acourt, who won top entertainer at last year’s Music Nova Scotia Awards (and with good reason). His latest album, Bring on the Storm (2006), is an amazing collection of bluesy tunes (with a Maritime twist) that remind me of Jonny Lang in their emotional intensity.

This weekend, back in Dawson and under a full moon, I headed to the Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture (KIAC) to listen to Whitehorse rockabilly band, Sasquatch Prom Date.

It quickly became apparent that sitting still was not an option. Their infectious energy, fun original tracks (I Lost My Gal in the Yukon, Hillbilly Highway…), and great covers of classic tracks, got me up and boogie woogie-ing with my new friends from Dawson and beyond.
There were all manner of get-ups, a photographer on hand to take ‘prom photos,’ and a king and queen crowned (above). My favourite costume, I think, was one woman who had curlers in her hair, a face mask, and slippers on her feet. And then there were all the guys in pastel ruffled-front shirts!
Unfortunately I’d left my prom dress at home, but I did my best, trying to channel Olivia Newton-John in the later scenes from Grease: blue jeans, black shirt, big hair, and lots of makeup. Oh, and a touch of animal print (which coordinated great with the band’s guitar straps!).
Last night, though, while listening to DJ Whitebread Soundwave at the Billy Goat Pub during the “Denim Dance Party” I donned my denim mustache with pride. I felt like I was channeling my inner Hercule Poirot (Now, where is my bowler hat??).

Like I said, it’s a small place, but it’s mighty grand!

Shacking it Up at Berton House

Upon my arrival in Dawson I realized I didn’t actually have the address for Berton House handy. A quick tour of town would surely reveal it, I thought. First stop: front street. Looking out over the Yukon River I thought I spied a cozy cabin. Maybe this was it? But how to get to it….?

Then I found this handsome hovel in the middle of town with a built-in cat door, and we all know Pierre Berton loved his cats. And there was an empty bottle of Smirnoff on the front “porch,” and writers are known to like a drinky-poo from time to time to get the ol’ words flowing…


Finally up on Eighth Ave I found the real Berton House! I guess the signs and plaque on the wall should have been a dead giveaway? We writers aren’t the most observant people, I guess…


When I returned to Dawson after my travels to Old Crow and Inuvik there was a goodly amount of snow on the ground, just wet enough to hold together. I present to you: P’tit Pierre, my backyard sentinel… and the raven’s haven’t even stolen his nose yet!

The front bedroom has been converted into an office with a large oak desk (c. 1900). It may not be 100% ergonomically-correct, but it’s got history. There’s a nice big window facing onto the backyard and with tourist season done I don’t have to worry about people gawking at me in my ‘work clothes’ (read: pyjama pants)!

Lots of great reading spots throughout the house for devouring the large library of northern books. This sectional is my fave so far and I love snuggling under the big HBC blanket while I’m reading Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail. Not only is it great reading, but useful too: did you know raw meat is an anti-scorbutic? Forget the oranges and pass me some Maktak!


There’s even enough space for me to do yoga in the living room, but I also discovered yesterday they offer classes in the Downtown Hotel three times a week. Nothing says ‘Namaste’ like going straight to the bar after forward bends!
© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.