There are times when life influences art, and times when art influences life.
At the Jack London Interpretive Museum in Dawson you can experience both in one package.
There are three buildings on the site: the big one is the interpretive centre, and it contains the Jack London memorabilia collection that Dick North spent a good portion of his life putting together.
Some two decades ago, not long after I moved to Dawson, North went to the Klondike Visitors Association with a proposal to start a tourist site.
His argument, backed by Kathy Jones-Gates, among others, was that London was even better known worldwide than was Robert Service, and he would be a drawing card for Europeans, particularly those who had grown up in countries behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain, where Jack’s socialist leanings made him a popular writer in translation.
After a season in the front end of Parks Canada’s Klondike Thawing Machine Building, North and his vast collection of documents and photographs moved into the big log cabin built by the KVA beside the little one that was already there.
The little one is made of half of the cabin London lived in at the North Fork of Henderson Creek, 120 kilometres south of Dawson, in 1897 and part of 1898.
London was an actual Stampeder at the age of 21 and, while he didn’t find much gold, he did stake a claim (the document is in the centre) and took away a golden hoard of stories and atmosphere when ill health sent him south.
His books, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and his several volumes of Klondike-themed short stories, including his strongest short work, To Build a Fire, all came out of his stay in the Yukon, and North has verified the locations and settings, and sometimes the people and events, which inspired them.
For Jack London, life was clearly an inspiration for his art.
The cabin was found by trappers in 1936 and they noted that London’s signature was carved into a log at the back, but all that was more or less forgotten until Dick North got involved.
In 1965, he sought out the cabin and arranged to have it moved to where people could see it. Half is in Dawson, the other half in London’s Oakland, California, in the other Jack London Square.
Later, North located the chunk of log with the pencil carved signature and verified it with handwriting experts.
The cabin is on the north end of the square. Just behind it is a food storage cache. There may or may not have been one on the original site, but this one is here because of the life-imitating-art thing.
The best-known picture of the cabin is by Yukon artist Jim Robb, and he painted a food cache into the scene. So there is a food cache on stilts at the centre, restored to an upright position after the vertical posts rotted and it fell over a few years ago.
Dick North has retired now and his protégé, Dawn Mitchell, holds forth at the centre, telling the story of Jack London and telling a bit of North’s story at the same time.
You can read about Dick North’s lifelong London obsession in his memoir, Sailor on Snowshoes(Harbour Publishing), which is partly about Jack London and partly about his own journeys while following in his footsteps.
Jack London Square will be one of the three settings for literary events during the Authors on Eighth celebration on the afternoon of Aug. 12.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.