The ice bridge across the Yukon River in Dawson was closed by April 11 last year and it looked “iffy” for a week before that.
As I write this column on April 21, I have just been watching the ice racing cars cruising around their slick track on the river. Several vehicles and a couple of ATVs crossed the bridge in the few minutes we were there. Two days before that I drove across because I wanted a photo of the town from the middle of the river.
Things seem to be a little behind schedule this year. In the records since 1896 the river has broken up as early as April 9 and as late as May 28. Last year it was May 1. In 2011 it was May 7. If I had to guess I’d go for the later of those two dates this year.
The IODE Break-Up Tripod, installed by members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers, has been out on the river for nearly a month at this point. It’s part of a traditional guessing game that goes back to the Gold Rush. When the tripod heads on down river and the ice clears in front of the town, break-up is said to have happened, even if there may still be ice upstream or downstream from Dawson.
The tripod is wired to a clock that used to be fastened to the Old CIBC building, but has been attached to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre for many years now.
Contrary to popular opinion, stopping the clock does not trigger the alarm at the fire hall. That’s a separate operation, which happens after someone notifies the fire department that things are moving.
It is rare that the first movement of the ice does not have witnesses. Some people walk the dyke at every hour because they are hoping they have the winning guess, but most people do it because the break-up signals the real end of winter and the beginning of our short spring.
Typically the river in front of Dawson will clear out completely within a few days of break-up and then, a week or so later, the rivers that feed the Yukon will let their flows loose. Then it’s safe to slide the George Black Ferry from its winter berth into the river.
The winner of the Ice Pool is the person who comes closest to the actual hour and minute of the event. Half of the profit raised by the sale of the tickets goes to the winner and the other half to the IODE to support various charitable activities.
The easiest ice-breaking chart to look at can be found on Mammoth Mapping’s www.YukonRiverBreakup.com. You can cross reference dates by earliest, by year, or by time of day.
Mammoth has also been posting an annual series of panoramic photos since 2009. Photos from this year will be online by the time you read this article. The site provides a fascinating pictorial record of this event as seen from West Dawson.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.