In spite of numerous attempts by the Chamber of Commerce and promises from the current Yukon government, the only bridge Dawson City has across the Yukon River is the one that forms in the winter … that super highway we call the Ice Bridge.
In a normal winter season, the Yukon River begins to freeze up in as little as a week after the George Black ferry is taken out. That means that those who live on the west side of the river can look forward to a few weeks of isolation before they can go shopping again.
Well – before they can drive a vehicle, at least. Because it is a fact that some hardy souls begin walking across the river, on the barely formed ice, within days of the ferry being withdrawn.
One of my favourite Klondike Sun front pages shows a former correspondent for What’s Up Yukon, all decked with heavy rubbers and an axe slung across his back, mincing his way across the river while holding a 12-foot length of tree sideways in case he went through. It was Johnny Nunan and, in honour of his nom-de-plume, I called the picture “Caribou Crossing”.
The locals make the first road. Foot paths mark the thickest spots and sometimes they are marked with poles and highway tape, Next come the snowmobiles and ATVs, slowly at first and then faster, beating down the ice and hardening the path.
Pickup trucks with plough attachments are able to make the crossing and smooth out the way long before the heavier equipment, owned by the Highways Department, can begin to work on the bridge. This year it was only about a week before the process began.
There are mishaps. I’m told this has happened before, but this year was the first year I have seen a pickup truck trapped in the ice, having broken through and frozen in place while the driver was performing a public service. It stayed there, buried up to the rear wheels, for about two months before the last of several attempts liberated it.
I’m told the truck will survive the experience.
At this point, the bridge is a wide two-lane highway, which will last until sometime in mid-April, depending on sunshine, warmth, wind and water levels.
Many winter visitors are fascinated by our ice bridge, but the questions they ask are right up there with the apocryphal favourite, “What time do they turn on the Northern Lights?”
“What do you do with the bridge in the summer?” is a question which has been asked quite often during my years here.
The best answer came from a student of mine. I wish I could remember who told me this, but it was at least 12 years ago now and I can’t.
In response to the question, the tourist got this answer:
“We cut it up in numbered blocks and store it in our freezers all over town. It preserves the pieces and helps reduce our power bills during the summer. Then we haul them down to the river in the late fall.”
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.