The Yukon River ice at Dawson City broke up at 12:17 p.m. on Sunday.
I am told it was a quiet affair this year. Such is not always the case.
This year, Lady Luck’s wheel of fortune has stopped on Eagle, Alaska, which is experiencing the worst flooding in living memory.
Dawson may have been spared that misfortune this year.
All spring, Yukoners have been buying their IODE Dawson ice pool tickets, all confident that they had chosen the winning time. That’s the time when the ice in front of town starts to move and the clock, attached to the tripod on the off-shore ice, stops.
The lucky one wins the kitty and bragging rights for guessing the correct time.
Breakup is just one of the many special events that dot the Yukon calendar. In the old days, when the siren in Dawson went off, announcing that the ice was moving, everyone flocked to the waterfront to watch. Clerks would abandon the stores, students their classrooms, and parishioners their pews to witness this important annual rite of passage.
Immediately after that event, people would start eyeing the river uneasily, concerned about whether the ice would jam and the water rise.
I was new to Dawson City in 1979 when break-up occurred. We had had a particularly cold winter and plenty of snow.
April brought with it unseasonably warm weather. The combination had catastrophic results for the Klondike capital.
As May began, the community started taking defensive measures in preparation for the possibility of high water. Crews were out sandbagging and the entire community pitched in. I was house-sitting for my future wife while she was on holiday in England.
On the evening of May second, I retreated to her tiny trailer, where I listened to the emergency announcements on CBC radio and waited through the night. Sometime after midnight, on the morning of May 3rd, the generator providing electricity for the community shut down and the town was eerily silent.
In the twilight that befell Dawson at that time of year, I could see strange shadows and a darkness that crept up the hill toward where I was sheltered. As the twilight returned, I witnessed the extent of the damage that had befallen the community.
From a neighbouring house, Alan Nordling, a refugee from the dark rushing waters, joined me. We seconded a nearby canoe beached on the new shoreline half-way up the hillside, and paddled through Dawson to witness the devastation.
I looked across the vast expanse of water that now filled the entire Yukon valley bottom and saw a rapidly moving current of water and large blocks of ice surging through the community. At the corner of King Street and Third Avenue, we stopped to take a breather.
Only by clinging to the stop sign on the corner could I prevent us from being washed away by the rapid flow of freezing water.
The flooding was the worst in the short history of the community. It cost millions of dollars to repair the damage, and took years to fully recover. Hopefully, the dike constructed in 1986 will protect Dawson from future flood catastrophes.
I later learned that this was not the first time that flooding had impacted upon a Yukon community over the years. In fact, riverside communities such as Old Crow, Mayo, Ross River, and even Whitehorse have had their own encounters with high water.
The first well-documented flood took place in 1896. By the beginning of May, all eyes in the tiny community of Forty Mile, at the mouth of the Fortymile River, looked toward the river in anticipation of the break-up. Being gamblers at heart, the men of Forty Mile started numerous pools, betting on the day, hour, and minute that the ice would break up.
Everyone stayed up late, watching the river and talking about the imminent breakup. A watchman was appointed to rouse the citizens when the river broke, because this is when the danger of flooding is the greatest.
Break-up was later than usual, and the wait became monotonous. The watchman sounded the alarm once, just for the need of company, then everyone retired again, and continued their long vigil. On the 14th of May, the Fortymile River broke up and flushed its ice onto the ice still locked in place on the Yukon.
Finally, on the 17th of May, the cry went up: the river was moving! Huge blocks of ice ground together and gyrated crazily in the Yukon River.
The ice finally jammed a few miles below Forty Mile and the water level rose 5.5 metres in an hour and a half, reaching the sugar bins in the Alaska Commercial Company store. Everyone prepared to evacuate town. The bridge crossing the slough behind the main cluster of buildings was washed away.
One man, thinking that the end had come, jumped into his boat and paddled up the Fortymile River. Another was forced to climb up onto the roof of his cabin, where he completed the shave that was interrupted by the sudden rise.
The Anglican mission, which was located on an island, was particularly vulnerable to flooding; when the water finally rushed in, Bishop Bompas and other members of the mission party were forced up into the loft to wait for the water to retreat.
The jam broke a couple of days later, and the water ran high for a few more days before receding, leaving a line of icebergs, uprooted trees and debris in its wake.
Life returned to normal very quickly in Forty Mile. On the 25th of May, 1896, the North West Mounted Police celebrated the Queen’s birthday with a volley of gunfire.
Dawson was hit with a flood during the height of the gold rush in the spring of 1898, followed by others. Before the big flood in 1979, most noteworthy inundations occurred in 1925, 1944, and twice in the 1960’s.
The Dawson Daily News declared the flood in 1925 to have been the worst ever. It made the same claim in May of 1944.
On May 4th, 1944, the water of the Yukon was noted to have risen by almost three metres. The ice went out the following day at 1:27 p.m., making Charley Mason of Moosehide richer by more than $8,000.
When the waters finally reached the town, the torrent was flowing down Fifth Avenue; Minto Park turned into a lake, and the force of the ice flowing in the main channel did serious damage to the pilings of the wharf on the waterfront from the Bank of Commerce downstream.
Being wartime, the military was called upon to assist. A B-19 “Flying Fortress” was flown in and dropped a load of bombs on the ice jam, with no effect.
Dawson recovered, of course, and lived to suffer through several more subsequent floods.
Mother Nature has her own rules. We may prepare with sand bags and evacuation, but when the water rises, there is not much we can do but watch and wait until it goes down again.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.