It’s Thursday night at Dawson City Curling Club. Club president Akio Saito explains the finer points of the pivoting head on a blue, light-weight curling broom to a teammate who’s contemplating a purchase before this weekend’s 112th International Bonspiel.
The annual, open-entry tournament attracts about 16 teams, mostly from Dawson, Whitehorse and other Yukon communities. In the past players have also come from British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
It’s more than a decade since teams from Alaska and Seattle last brought “international” to the bonspiel, but the event is still a highlight in Dawson’s curling season.
Each foursome is guaranteed a minimum of three eight-end games, with winners remaining in the A Pool until the top two teams battle for the cup.
A mix of women and men is required for each team. Last year’s winners, the ELKS, consisted of two couples: Eldo Enns (skip) and Karen Dubois (second) joined forces with Laurie Sokolowski (lead) and husband Dan (third) to take the prize.
ELKS stands for Eldo, Laurie, Karen and Sok. Anyone who subs on their team has to have a name that starts with one of those letters.
Dubois, raised in Dawson, comes from a long line of curlers, including her aunt and brothers. Her father was also an International Bonspiel champion who clearly passed on his finesse with the granite along with his love of the game.
DuBois speaks fondly of the days when the curling club was at the centre of the local high school social scene. The “clubhouse” was theirs every Saturday morning and Wednesday night. Even kids who didn’t curl would hang out and play pool.
Saito started curling in his teens – “a long time ago” is as specific as he gets. He was a competitive curler in northern Manitoba and Ontario before moving to Dawson in 1980.
He remembers when the curling club was Dawson’s inter-generational social hub. The core group of volunteers puts so much energy into the upkeep of the club, he says, that there is little time or resources to focus on recruiting younger curlers.
Yet the sport does seem to be attracting new blood. The recent Dawson Commercial Bonspiel was won by the Mystic Buttons, a team of 20- and 30-somethings under skip Dylan Meyerhoffer.
Third Tim Jones, who’s been around curling rinks since he was a toddler in Toronto a few decades ago, looks forward to competing in this weekend’s bonspiel as well.
Second Jonathan Howe, lead Evelyn Pollock and alternate Megan Graham rounded out their winning team.
To Saito’s knowledge, the International Bonspiel has run 112 consecutive years. There’s a sense of curling history in the clubhouse’s groupings of framed photos of champions dating from the early 1900s.
Harkening back to the original outdoor rinks in a photo from April 1901, the 2001 and 2002 International Bonspiels were actually held on rinks built on the river while the club waited for the Recreation Centre to be built.
The contemporary club features two natural-ice sheets that can take more than three weeks to build, depending on temperatures in November and December. Once established, the rinks are flooded every couple of weeks and require regular maintenance: sweeping, buffing and pebbling to keep the ice in ideal playing condition.
The curling club houses a glass case with antique trophies, and facilities to host the International’s closing banquet on Sunday, where prizes will be awarded. Spectators are welcome to drop in and watch a game or two, as many did during the Dawson Commercial Bonspiel.
For Dubois, one of last year’s highlights was beating a team of strapping young men. She loves that curling is the only sport where a 55-year-old woman can beat a 20-year-old man.
Do she and her team feel any pressure to defend last year’s title? DuBois laughingly says, “I’d like to prove it wasn’t all shamrock shots. But we were the underdogs last year, and we’ll still be the underdogs this year.”