Did you know that the first documented competitive sport in the Yukon took place the winter of 1882-83? It was at Fort Reliance, Jack McQuesten’s trading post on the Yukon River. It consisted of a snow shovelling contest and a foot race. Presumably they shovelled the snow first to make the race easier.
Or how about the time that a Dawson hockey team (The Dawson Nuggets) played the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup? It was 1905, and they lost, incidentally, but the Dawson team is engraved on the cup.
These accounts and many more are included in the new book written by John Firth, titled Yukon Sport: An Illustrated Encyclopedia.
When John Firth as commissioned to write the sport section of the book Whitehorse – An Illustrated History, published just a year ago, he didn’t know then that it would lead to this book, which was launched last week at the Sport Yukon banquet.
John Firth has long been associated with the Yukon sports community. He has written several books on dog mushing, one of which, One Mush: Jamaica’s Dogsled Team, received international acclaim. He is currently working on a biography of Father Mouchet, the Catholic priest who did so much for cross country skiing in the territory
In a recent interview with him, I learned that only a third of the material he gathered found its way into the much celebrated Whitehorse book. At the time, he was told that he should write his own book on sports in the Yukon, so he approached George Arcand, the president of Sport Yukon with the idea. According to John, Arcand had discussed the same idea at a board meeting of the association just the night before. It was a match made in heaven.
John was given a short timetable, at least by book publishing standards, in which to complete the book – 18 months. That left him with a short time frame in which to undertake the research, so he enlisted the help of Kathy Jones-Gates to get the job done. Kathy threw herself into the job of assembling extensive information on sports in Dawson City. By the end of her assignment, she had compiled a list of no less than 70 sports that were popular in the Klondike over the past century.
While gathering historical information, he was also assembling photographs for the book. Of the 500 images provided, 258 of them were selected for the book.
John turned to the interviews with people he had gathered over many years. He also interviewed as many people as he could during the research phase of this project. While he wasn’t able to include everybody, the quantity of people he interviewed is impressive. Sometimes, he said, the most compelling stories came up as an afterthought at the end of an interview. These stories were so interesting that he left his recorder running, even while he was packing up in preparation to leave.
He devoted several months to writing the text for the book, and then turned it over to his publisher, Figure 1 Publishing in Vancouver, where it was reviewed by no less than four editors. Of the 450 pages of text he wrote, 100 didn’t make the final cut, nor was it possible to include all of the sports that the research had uncovered.
Gold panning, a highly competitive global sport, and bowling are two of those that didn’t make it into the final product. They and many others will have to be included in the second volume, sometime in the future.
The final product is impressive. At 352 pages, it is only a few pages shorter than the Whitehorse book. It might be shorter, he added, but it is heavier. They didn’t skimp on the size of the photos – both black and white, and colour – which are sharp and eye-catching.
The book could just as easily have been titled An A to Z of Yukon Sport. The topics are arranged in alphabetical order as the most convenient format for readers. If it were composed as a narrative in chronological order, references to each sport would be scattered throughout the book. This way, he told me, if a reader is interested in hockey, they just have to look under “H” in the table of contents, or the index, to find that section.
You will find personal glimpses of many Yukoners who have contributed to sports in the territory. Example: Art Fry was a long-time advocate of boxing in the territory, even training a couple of young Dawson City boxers to become national champions. In fact, during the 1970s, when the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association was in dire financial straits, it was Fry who bailed them out with gold from his mining claim in the Klondike.
Some years later, when boxing in the Yukon was in decline, the national association considered dropping the Yukon from its membership, until they were reminded that it was a Yukoner who kept them afloat financially in their time of need.
Until 1966, it was private sponsorship that kept amateur sport alive in the Yukon. In 1966, the year before the Canada Centennial, Yukon had a team in the Canadian Canoe Pageant. “Team organizers told Commissioner James Smith that, unless the Yukon government came up with funding, the name ‘Yukon’ would be replaced on the canoe by the names of their biggest private sponsors.” They got their sponsorship.
That was the first time the Yukon government provided financial support for amateur sport in the territory. Two year later, the government became a permanent sponsor for amateur sport with the creation of the Arctic Winter Games.
One of the unsung heroines he wrote about who would have benefitted from sponsorship was Martha Benjamin of Old Crow. In 1962, while chaperoning a team of young skiers from Old Crow, the mother of five, on a whim, entered a cross-country skiing event in Fairbanks and left the competition in her dust.
The following year, she entered and won the first national women’s cross-country skiing championship in Ottawa in a time that bested the men’s time in the same event. She was invited to join the women’s cross-country ski team for the 1968 winter Olympics, but had to decline for lack of sponsorship. Nevertheless, Benjamin has the distinction of being the first Yukon athlete to win a Canadian championship in any sport.
There are many more stories like these in Yukon Sport. Firth will be available at Mac’s Fireweed Books on Saturday, Dec. 13 to autograph copies of the book. Over the next few months, you can expect to hear of other special events to promote this most interesting book.
For anybody involved in sports, this book will be an interesting, perhaps inspirational read, and will make a good holiday gift for the sports enthusiast in the family.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org