For over a century, the Yukon has been synonymous with gold and the fevered men who seek it out. The influence of the territory’s crazier characters and an active younger generation are casting new shades of culture on the land of the midnight sun.
THE PALACE GRANDE is alive with music. With each soaring harmony, a roots-folk collective weaves a tapestry of ethereal sound throughout the 115-year-old Dawson City building. The five-piece band is led by Jona Barr, the singer-songwriter better known as “Old Cabin” and the music possesses a similar moody detachment as Bon Iver or early Ryan Adams. Each song delves deeper into a sonic wave so tightly wound it feels like it will explode at any moment. The truth in the tune can be heard as clearly as the snare drum; these Whitehorse-based musicians know each other well.
You won’t hear music like this anywhere else. The author Jack London drank whisky within these ancient wooden walls. So did Pierre Berton. Poet Robert Service gazed down upon sultry dancing girls from the balcony boxes that run the length of the second and third floors. Over 100 years later, the frequencies that vibrate from Old Cabin’s strings resonate through magnetic pickups embedded in hollow-bodied guitars and transmit into an audience filled with young, bearded, and inked-up indie music lovers. This is not the Yukon I have seen on TV.
The fabled “colourful 5%” is a theory that claims a sliver of Yukoners are here because they’re either running from something or searching for something. It brings misfits and mystics to the north, but it mostly just adds a bit of colour to a land that is all too familiar with winter’s monochromatic landscape.
The Yukon most people know displays a more rustic veneer. Gold mining, dog sledding and the midnight sun: these are the things that usually place the territory at magnetic north for a tourism demographic rich with stern-faced Germans and cotton-haired RVers. They come to pan for gold in exhausted streams and marvel at the ancient infrastructure left behind by the rushes that made this land famous. But things are not as old as they seem.
Photo: Dan Barham
In 2011, the Yukon Territory saw one of the biggest gold rushes in history, as gold hit an all-time high on the stock market. Similar to men of the 1898 Klondike rush, I put my own career on hold to go north, help stake claims and seek quick money. And, like most of those men, I didn’t find it. I failed in spectacular fashion, returning home out of pocket for expenses and humbled. What I did unearth would be valuable just the same. The Yukon has continued to pull me back, not for the work but for the play.
Much like its namesake river, the Yukon has an unexpected quality that flows slow and heavy just under the surface. Culture is the emerging precious resource here. And one hallmark of that unique culture is the Dawson City Music Festival, where the same sun that doesn’t set all summer keeps people up and partying on vitamin D and craft-brewed beer. The dance floor in the main tent is a mixed bag of fashionable babes, tattooed dudes, bearded-and-smiling miners, festival-dancing hippies and barefoot children weaving their way throughout it all.
A youthful culture flows slow and heavy just under the surface of this territory, much like its namesake river. This is the emerging hallmark of the Yukon.
The vibe is more Vancouver’s Commercial Street than locals would maybe like to admit, and the music is excellent. Past festival performers include legends like Bruce Cockburn and Blue Rodeo, but the indie credibility it retains is more impressive: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Constantines, The Rheostatics, The Deep Dark Woods, Elliott Brood, Weakerthans, The Sadies, Bell Orchestre. Tonight, it’s Zeus, a Toronto band that used to back Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett before striking out on their own. If a band is Canadian, eclectic and memorable, Dawson City knew them before they went mainstream.
Perhaps one of the reasons for a culture so comfortable with quirk is the long, strange winters Service wrote about. Maybe it’s living on the fringe of society. It’s certainly influenced by the fabled “colourful 5%,” a theory that claims a sliver of Yukoners are here because they’re either running from something or searching for something. It brings misfits and mystics to the north, but it mostly just adds a bit of colour to a land that is all too familiar with winter’s monochromatic landscape. At first summer visitors might not notice the strange; the landscape is 100 per cent natural splendour and beauty, but spend a bit of time talking to the locals and the colour creeps in.
At Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, gorgeous and limber dancers from Canada’s National Ballet School move about the stage in synchronized saloon-girl fashion. The bustling casino is filled with hungry gamblers playing blackjack, roulette and poker. The pit boss laughs at you when you lose.
Toronto band Zeus rocks the main stage at Dawson City Music Festival. Photo: Dan Barham
It’s last call at The Westminster Hotel and a loud man with a blond mullet and a camouflage “God’s Army” hat is ranting incoherently at me. At best, “Josh from New Orleans”—as he introduces himself—is weird. At worst, he’s an asshole. I can’t tell yet. Josh spent Hurricane Katrina holed up in the French Quarter evading the National Guard, looting liquor stores and getting frat-boy trashed. He wrote a drunken, polarizing memoir, Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, which was panned by serious critics and adored by readers seeking a sensationalized account of the historic storm. He tells me he is in the Yukon because “he’s not allowed back in Alaska.”
While walking down Dawson’s dusty dirt streets, a gap-toothed man standing on the raised wooden boardwalk offers to “flip” a friend. “What do you mean ‘flip’?” she asks. “I’ll show you,” he says, as he strolls towards her. He proceeds to grab her by the waist, throw her into a full backflip and catch her as her feet land on the ground.
“Can you flip me?” I ask, half-kidding, expecting him to reject my 240-pound heft. His name is Joe and apparently this is what he’s famous for. He once owned a bar in Whitehorse. The name? Flippers Pub. Joe doesn’t flinch. I get flipped.
