The Klondike International Outhouse Race, I am told, has run its course. Can this be true? What a shame if it is. The race has been a unique contribution to the annual cycle of events offered in Dawson City.
The first outhouse race took place in Dawson in 1977. Two years earlier, the Dawson town council struck a jubilee committee to come up with ideas to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the incorporation of the Klondike capital in 1902. They decided to celebrate the birthday all year long.
The Eldorado Hotel donated $500 to fund four dog teams to do the Dawson to Eagle, Alaska, mail run. The commissioner sanctioned a repeat of the Commissioner’s Ball. Support was given by CP Air and other transportation companies. A homecoming was proposed for September.
By January of 1977, the jubilee committee had grabbed hold of an idea suggested by Karl Crosby, then the head of tourism and information, to hold an outhouse race. The rules were quite simple: someone had to sit inside, while a set number of runners pushed — or pulled — their outhouse around a course through the streets of Dawson. He stipulated that no government campground outhouses could be used.
The date for the race was set for the Labour Day weekend. There would be a LeMans-style start, and the first prize would be $500 for the fastest team. There would also be prizes for the best-dressed team, the most humorous and the worst all-round team.
The Black Hills Billies came first, winning not only the cash prize, but a trophy — a wooden outhouse with an engraved plaque. Kelly’s team from Whitehorse, “The Elton John,” came second, followed in third place by United Keno Hill. Parks Canada (“The Parks Can”) received the prize for the most humorous, a category that they specialized in over the following years.
One team of miners used an actual outhouse. The wheels were not up to the task, I am told, and collapsed somewhere along the course. They stopped at various drinking establishments along the route as well, and did not arrive back at the finish line for several hours. I have to assume that they received the prize for the worst team.
I was drawn into the frenzy of the Labour Day weekend a couple of years later and helped field the Parkus Cannabis, modelled after a Greek-Roman theme with the runners all wearing togas.
The following year, enthusiasm had grown for our (Parks Canada) participation in the event. It was the year of the Royal wedding, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married. What a marvellous event to celebrate, and voila! “The Royal Flush.”
We took the theme to the extreme. Brilliant minds assembled at a local drinking establishment and the ideas flowed. We would make the outhouse into a landau carriage. There would be footmen, Queen Elizabeth (Parks Canada conservator Valery Thorp) and equerry and Prince Charles, also known as Akio Saito. But what about Diana Spencer? Archaeologist Sharon Keen, the design genius behind several of our outhouses, found a life-size doll — heaven knows where.
We added a white dress from the thrift shop and seated the doll inside the outhouse. One arm was suspended by string from a side window, so that when the outhouse was in motion, the doll gave a realistic royal wave. We went further and added a banner, and music — in this case, Handel’s “Water Music.”
The die was cast for future outhouse races. The following year, we convened at the Eldorado Hotel and debated a scatological theme for the 1982 race. How could we possibly do better than the “Royal Flush?”
Well, we did it with the nursery rhyme (modified of course!), “There was an old Lady Who Lived in a Loo.” The team assembled each evening after work, and using chicken wire (to give it shape) and red cloth (to give it colour) Sharon Keen and her creative team fashioned the frame of the outhouse into a large boot, with flower boxes below each side window.
Our colleague, Akio Saito, was costumed to look like an elderly lady, complete with rocking chair and living room furniture. The team of runners were costumed as little kids; one of them in a diaper, sat in a child’s playpen until race time. The music that year consisted of children’s songs, including Shirley Temple singing The Good Ship Lollipop.
In the following years, the Parks Canada dream team came up with several more creative concepts. Another year, it was the “VatiCan”. The outhouse was modified to resemble St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. The runners all wore black cassocks, while the passenger in this team, Nikki Walsh, was decked out in white with a gold and white mitre and red vestments. The music: Gregorian chanting, of course.
Slowly, there was a transition. The music became more upbeat and Offenbach filled the air. Suddenly, the team stripped off their cassocks to reveal can-can apparel and became a high kicking chorus line. The “VatiCan” had become the “Vati-Can-Can!” Of course, we intended no offense, so we gave Father Boyd, the Oblate priest in Dawson, an advance preview, and got his seal of approval.
More teams followed. The Parks Canada team had found its forte in creative — and humorous — design. One year, it was the “Candu-du” reactor. We converted the outhouse into a nuclear power plant and borrowed a smoke generator from the fire department. The team was decked out in hazmat suits, complete with respirators, as they offered fuel pellets (actually licorice candies) to passersby. The music? The Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters.
Another year, the outhouse became the “Honey Bucket,” and the runners were decked in yellow and black striped costumes and resembled a busy hive of bees.
For one race, we hauled office furniture to the start line and set up an office. Everybody was decked out in ill-fitting suits. We had a secretary and the music that year was Nine to Five, by Dolly Parton. The team’s name: “The Bureaucraps.” This team consisted of Parks Canada managers, and for the first time they were highly competitive and actually decided to run the course. This came as a surprise to me, and I recall that I was exhausted by the time we reached the finish line.
To me, it was all a lot of fun: getting together and devising some creative concept over a few beers. And when it comes to outhouse themes, there was a never-ending list of crappy ideas! Turning the outhouse into something special, fitting everybody in themed costumes (this always required a visit to the thrift shop), coming up with appropriate music, and then the theatrics before the race started. Actually, running the race seemed secondary.
My family and I moved to Whitehorse in 2000, so I never got involved in the race again after that. Apparently, the event lost momentum in the following years, and now, I have been told, will not be run again. Which is a shame. I hope they are wrong. It was so much fun — an exclamation mark at the end of a busy summer season.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at email@example.com