Choosing sides for the Klondike winter

Twice a year in Dawson City, lives are disrupted, homes are abandoned and the big question is, “What side will you be on?”

Is Dawson City in the middle of political unrest? No, it’s Mother Nature we’re talking about.

Those of us who live in West Dawson, located across the Yukon River from Dawson City, must deal with the river freezing and breaking up every year. This is a time when crossing the river becomes impossible.

The ferry, which provides summer service between the banks of the Yukon, is pulled out when the river is too full of ice pans to cross safely.

Depending on commitments – work, school and so on – some are “left behind” on the west side, and some stay in town during the wait. For freeze-up, this can last up to six weeks.

In the last few years, I’ve become a “townie”. Not only do townies need to find a place to live, but it is hard to know what to bring over.

What if I forget something? Did I take everything out of my cabin so that nothing will explode when it freezes? I still remember the time I arrived home to find the corks of several wine bottles blown out and the wine completely ruined.

Conversely, those staying in west Dawson must have enough food, water, wood, generator gas and propane (there is no running water or electricity in West Dawson). And if temperatures are too warm, using the great outdoors as a freezer becomes a challenge.

This year is a good example. The day before the last ferry, I ran into a couple who were madly looking around town for a freezer. They were willing to run a generator so that six weeks’ worth of meat and frozen goods would not have to be thrown out.

Freeze-up this year began near the end of October. I drove down to the ferry one morning and was astonished to see ice pans coming down the river. This had happened literally overnight.

When the knock came at my window, I knew the time was here. The deckhand informed me that they were shutting the ferry service down on Monday, as it was becoming too dangerous to continue to cross.

Well, I thought, let the preparations begin! Over the next two days, I ran into harried West Dawsonites at the laundromat, the water station and the grocery stores. Along with the rush to get ready, there was also an air of excitement – freeze-up was about to begin!

On Monday October 25, I caught the second-to-last ferry from the west Dawson side. I stayed on the town side to take pictures and say goodbye to those going across for the last time.

As the last ferry stood waiting to cross, one of my neighbours stood by the ramp wondering where her husband was. He had gone to get water, she said; she was now worried that he would miss the last ferry.

One of the deckhands gallantly offered to stall the ferry by refusing to get on it until her husband showed up.

Minutes went by. Finally, someone shouted, “There he is!” All breathed a sigh of relief. The deckhand was the last to get on the ferry and off it went.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of the last ferry of the year. On the west Dawson side, there is a This is it, I’m on my own now kind of feeling. As the weeks pass by, Dawson City becomes a memory and the camaraderie of west Dawson is what’s real.

Friendships are made or rekindled, and there’s a feeling all around of experiencing something special. People who are normally too busy with life and work now have time to walk to each other’s houses for dinners, movie nights, bonfires or just a chat.

In fact, this freeze-up has been so socially successful that in one west Dawson subdivision, the six-week supply of wine and spirits was gone in only six days!

On the town side there is a feeling of excitement. We now have showers, electricity, TV – our holiday in “the city” has begun.

But it doesn’t take long before a sense of loss creeps in. Townies try hard to form their own special freeze-up community by organizing dinner and pub nights, but in the end it’s not the same.

Discussions centre on when the river will freeze and when we can go home. All the convenience of town living does not make up for the quiet of a west Dawson freeze-up, when you finally have the time to finish those projects you never get to finish, or just to relax and get into the rhythm of the nature that surrounds us.

We realize that, in the end, it is the townies who are being left behind.

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