Rain fails to dampen spirits at Jack London Festival

Michael Gates Special to the News This past weekend in Dawson City there was a celebration all about Jack London, the great American author, and his Yukon connection.

Michael Gates

Special to the News

This past weekend in Dawson City there was a celebration all about Jack London, the great American author, and his Yukon connection.

London spent nine months in the Yukon early in the Klondike Gold Rush from September of 1897, till early June of 1898. During that time, he spent only six weeks in Dawson City, but was eventually forced to leave the Yukon after being stricken by a debilitating case of scurvy. This year marks the 100th anniversary of London’s death at 40 years of age.

Included in the festival were talks, informal discussions, film and stage presentations, an interpretive dog walk, a relay reading of The Call of the Wild, and a “stampede dinner.”

Front and centre in the festivities was Tarnel Abbott, great granddaughter of the world-famous author. Abbott had given a formal presentation at the MacBride earlier in the week focused on London’s family connections, especially with his mother. Often portrayed as an unloving mother, or emotionally unstable, Flora Wellman London is presented by Abbott as the woman who fostered her son’s love of reading and encouraged his dream of becoming an author when others were encouraging him to accept a job at the post office.

The films shown consisted of various Jack London stories with Klondike content. White Fang, a Disney film starring a young Ethan Hawke, The Call of the Wild (Clarke Gable and Loretta Young) and To Build a Fire, (narrated by Orson Welles) were all shown to receptive audiences in the Dawson City Museum.

The latter film was actually made in the Yukon in 1969 by the BBC and credit is given to Alan Innes-Taylor, the Yukon’s foremost Arctic survival expert, as consultant for the production. Though dated, the Welles narrative stood up well against the world release of an animated production of the same story by FX Goby of France, which was shown for the first time anywhere at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre on Friday evening.

Accompanying the film at the cultural centre was an hour-long one-person stage performance of Tracks, featuring the skilled performance of Vancouver actor Michael Beane. Tracks is a narrative focusing on Jack London’s writing about his life riding the rails as a hobo when he was a young man.

The festival was officially opened at the Jack London Museum on Friday with a few remarks by Mayor Wayne Potoroka, who wore his gold nugget-studded chain of office for the occasion. After this, he and Abbott moved outside to unveil a new plaque, at the entrance to the property, honouring the author.

Contrasted with the more formal Whitehorse presentation, Abbott’s participation assumed an informal and relaxed nature in Dawson City. She was clearly the centre of attention at all of the events which she attended. Many visitors spoke with her, some even seeking her autograph in newly-purchased copies of Jack London books.

Abbott is an award-winning free speech advocate, activist and now-retired reference librarian from Richmond, California. In conversation she told me how, after 9-11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, libraries were required to release information about what their patrons were reading. Abbott participated in protests that challenged the right of the government to do so.

Abbott spoke about the London family without reading from a prepared script on Friday afternoon and again during a panel discussion on Saturday. She was joined in the discussion by interpreter Hellen Winton, historians Kathy Gates and myself, as well as Whitehorse resident Rachel Grantham.

Grantham had earlier presented the 45-minute film documentary, Lost Cabin, which she co-produced with her husband Richard Lawrence. Lost Cabin details the discovery and restoration of Jack London’s cabin during the 1960s. Parts of the original cabin are now located in Oakland, California, as well as at the Jack London Museum in Dawson City.

Saturday was capped off by a “stampeder dinner” in the KIAC ballroom, on the second floor of the restored Oddfellows Hall on Second Avenue. The three-hour dinner event was packed to capacity. The evening started off with photographs being taken of various dinner guests, some of whom were dressed in period costume, while others were able to dress up in accessories supplied for the purpose. The photos were picked up by the guests at the end of the evening.

“Barnacle Bob” Hilliard provided skilled renderings of popular period and contemporary tunes on the piano prior to the serving of the meal, which was prepared for the occasion by Dawson residents Bonnie and Chuck Barber. The dinner consisted of ingredients available to Klondike stampeders: rice, beans and bacon, moose ribs and meat loaf, and bannock with jam, followed by delicious apple pie or blueberry loaf.

Following the meal, dinner guests were entertained by an interactive rendition of The Greatest Klondike Author, performed by Parks Canada staff Fred Osson (Jack London), France Richards (Robert Service) Sue Taylor (Pierre Berton) and Master-of-Ceremonies Justin Apperley (Arizona Charlie Meadows). Not surprisingly, Jack London was the judges’ unanimous choice for the title on this occasion.

Paul Robitaille, the marketing and events manager, expressed pleasure with the turn-out for the event. Despite the rainy weather, all events were well attended, and the skies cleared and the sun shone when it was needed. Robitaille acknowledged the support of the sponsors, which included: The Downtown Hotel, the City of Dawson, Parks Canada, The Dawson City Museum, the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre, and the Yukon government’s “Stay Another Day” fund.

And a number of visitors did stay longer to take in the festival events, most of which were free. One couple had already stayed in Dawson for five days, but decided to remain for the weekend after learning about the festival.

On Sunday afternoon, the Reading Relay, a marathon public reading of The Call of the Wild by numerous book lovers, closed the festivities. Before departing for Whitehorse, my wife Kathy and I both read passages from this book, which secured London’s reputation as a great American novelist. Once again, the weather, which had alternated between heavy rain and brilliant sunshine, cleared for the outdoor reading, which took place in a relaxed setting in front of Jack London’s cabin under sunny skies.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in stores.