Rendezvous celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, but the festival has a deeper history that few left in the Yukon still remember.
Rolf Hougen was a teenager in 1945 when activists with the Labour-Progressive Party organized Yukon Carnival Week as a way to fundraise and promote its candidate.
The candidate lost the election by a slim margin, and the party packed up its bags and left. Hougen was among the group of people that took up the reins and ran the Whitehorse Winter Carnival from 1946 through 1950.
“It was a very broad-based event, not too different from today, in fact,” said Hougen.
There were lots of contests and events for the kids, held out on the ice behind the White Pass building, he said.
There was the one-dog-pull, snowshoe races, and contests to build fires and boil water.
Hougen’s favourite event was the dog sled races, he said.
“There were no, what you would call, professional racers. They were all trappers who had dog teams. And they came from all over the Yukon, including Old Crow.
“They competed with heavy sleigh dogs that were working dogs. Right now, all the racers are professional, that’s all they do, is train for dog races. And they’ve certainly changed the dogs completely from the working dogs of those years.
“These were primarily First Nation people, although the head of the RCMP in Old Crow was one of the racers who brought a team down. To me that was an exciting event, because of the tradition of the people. That’s all they did in the wintertime, was use their dog teams on the trap line.”
The final year of the Whitehorse Winter Carnival, in 1950, was a very special year, said Hougen.
The whole event was a fundraiser for a new civic centre that would later be called the Jim Light Arena.
“We raised $14,000. And $14,000 was a lot of money then, compared with $14,000 today,” said Hougen.
The U.S. army was in town for the festivities that year for a military exercise, and organizers made use of the soldiers’ skills.
The communications unit strung wires and installed telephones between all the downtown events, said Hougen.
And another unit was assigned to cut trees for a ski hill and install a tow rope, all as part of the training.
Operation of that ski hill, located near where Hamilton Boulevard is now, was later handed over to the Canadian Air Force, he said.
While the 1950 carnival was a great success, it was a bit much for the organizers.
“I guess we all got burned out, or whatever. We didn’t run it after 1950.”
But it wasn’t too long but Whitehorse started to itch for a winter festival again.
The carnival returned in 1962, taking the name of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Festival.
And Hougen, of course, jumped right back on board. He chaired the festival in 1963.
The Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Society registered in 1964, and this date is recognized for anniversaries.
Hougen has been directly involved with the festival for most of its 50-year modern history as well. He has not served on the board in 10 or 12 years, but remains an active supporter, he said.
One of the great features of the festival, until recently, was its downtown location, said Hougen.
That was a unique aspect compared to what other towns were doing, he said.
“People could watch all the events, they could go into a bar, they could go into a restaurant. They would get cold. There was a place to go.
“Now, I was at the one last year and I shivered for about one hour and couldn’t get in the building it was so packed – they had the one tent – so we gave up very quickly and left.”
About a decade ago the events moved off Main Street to the more spacious accommodations of Shipyards Park.
Hougen misses having the downtown retailers, banks, bars and restaurants all get involved, he said.
They used to compete for the most elaborate decorations and costumes, he said.
This year, Rendezvous will return to Main Street for one day of events and festivities, and Hougen is happy to see it, he said.
But he also laments that people do not seem to be as interested in community activities as they once were.
“Before television came, the participation of people in the community was much, much greater than today. People can stay home and watch television, they don’t have to go out for entertainment.”
The irony is that Hougen himself pioneered reliable television and radio services in the Yukon.
“I can take responsibility for bringing television to Whitehorse – be condemned for it, I guess – but it’s here.”
But Rendezvous is also here to stay, he said. And that’s thanks to the many, many people who have contributed their blood, sweat and tears over the years.
This year’s team has seen a lot of new people with fresh ideas, he said.
“I think they’ve done a great job this year. They’ve got a lot of events and several new events. It’s pretty packed with activities. I think this will be the best one in many years.”
It will be the best, while still remaining true to its history, he said.
“Rendezvous remains much the same as it was 50 years ago. Not a heck of a lot of change. Some new events, some dropped events, but really no significant difference. Which says something: it means it was pretty good 50 years ago, too.”
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at email@example.com