Living across the Yukon River from Dawson City in the communities of West Dawson or Sunnydale has its perks. You’re near town, but not in town. A 35-minute walk or 10-minute ferry ride is all it takes to partake of the amenities of town living, while still experiencing an off-the-grid lifestyle.
But twice a year something unique happens. The freeze-up and break-up of the river isolates us for several weeks at a time. There are no shops on the west side of the river. We must make sure we have enough of what we need to last until we can get across again. This includes food, water, fuel, DVDs, books and whatever else is felt to be important.
At the moment, freeze-up is upon us. The ferry that connects us in the summer was pulled in October, two weeks earlier than anticipated due to heavy ice flow. This will be a short freeze-up, we all said. We’ll be walking across in no time. Then the temperature warmed up and the ice disappeared. No matter, we all said, this has happened before – a few cold nights, the ice will come back and we’ll be crossing in no time. The ice did return at one point, but then disappeared again with another warming trend. It started to sink in that maybe, just maybe, this freeze-up wasn’t going to go as fast as everyone thought.
Conversations turned to whether or not certain supplies would run out. As there is no well available, water is normally transported from town and stored in cabins, either in jugs or water tanks. Melting snow in big pots on a wood stove for washing or dogs, helps preserve the water supply during freeze-up.
But this year, the snow isn’t falling like it normally does – in fact there is very little of it. The 445 gallons of water I had stored in barrels and jugs throughout my 250-square-foot cabin is already more than half gone. Luckily in the last few days, it has snowed enough to scrape together a pot of it for water every day.
Because everyone in West Dawson and Sunnydale is in this together, the spirit of community is strong. People are always ready to help each other out, and in today’s age of internet access everywhere, there is a special Facebook group page set up for the west side, where we can post for advice, stuff to borrow, should I keep knitting and turn my scarf into a blanket?, how do I fix a propane leak?, and bear or wolf sightings, to name a few.
This year, most of the posts seem to centre around helicopter rides; that’s the only way to get across until the river freezes. As the warm temperatures continue and it appears the river is in no hurry to freeze, people’s commitments to work and travel are coming due. Moreover, certain supplies, such as fresh produce and dairy, are starting to run out.
News travels fast when a helicopter is booked. After fulfilling some work commitments in town, I hired a chopper to cross over to West Dawson to start my freeze-up stay, and before I could put it on the group page to see if anyone wanted to come along or needed something, I had already received four phone calls asking me to bring over everything from cheese, bananas and croissants, to extra clothing for a neighbour’s kids.
One of the landing areas in West Dawson is a wide open field at the end of my road. Every flight is greeted by a group of people, either with sleds, quads or trucks, coming to pick up what they had ordered from town. It has the festive air of a social, outdoor post office.
But despite the challenges of freeze-up and break-up, very few of us would trade it for city living. The camaraderie of being isolated together, the dinners, games nights, bonfires and alone time – having no plan except to get up and see what the day brings – is a special experience we all feel lucky to be a part of.