By Rhiannon Russell
His life in Dawson City revolved around the river — no surprise for a man who goes by Driftwood Holly. The musician and artist lives with his wife and two sons in a 1901 cabin in West Dawson, sails the Yukon River in a houseboat called the Wooden Pearl, and spends his days hunting and gathering, gardening, collecting wood, and fishing.
At least he did, until his family moved to Whitehorse last year. His sons, now teenagers, wanted to attend the Wood Street Centre, a school known for its experiential program.
“In the old days, we used to travel a lot with the kids and teach them on the road,” Holly says. Now that they’re older, they both needed and wanted to be in school. And crossing the river every day was getting less fun for them.
“They liked it until they became teenagers. And then they think it really sucks,” Holly says with a laugh. “They want to have their buddies now and their iPhones and have friends over without getting them across a frozen river.”
So the family moved to Whitehorse last year. They plan to return to Dawson next year.
“Now my kids can use a school bus, which was a dream of theirs,” Holly says. It was a smart choice for the boys, but it means Holly has had to adapt to what he calls “comfortable city life.”
He missed his daily connection to the river, and wanted to find some kind of side project that would bring him back to the water. One day, he was walking through the woods and found a six-foot-long fir plank.
The underside, he thought, looked a bit like a paddlewheeler. That sparked an idea: he could create a miniature ship and try to anchor it in the river. He’d need to analyze the current and find the best spot for it — something that would require time at the water.
Holly gathered old boards, wood, “all organic stuff,” he says. “Then I kind of chainsaw-styled it together.” He used a small tree stump as the chimney.
He tested the boat out twice at the Robert Campbell Bridge, placing it in the water to see how it would fare in the current. Both times, it got pulled down hard.
“If you anchor something in a current, it usually pulls the bow of the boat down and then water gets over it,” Holly says. “There is so much torque on something you anchor in the river … I had to recreate the bottom of the boat twice to actually make it work.”
After studying the river, he found what he thought was the perfect location: across from the SS Klondike, where the water was only about three or four feet deep.
“You have to observe it for a while to find the right spot,” he says. “It’s really powerful when you find the wrong spot.”
Three weeks ago, he transported the boat to the river’s edge in a wheelbarrow, then walked out along a slough in the river, with the help of passerby, carrying a big rock that would serve as anchor. He attached the boat with hemp rope.
Every day, he and his partner would go down to the river and check on the boat. “It was beautiful to look at.”
Holly hoped the rope would hold it there until the fall so the boat would get frozen in.
But just a couple days ago, he went to the river and the boat was gone. The rope had snapped.
“It was a sad day when she goes,” he says, even though he knew she would.
That’s why he left a message onboard, tucked inside a small glass jar. Whoever finds the boat is asked to help it along its journey, he says. They’re also welcome to add notes to the jar.
“It’s probably somewhere in Lake Laberge right now,” Holly says. “If somebody finds it, they should tie it to a canoe and paddle it over to the mouth of the Yukon and give it a little push so it can keep going. It might winter there, but this story is not over.”
Holly’s next water-adjacent project is a musical performance on the SS Klondike on Sept. 2. Tickets can be purchased by calling 993-3311 or 335-0342.
Holly has always been drawn to water. “It’s the Tom Sawyer thing,” he says.
He grew up in Germany and moved to the Yukon 19 years ago, inspired by Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. He travelled the Inside Passage, hiked the Chilkoot Trail, and paddled down the Yukon River.
“I was aiming straight for Dawson,” he says. “Whenever I heard something about it, it resonated with my vibrations. I feel that still today.”
He’s also crowdfunding his next album, which will be recorded in Venice, Italy.
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