There truly are strange things done in the midnight sun.
Dawson City’s raised wooden boardwalks and dusty streets recall more rugged days. During the 36-year-old Dawson City Music Festival, young meets old as 1,200 festival goers invade the tiny town. Here, Joe, of Flipper’s Pub fame in Whitehorse.…
IN THE MOUNTAINS above Whitehorse, I pedal hard on a borrowed bike, threading through tall lodgepole pines and railing dusty berms in an effort to keep up with Dan Barham. The North Vancouver-based photographer knows the trails well, having visited this northern enclave of singletrack over a dozen times. I can see him sporadically through the sparse forest, fluidly linking turns along the buffed trail. It’s my third ride of the year and he’s losing me fast. Just as I think he’s out of sight, the trail opens to a wide vista and becomes a wide-open ripper. Together, we pin it along the ridge, bathed in the golden light. I catch up to Barham at the bottom of the descent, breathless and ecstatic.
“I’ve made good money on that trail,” he says, referring to the magazine-worthy photos he’s captured on that ridgeline. Judging by the vast coverage Barham has garnered for his Yukon expertise, this ex-pat Englishman has found a modest gold rush of his own up here.
With 700 kilometres of singletrack—some of it municipality-sponsored—Whitehorse has redefined itself as more than a staging ground for heavy industry. It’s become a legitimate destination for even more legitimate riding. An hour south of here, Carcross’s gnarly downhill and freeride trails challenge any rider.
Two of those riders are Whitehorse’s Marsha Cameron and Sylvain Turcotte, life partners and owners of Boréale Mountain Biking. The four of us drink post-ride beers out of an icy cooler at their ranch. In the kitchen, a bicycle-powered margarita blender sits. Later on, a poutine party is scheduled. From where I sit, they seem to have the world by the balls.
“We have a lot of free spirits up here, people that move here from elsewhere, for whatever reasons,” says Cameron. “This is a space where you can reinvent yourself, or perhaps better yet, actually be who you are.”
Back at Dawson’s Downtown Hotel, an international mélange lines up to drink a shot of Yukon Jack with an amputated, desiccated human toe submerged in the glass. The zombified digit allegedly belongs to Steve White, a now-lopsided chain-link fence installer from Whitehorse.
The two met in Vancouver after Turcotte had gravitated west from Quebec and Cameron had moved “down south” for university. After four years in the city, the couple decided to lay roots in Whitehorse’s burgeoning trail system. “I imported Sylvain,” Cameron laughs.
It could be argued that starting a mountain-bike tour company in a region unknown for fat-tired tourism was foolish, but they saw an opportunity to do it their own way. “I am pretty sure everyone, save a few key shoulders, thought our idea was a complete failure,” recalls Cameron. “You have to tune out the negative and keep focused on doing things differently.” Seven years later it has paid off. The Yukon has become an international destination for riding, and Cameron and Turcotte upgraded to a new ranch this past winter and have a thriving business, a business where singletrack-fuelled lunches and bicycle-powered margaritas are normal.
Matt Hunter rails his way through “Mossy” on Montana Mountain in Carcross, Yukon. Carcross’s name is a shortened revision of its original name, Caribou Crossing. Photo: Dan Barham
“I think the colourful 5% exists here because the Yukon gives you the freedom to be who you are,” says Cameron. “It’s a very easy place to live, but it is equally as difficult. It can either harden you up or spit you out. In the face of the extremities, we see a lot of people express it in their own distinct way. In the Yukon there is still tons of room for new ideas.”
Some ideas are better than others. Back at Dawson’s Downtown Hotel, an international mélange lines up to drink a shot of Yukon Jack with an amputated, desiccated human toe submerged in the glass. The zombified digit allegedly belongs to Steve White, a now-lopsided chain-link fence installer from Whitehorse. The Sour Toe is a cliché tourist-trap business at its best, but to its credit it is actual human flesh you’re putting in your whisky. Try to get away with that under British Columbia liquor board laws.
A cacophony of Italian, German and British inflections rings out around the bar as tentative tourists ask questions about the infamous drink. The rules? The toe has to hit your lips or you buy a round for the house. Over 50,000 people have paid $5 for the privilege. I’m one of them. The cliché tastes like a dead toe in any language. Less than two months later, “Josh from New Orleans” will swallow Steve White’s toe in a flourish of arrogant pride and then slap $500 down on the table, a fine for swallowing the toe that will subsequently be raised to $1500. It will make national news. Confirmed: Josh is an asshole.
Sylvain Turcotte and Marsha Cameron of Boreale Mountain Bikin
THE SNAKE PIT is alive with music. The raucous bar on the ground floor of the 116-year-old Westminster Hotel opens at 9:00 a.m., a liberty allowed because of a grandfathered law only two establishments in the Yukon get to take advantage of. There isn’t a straight piece of lumber in the building and the floor slopes precipitously. Some of the patrons look like they’ve been here since the doors opened. I’m drunk. Hell, everyone is drunk. The staff might even be drunk.
The piano player, however, is not intoxicated. He and a singer—both grey-bearded, jovial Newfie regulars—are putting on a show in trade for rye and cokes. They play a litany of Irish-tinged tunes that keep the young festival crowd lining drinks along the top of the piano. Song by song, the glasses stack up until the two musicians feel they have enough booze until the next set. They get up off the bench and bow for the crowd. The applause is deafening. Everything old is new again./