Travel article about Alaska and Yukon on

I recently found out about a new journalism site,, being set up by Montreal-based reporter and editor Warren Perley. After checking out this new delivery model – readers pay only for the stories they want to read, and there’s no advertising – I was intrigued. Enough so to get in touch and offer to write something on spec, which I’ve never done before!

There are some great articles (with photos) by Canadian journalists and writers available, including:

  • Duane Radford’s “Yukon Discovery Day in Dawson: singing, dancing and a barrel of fun”
  • Warren Perley’s “Little Albert’s whacky world of bullets, beatings and bad guys”
  • Margaret Somerville’s “Ethics and law governing abortion must catch up with current science”

And, of course, mine: “Quirky, colourful characters emerge in winter tour of Yukon and Alaska.” A little teaser…

A September snowstorm blew in the day we arrived in Whitehorse. Other tourists were fleeing as we arrived. Were we foolhardy ‘outsiders’ tempting Mother Nature’s mood swings with a three-month car tour of the frigid North? The road sign as you enter the Yukon reads, ‘Larger than Life’. We discovered that it refers to more than the scenery!

Charlotte Gray Comes to Edmonton!

Me and Charlotte Gray after her talk in Edmonton
I was absolutely thrilled to learn that Charlotte Gray, my CanHist hero, was going to be in Edmonton this week as a guest of LitFest and STARFest. Last Saturday night she spoke at the St. Albert library to a room full of fans – one of the most responsive audiences I’ve ever encountered, in fact. They made all the appropriate noises at all the appropriate times during her presentation, and it was obvious they were smitten with her and her works.
The book up for discussion that night was her latest, Gold Diggers, which was published last year by HarperCollins Canada. I happily bought my copy for her to autograph, and it actually comes at the perfect time (which, I find, is often the case with books).  I just dove into my gold-rush-era material for my book on northern aviation – there was a balloon ascension in Dawson City in 1899 – so her tome will provide great background and description. Of course I’ll still get out Pierre Berton’s Klondike (after all, there’s supposed to be a mention of the ascension in it), but it’s great to have a more recent, socially-balanced tome to work with.
It was wonderful to finally meet Charlotte in person. She called me last November after I had Skyped-in to the Berton House Gala fundraiser in Toronto from Dawson. And we shared the same space at different times in Berton House, of course (and I made sure to put my book next to hers on the bookshelf!). But to get the chance to chat for a few minutes and shake her hand was, well, a highlight in this young historian’s life.
Thanks, Charlotte, for continuing to convince Canadians their history is interesting and relevant, and for embracing the filth, messiness, lace, and rubber boots of the past. 

Berton House Top Ten

It’s that time of year. The time of year when magazines, tv shows, internet sites, and everyone else make top ten lists. So I will too. About my time up north (although it’s very hard to pick just ten!).

Here they are in no particular order:
1. Working, reading, watching tv, chatting, and napping at Berton House on the sectional snuggled up in the HBC blanket.
2. Experiencing ice fog in minus 40-degree weather in Dawson. Yep, I’m a little strange.
3. Doing the sourtoe cocktail with friends at the Dowtown bar in Dawson.
4. Going curling in Inuvik and hanging out in the curling club post-game. Best place in town on a Friday night!

5. Hiking up Dome Mountain in Dawson in December – and then sliding down on my backside!

6. Finding out I had family in Whitehorse and getting to spend great times with them. Thanks so much, Judy, Bruce, Ben, and Charlie!
7. Hanging out at Bombay Peggy’s and being there for close-down on November 10th!
8. Doing old-timey portraits with the gals in Dawson: Easy-laine, Diamond Tooth Sandy, and Jailbait Jenny. Oh yeah, and I’m Dawson Dani (the one with the gun).

9. Visiting Old Crow and getting to attend a community feast. Such a friendly town and glad I got the chance to go twice!
10. Skagway, AK in September: delicious food, good hiking, and seeing that the Sarah Palin store actually exists!

