So You Think Yukon Dance?
Senior Researcher Marilyn Terrell is just back from a trip through the Yukon Territory, and she’s thrilling all of us with stories from her trip. You can read her previous entries about her Yukon adventure here and here.
The ultimate destination on my Yukon River trip two weeks ago was Dawson City, just as it had been for the Klondike gold prospectors streaming down the river 112 years ago. To learn more about the Gold Rush, I picked up a wonderfully informative history by Pierre Berton, “Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush”, from Mac’s Fireweed Books in Whitehorse to read during the trip.
For the prospectors, the journey started with an arduous slog over the Coast Mountains along the Chilkoot Trail from the port at Skagway, Alaska. Each prospector had to make numerous trips in order to haul 1,000 pounds of equipment and supplies down to Lake Bennett, where the Yukon River begins. The North West Mounted Police were patrolling the Yukon when the Klondike gold rush began 1897, and would not permit any ill-equipped miner lacking the requisite 1,000-lb. “outfit” to start the journey, because there were no grocery stores along the Yukon River or even in Dawson City itself. You had to bring enough canned food with you to survive on for a year, until the next riverboat might bring supplies.
Some hasty prospectors raced to Dawson City in the fall of 1896, traveling light without supplies before the main rush began, and they were congratulating themselves on getting a jump on the competition when a messenger appeared in a canoe from downriver in Whitehorse. Instead of the news they were expecting, that a steamboat was on its way with food for the winter, the early birds got the grim word: no more riverboats would be forthcoming that year, and unless they wanted to starve they’d have to leave immediately, as the river was already beginning to freeze up.
With that history in mind, I approached Dawson with some trepidation, even though I was traveling on a nifty little excursion boat with satellite navigation and powerful outboard engines, and dinner was awaiting us at the Downtown Hotel. It was cloudy and gray when we arrived at the dock, and the brilliant yellow leaves
we’d seen earlier in the trip all along the Yukon River were gone from the shoreline, some 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The town seemed deserted, and I could easily imagine the despair of those early settlers as winter approached and they realized that Dawson City, instead of making their fortunes, meant losing them.
Our little group dispersed and wandered the gravel streets before dinner, checking out the historic buildings and storefronts–the entire town is a Canadian National Historic Site.
After six days on the Yukon River, where we’d seen no cars, no roads, no telephone poles, I found myself still checking the path for moose prints and bear scat.
But we felt like the only people in town. I stopped at the visitors center, and spied two of our group half-awake in the warm, dark theater. I looked into a shop selling gold nugget jewelry, and there was someone else I knew. Clacking down the wooden sidewalk, I heard someone call my name– another group member. Picking out T-shirts for my kids in a clothing boutique, I kept seeing the same faces. I was starting to feel like I knew everyone in town!
Our plan for the evening was supposed to include the live stage show at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, but our guide Telek apologetically explained that the regular performance was canceled to allow for a local talent show that night. “Even better!” we all exclaimed (I don’t think any of us was wild to see the usual can-can dancers anyway.) We got a table down front near the stage and watched in amazement as inhabitants of the apparently empty town filled up every available seat. Where did these people come from?
Because there were only a few acts scheduled, our group urged Telek to sign up to perform. She’s a jazz musician and a natural performer, having entertained us on our river journey with dramatic readings of Robert W. Service poems like “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” We didn’t have to twist her arm.
First up was a woman in a bathing suit, swimmer’s cap and nose plugs simulating water ballet to Beethoven on a rolling office chair. Next came a duo performing the hilarious “Canada’s REALLY Big” song (“Our mountains, Are really pointy, Our prairies, Are not. The rest is, Rather bumpy, But man we have a lot!…”). Then a neatly dressed man (“that’s my high school science teacher!”
yelled Telek), sang the periodic table of the elements without pausing.
Then came Telek’s turn. The piano player didn’t know the chords to her first choice, “Lullaby of Birdland,” so she sang “Girl From Ipanema”
instead, smooth as silk. We imagined the hot beaches of Rio as we sat snuggled in our fleeces, and cheered loudly at the end.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
We figured she had the competition sewn up and the judges were just about to reveal the winner when suddenly a late entry was announced–should they allow this violation of procedure, the MC asked the crowd? Our table booed, but the rest of the theater, true to the renegade heritage of Dawson City, applauded their assent. We had to wait until the performer, a step dancer, found her step shoes and someone went down the street to fetch Willie the fiddler.
Willlie showed up but the dance shoes didn’t, so the audience was asked to use its imagination and the dancer began her routine in soft-soled shoes. “She’s no spring chicken,” whispered Dorothy dubiously on my right.
Nevertheless, the dancer’s spirited jigging and Willie’s enthusiastic fiddling brought down the house.
Telek won a prize anyway, a book called “The Ten Best of Everything” (“darn, it’s from 2007!” she complained). She read us interesting facts from the book on our long drive back to Whitehorse down the two-lane Klondike Highway. During the first three hours of the drive, I counted only two dozen vehicles, including this pickup truck with a distinctive moose-antler hood ornament.
Photo: Marilyn Terrell