last trip to dawson evokes memories

Siddeley found a gap in the clouds and made its final approach into the airport at Dawson City. Despite the caution given us by the flight crew…

Siddeley found a gap in the clouds and made its final approach into the airport at Dawson City.

Despite the caution given us by the flight crew before leaving Whitehorse, we were going to be able to land after all. The landing was uneventful.

This was my last business trip to Dawson City.

The ground, as a result of winter’s dying attempt to re-assert itself, was covered with a thick coat of icy snow. With the temperature hovering around the freezing point, any movement was extremely treacherous.

The drive to town from the airport was cautiously executed. I narrowly avoided a nosedive several times while walking the streets over the next two days.

This was a visit of significance to me for it was my last trip on official business; I will be retiring from the federal government April 29.

I have spent 34 years in the heritage field, first with the National Museums, then for most of the years after that, with Parks Canada in Dawson City.

It didn’t seem like such a long time.

I didn’t plan to work in Dawson City for so many years; in fact, it wasn’t even my original destination in the Yukon, but it grew on me.

Parks Canada has an extensive collection of gold rush buildings and artifacts. It was enough to keep me busy for a quarter century. In the process I came to know and love both the town and my work there.

To me, Dawson City is a truly unique place to visit or live in and has been from its inception. One day, the quiet home of the Han people, the next a thriving city teeming with a polyglot horde, assembled from the four corners of the Earth.

During the gold rush, the city operated non-stop, 24 hours a day, excepting Sundays, of course.

When I was out in the nearby goldfields, I could imagine the thousands of men who laboured day and night, searching for the tantalizing thread of gold. This was the very reason for the city’s existence. Dawson was above all else a service hub supporting the gold industry.

As the initial surge moved on, the city settled into a routine, becoming more civilized, but never like anywhere else. As it shrank to a small northern town, it retained the features of a much larger metropolis — electricity, water and sewer, telegraph, all legacies of its hey-day.

Dawson was a peculiar isolated community where links to the outside were tenuous eight months of the year. It is subject to the northern cycle of long summer days and long winter nights, of extreme Arctic cold and temperate summers. Even today, the residents still identify themselves by comparison: the rest of the world is “Outside” to them.

Dawson City became the capital of a fledgling territory where all the trappings of government were established. First on the scene were the Mounties, followed by the mining recorders, the judges and the public works people.

The early architecture of the bureaucracy reflected the optimism of the period: grand government buildings dominated the vista.

Many of these old buildings survive today and have become familiar friends to me.

Dawson retained the peculiar male-dominated demographic, a legacy of the early gold rush era. As it shrank, it became a company town to boot, eventually to be dominated by the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation, or YCGC.

In its teen years, and for the decades that followed, the giant dredges constantly squealed and groaned and chewed up the valleys during the short summer season.

By the 1920s, Dawson had become a giant museum. Reduced in stature from its former glory and population, there was no need to tear down the old buildings. Faced with the high costs of transportation, nothing was taken away, so the residual effects of thousands of stampeders were left behind to be sifted through by the few who remained.

My job as the newly appointed curator was to establish order among the hundreds of thousands of such left-over historic artifacts that Parks Canada had acquired.

The gold fields of that era were likened to a giant out-door museum, with the abandoned remains, the tools and belongings of the individual miners cast aside left to moulder and rust on the hillsides and creeks of the Klondike.

When I arrived there, decades after the gold rush, many of these relics still survived, though most have since disappeared because of collectors, the bulldozer’s blade and the elevated price of gold.

Exploring the goldfields and recording these treasures became a passion, and nearly an obsession with me.

Dawson became hidebound by out-of-date traditions. Long after Victorian social rules had fallen out of favour elsewhere, the people seemed to be locked into social practices of the century before.

The “at-homes” of the ladies in the community belonged to those at the upper end of the social scale. Calling cards and salted almonds were essentials for anyone who was somebody.

It was a strange place; a dying town with the rotting boardwalks lining dirt streets and the ditches clogged with weeds, yet people still clung to the highest of fashions and the social practises of a bygone era as if their very survival depended upon it.

Dawson was also a town with a structured round of social events. Discovery Day, established in 1912, became symbolic of the gold rush and all it brought.

Then there was the break-up of the Yukon River, the celebration of the solstice, the costume balls, Christmas and numerous other events that dotted the calendar throughout the year.

It remains so today. It is, I suspect, the frenetic pace of this cycle of activities that prevents the town from sinking into the ordinary, and wards off many of the symptoms of cabin fever.

It was the stories and recollections of the many old-timers I talked with, both formally and informally, over the years that stimulated my curiosity and expanded and deepened my understanding of the place.

These were some of the reasons that the Klondike established a firm grip on my soul…

On my final day, I took an early morning walk along the dike that now surrounds Dawson City, and studied the somnolent community. Smoke rose from the chimneys in the calm air, and the silence was broken by the scrabble of my boots against decaying, brittle snow.

I reminded myself that my next visit to Dawson would be viewed through different eyes; I would be cut free from the old responsibilities of my career.

Occasionally, a dog would interrupt the tranquility with a protective howl. For a moment, I relived the years when I helped salvage and restore these historical relics. Memories of old timers and visitors returning with intriguing stories came to mind.

I wonder: will it still be the same town to me the next time I visit, or will it be changed forever?

The old buildings will still be there. The stories and the memories will survive. The community will carry on as usual.

You’ve gotta love the place.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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