Hike on Dome Mountain

With a week till I leave Dawson and the temperature at a balmy -15 Celsius, I decided yesterday I would climb Dome Mountain one more time.

I’d climbed the Dome twice before. Once with Doug when we first arrived in the Yukon in late September. It was -10 degrees, sunny, and there was just enough snow to make the powerline trail treacherous. The second time was late October. That time I took the road, which was slick, and didn’t bring any snacks or water. An hour and a half in I decided to pack it in. But I memorized all the shortcuts…

This time I was prepared and had a plan. With a thermos of hot chocolate and snacks in my backpack, dressed in layers, with a lightweight hat/gloves for the way up (and heavy hat/gloves for the way down), I was determined to make it to the top.
I took the 9th Ave trail up to Crocus Bluff, then took the road to the first cut through (next to the creepy abandoned cabins). Somewhere around Pierre Berton Cr. two dogs joined me and escorted me all the way to the top, when they disappeared just as suddenly as they’d appeared.

It was snowing lightly the whole time – we’ve been getting a lot of snow here lately – and I realized how much had been accumulating as I made my way up the road. The first 1/3 was completely plowed. The middle section had about 2-3 inches on it. But when I got to the last leg, I wished I’d packed some snowshoes: there was at least half a foot of snow to trudge through.

I was determined, though, and even with hips and calves burning I made it. After a final sprint up the mound to the ice-encrusted bench, I drank my hot chocolate and surveyed my home for the past few months.
Then I started picking my way down the face of the hill toward the powerline trail. This time, however, it had enough fresh powder on it to cover all the sharp, stabby bits I’d been afraid of in September. So I let momentum take over from time to time, grabbed the bottom of my parka tight around my legs, and embraced the great Canadian winter pastime of bum-sledding!

Back on the 9th Ave trail I waved hello at the Parks Canada guys working on Robert Service’s cabin, opened the door to Berton House – my house these past three months – and smiled with satisfaction.
Then I had a nap for two hours.

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:

Beaming into the Berton House Gala

When technology works it’s a glorious thing.

No, the Writers’ Trust of Canada hasn’t managed to snag a Star Trek teleporter, but they did use Skype to successfully beam me all the way from Dawson onto a 15-ft screen at the Berton House Gala in Toronto last night – which, if you’ve had any experience with Skype, is nothing short of incredible.

Apparently I came in loud and clear to the host, Vicki Gabereau (below), and the 200-odd attendees. And I could hear Vicki great too, but it was really eerie not being able to see anyone while I was up there on the big screen…
I was pretty nervous leading up to my interview, even if it was only to last a few minutes. After all, I used to watch Vicki’s talk show all the time in university and have always admired her. I’d also heard I’d be following a slideshow by Charlotte Gray about her time in Dawson and her recently released book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. Gulp…no pressure, eh?
I don’t actually recall much of what I said – which is often the case when adrenaline and nerves are at play – but near the end I did gather my thoughts enough to give a shout-out to my wonderful mentor Dr. Desmond Morton (sketched below), who was in attendance. And I mentioned that I’d carefully squeezed my book in next to Charlotte’s on the Berton House bookcase. Dorky, but true… and something about snowpants, I think. Double dorky.
The amazing thing is a few minutes after I signed off with Vicki my phone rang. And it was Charlotte on the line! Again, I was so starstruck I don’t really remember what she said, but I’m pretty sure the phone call actually took place.
They also let me hang out on Skype afterwards, and I listened to a recording of Pierre Berton reciting Robert Service’s poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and David Warrack on the piano entertaining folks as they mingled after the program was done. It was quite magical, and if the people physically there enjoyed themselves half as much as I did virtually, the night was a smash success.

(Thank you Elsa, Nigel, Joel and the other folks who made my skype attendance possible!)

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.

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!

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.