Yukon yarns blend fact and fiction

David Thompson still catches himself saying, "I am not a writer." But the Whitehorse resident has hard evidence otherwise. His first book, Talking at the Woodpile, was recently published by Caitlin Press. And he recently had a realization. Or, as he calls it, "a cosmic moment.""I was sitting at my desk writing, and I realized I had given up my day job."

David Thompson still catches himself saying, “I am not a writer.”

But the Whitehorse resident has hard evidence otherwise. His first book, Talking at the Woodpile, was recently published by Caitlin Press.

And he recently had a realization. Or, as he calls it, “a cosmic moment.”

“I was sitting at my desk writing, and I realized I had given up my day job.”

Thompson is a general building contractor. But he now finds himself spending half his work day as a wordsmith.

He’s lived in the territory since 1962, and he’s twice won Dawson City’s “Authors on Eighth” writing contest.

Thompson, like many northerners, was amused and a little concerned by a recent poll that found a fair share of Canadians believe Canada’s Arctic is inhabited by penguins, and that residents dwell in igloos.

He hopes his book will be a remedy of sorts. It’s a collection of short stories, set in Dawson City.

In it, he hoped to capture the culture of the territory.

“I see us as a distinct culture, just as valid as Quebec or Newfoundland,” said Thompson. “I think we’re overlooked by the rest of Canada.”

The Dawsonites of Thompson’s imagination include a man who believes his wife is an alien, a firewood thief who’s nearly blown up by a boobytrap, and two men who nearly freeze to death in a boneheaded game of chicken.

The stories are also peppered with First Nations lore and traditional knowledge. In one, we’re told how to tell apart a grizzly from a black bear, by smell: black bears smell like dogs.

The stories all have “kernels of truth in them,” said Thompson. But readers are kept guessing what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Even Thompson’s editor had trouble keeping the two apart. One story describes a Klondike gold miner who accidentally unearths a mammoth, along with an early First Nations hunter.

As Thompson tells it, the mammoth bones are eventually put on display at the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

Not so. That mammoth is actually a plaster cast of a fossil found in Wisconsin, as Thompson’s editor, Susan Mayse, discovered while dutifully fact-checking.

But Thompson wasn’t concerned about whether that part was true. He liked being able to tie the story to an object many Yukoners would find familiar.

The title story, Talking at the Woodpile, is about two men who wander outside one chilly night to collect firewood and end up locked in a battle to see who could withstand the cold the longest, without jacket, mitts and hat. One ends up losing two fingers from the ordeal.

The seed of that story developed while Thompson worked in Pelly Crossing. One bitterly cold night, he had to collect something from his car. An oldtimer tagged along. Neither were properly dressed.

The oldtimer seemed particularly keen to talk in the cold. “I knew what he was doing: he wanted to see how long I could take being out in the cold,” said Thompson.

Thankfully, the true story ends better than the fictional one. Thompson didn’t rise to the bait, and no extremities were lost.

The tale about a firewood thief getting his comeuppance is also based on a true story, although it happened in Carcross, not Dawson City.

Thompson knew a man who discovered his firewood pile was shrinking at an alarming rate. Sled tracks made it clear that a thief was at work.

So the man concealed a blasting cap in a piece of firewood. The ensuing explosion made it easy to identify the culprit. And nobody took the man’s wood again.

Thompson initially wrote 20 short stories. Then someone advised him that new writers ought to debut with novels.

So Thompson stitched the stories together into a single, 85,000-word tale. But his current editor had second thoughts. She thought the stories worked better by themselves.

As a consequence, each story is somehow linked to the rest. The story of a gold miner unearthing a mammoth and ancient hunter is followed by the story of how the hunter had perished 10,000 years ago. Characters, once introduced, tend to reappear in later stories.

Thompson had a scare when his editor sent him notes about dramatic arcs, points of view and the role of the antagonist. He had no idea what any of it meant.

No matter. His publisher liked the stories enough to publish them. And his second book is already well underway.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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