Yukonomist: Yukon summer reading

The sunny days of Canada Day weekend reminded me that the Yukon summer is a great time for reading, whether you’re relaxing on a sandbar after a day of paddling or stuck in a tent during an unexpected July snowstorm hiking in the Tombstones.

Some new Yukoners recently asked me for reading recommendations. Since 63 per cent of Yukoners have immigrated here from Outside and probably didn’t grow up with a shelf of Yukon books in the house, I thought I would share some highlights.

We are fortunate to have so many Yukon authors for such a small community, so this list is just a few classics to get you started. I recommend you visit the big Yukon book sections at Mac’s Fireweed or the MacBride Museum for even more choices from both the classics and the new generation of Yukon authors.

Let’s start with some of the well-thumbed books you’ll often see on Yukon bookshelves.

A good place to start is Prelude to Bonanza by Allen Wright. While dated, this 1970s history covers the period before the gold rush when prospectors and traders first started to filter in. It’s full of remarkable stories of loners and visionaries, plus those remarkable days before government arrived in the Yukon when the miners in Fortymile ran what was in effect their own mini-republic.

Then there’s the Klondike gold rush itself. While it’s easy to get jaded by clichés, the stampede of 1898 really is an epic human story of triumph, adventure and catastrophe. To get a feel for what it was really like, try Tappan Adney’s Klondike Stampede. Adney was a journalist who joined the rush himself, and his day-by-day account is full of riveting detail and astonishing stories.

If you’ve hiked the Chilkoot or paddled to Dawson, you’ll recognize the spots he mentions. At Sheep Camp, for example, he describes the “hotel” he stayed in. You paid your bill in advance, entered the tent, got your plate of beans, and when you were done you just laid down on the dirt and went to sleep.

Jack London’s Call of the Wild is a global classic for a reason. His Yukon writing made him fabulously wealthy for a writer, as you can see if you visit the ruins of his mansion north of San Francisco. If your kids read it, it’s a good opportunity to talk with them about how the big books of world literature are products of their periods. London’s attitudes to the environment and First Nations were common in his time, for example, but have changed dramatically since.

I also highly recommend London’s To Build A Fire. It’s short, highly memorable, and is a must-read before your next winter camping trip.

No Yukon library is complete without the collected works of Robert Service, and a pocket version can help spice up any campfire or evening stuck in a rainy tent.

Unlike Adney and London, Service came to the Yukon after the gold rush, working and writing first in Whitehorse and then Dawson. Like London, he made an improbably large fortune from his Yukon writing, and used to be a staple of high-school poetry recitals from London to California. On my travels, I’ve met more than a few people of a certain age who could still belt out lines from The Cremation of Sam McGee, and the MacBride Museum has a letter from Ronald Reagan to Ted Harrison in which the Gipper recalls memorizing Service’s poems.

The old-school classics above largely neglected the First Nations point of view. There are now a wide range of books to correct this. Life Lived Like a Story by Julie Cruikshank chronicles the remarkable life stories of Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith and Annie Ned, three First Nations women who lived through the staggering changes the Twentieth Century brought to the Yukon.

I was Born Under a Spruce Tree by JJ Van Bibber is another great read, and its photos are fascinating. Next time your kids complain about taking the bus to school, get them to read Van Bibber’s account of rafting down the Yukon River to boarding school in Dawson.

Another must-have book is Birds of the Yukon Territory, by Pamela Sinclair and colleagues. It covers the 288 species seen in the Yukon, from glamour birds like the raven and bald eagle to the birds in your backyard to that weird-looking owl hanging out around the cabin. Each entry includes what you need to know about its habitat, diet and habits, as well as its connection to First Nations culture. It’s also packed with photos.

I would also recommend checking out the wide variety of more recent books by Yukon authors. Everyone will enjoy the new book on Yukon musical legend Hank Karr, recently published by the MacBride Museum thanks to Mike Craigen and Patricia Cunning. It’s full of fun stories about the Canucks, the backstories to Karr’s songs, and of course tales of that bygone era of big mining, big money and big hair: the 1970s bar scene in Whitehorse. I would also recommend local historian Michael Gates’ book on Jack Dalton and the Dalton Trail.

There are many more fine Yukon books out there, but I’ve already given you enough to take you well through our short summer and into the winter reading season too. So I’ll wrap up with one final recommendation that might go well with reading on the deck: Classic Cocktails of the Klondike, the MacBride Museum’s collection of vintage Yukon bar menus and drink lists. It is, as far as I know, the only source for the recipe for the Whitehorse Zombie or the ‘98 Special.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.


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