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Ship's whistle 'haunts' the Klondike ... again

With the 1957 completion of the North Klondike Highway, the death knell of the Yukon paddlewheeler had been sounded. Trucks, not ships, now supplied Dawson City, and returned laden with ore.

With the 1957 completion of the North Klondike Highway, the death knell of the Yukon paddlewheeler had been sounded.

Trucks, not ships, now supplied Dawson City, and returned laden with ore.

The dinner cruise potential for dozens of now-defunct Yukon paddlewheelers, unfortunately, was not front of mind in the late 1950s.

As a result, fleets of these now-iconic vessels were vigorously dismantled, graveyarded or mounted into permanent land-locked homes.

Fifty years later, it would take a modernized reproduction to once again recall the lost era of the paddlewheeler.

Dawson City’s Klondike Spirit paddlewheeler was originally conceived and built by Eagle residents Nick Turner and Charlie House.

House, a longtime boat builder and tour operator first linked up with Turner in 1997, when he was just a visiting Wisconsin businessman.

The next year, Turner brought up his wife Jean, and a partnership was sealed.

Researching paddlewheelers at night and building a boathouse during the day, it was four years until the pair had successfully laid the last rivet in their 27-metre, 400 HP vision.

In 2006, House and Turner triumphantly piloted the newly christened ship into Dawson City.

Brad Whitelaw was one of the many Dawsonites to gawk at the newly arrived ship.

“It just seemed to fit on the riverfront; that’s what we need is paddlewheel river boats,” said the general manager of Dawson’s Triple J Hotel, which now operates the Klondike Spirit.

Within months, House and Turner hoped to have the first passenger-carrying paddlewheeler on the Yukon River in half a century.

Transport Canada had other ideas.

While the Spirit matched up with US regulations, Transport Canada required new drawings and a new round of tests.

Meanwhile, as American citizens, House and Turner attracted the attention of Canadian Immigration.

“They were literally told, ‘Take your ship and go home,’” said Whitelaw.

Back in Eagle, with creditors ringing their phone off the hook, the financially-stressed House and Turner began laying plans for a 15,000-kilometre-long get-rid-of-paddlewheeler scheme.

The Spirit would be piloted into the Pacific Ocean, loaded onto a boat-transporting freighter, schlepped through the Panama Canal and sold in the Mississippi River.

“I went right over to the bank in Fairbanks, Alaska, and said, ‘Here’s another option,’” said Whitelaw.

“And without going through too much detail, we bought the ship,” he said.

Almost immediately, it started to rain red tape.

Dealing with two federal governments, a state government and the territorial government, certifying the Klondike Spirit soon became as complicated as obtaining a visa to Soviet-era Kazakhstan.

Getting a captain, it turned out, was the easy part.

Thanks to the recession, there’s actually a fair amount of employable riverboat captains.

“There’s a lot of mariners standing on the beach,” the Vancouver-based Seafarers and Mariner’s Guild told Whitelaw.

A former Faro worker checked the Vancouver union board, saw the posting, and was soon Dawson-bound.

“He makes the whole package ... he even took it upon himself to paint the ship,” said Whitelaw.

A typical tour includes a stop at Moosehide Village, where guests are brushed up on the First Nation side of the Klondike Gold Rush.

As gold miners, police officers, prostitutes and merchants swarmed into the traditional Han territory, the overwhelmed First Nation people fled to a downriver settlement.

Abandoned in the 1950s, Moosehide Village is now taking a stab at a minor renaissance.

The Spirit then chugs its way over to the Sternwheeler Graveyard, where the gleaming ship can thumb its nose at the rotting corpses of its predecessors.

While the S.S. Klondike and the S.S. Keno paddlewheelers found new homes as landlocked tourist attractions, five others were pulled onto a riverbank just north of Dawson and left to decay.

A pile of rotting boards and machinery is all that remains.

The Klondike Spirit, unlike its gold-shipping contemporaries, is a brand-new ship, so it’ll last forever,” said Whitelaw.

Built entirely of steel, however, when the Spirit’s number comes up, its decay will be brought about by rust, rather than wood rot.

After the graveyard, the Klondike Spirit then begins its slow journey upstream.

Managing a speed of only three to four knots against the powerful current of the Yukon River, “it’s really kind of romantic,” said Whitelaw.

Rapidly whirling blades, apparently, have a certain romantic quality to them, as well.

“Couples seem to stand a little closer to each other on these trips,” he said.

The “haunting” echo of the ship’s whistle can be heard as far away as the Midnight Dome, added Whitelaw.

The whistle blows at 6 p.m. (when they leave) and 8 p.m (when they return).

A young Dawson boy told Whitelaw that with the whistle’s first blast, he knows his dad is coming home from work. With the second blast, he knows it’s time for bed.

Unlike its turn-of-the-(last)-century predecessors, the Klondike Spirit did away with steam power, opting instead for diesel.

Nevertheless, the diesels are scaled down to 40 revolutions per minute, said Whitelaw.

“It’s really fairly quiet, and it almost sounds like a steam engine as well,” he said.

Paddlewheeler junkies will note the ship’s unorthodox side-wheel configuration.

Yukon riverboats, or sternwheelers, were traditionally propelled by a large, rear cylinder-shaped paddle.

For the Spirit, builders opted for the easy maneouverability of twin, side-mounted paddles, more susceptible to damage, but a smoother ride and faster.

By spinning the paddles in opposite directions, the boat can also turn on a dime.

Slow-moving and stable, paddlewheelers remains one of the least spilly methods of hosting a dinner cruise.

For food, Whitelaw took a gander at the paddlewheeler menus of yesteryear.

“They would have vegetables from Maisy Mae (Creek) - so I’m getting locally grown vegetables to offer,” he said.

Not a lot of locally produced food and drink comes out of Dawson, but Whitelaw was also able to stock his larders with Klondike Vodka, Yukon-roasted coffee and birch syrup.

The ship is also establishing itself as the city’s only floating venue for live music.

On the Monday night after the Dawson City Music Festival, the Klondike Spirit hosted Shawnigan Lake, BC’s Johnny and the Moon.

Having already played the 110-year-old Palace Grand Theatre, the Spirit perfectly rounded out the band’s weekend slate of old-style venues.

Contact Tristin Hopper at