Sometime between now and May 29 (the absolute latest date in the records that have been kept since 1896), the ice in the Yukon River in front of Dawson will lift and fall, break up and begin to float off downstream.
There may be loud noises and bergs popping into the air, with larger floes crushing smaller ones, or there may just be large ice pans moving sedately towards the sea that they will never reach, carrying the tripod marker that is used to signal the break-up.
The tripod was placed there by the Yukon Order of Pioneers about a month ago, and it is attached by a cable to a clock mounted in a locked box fastened to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
When the ice moves the tripod, the cable will stop the clock. By that point there will be people walking the dike at all hours to see what is going on, and one of them will notify the fire department to sound the alarm.
This alarm used to be a warning of possible flood danger (the last having been in 1979), but it also signals the townsfolk to gather at the river and watch the true changing of the seasons in Dawson.
Should this happen during the school day, the students and teachers will make an orderly trek to the waterfront to watch the event. Based on the historical record, It can happen anytime from 12:06 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., but my own experience has it happening more often outside class time.
Back in March, the IODE began selling tickets for the Dawson Ice Pool, sometimes called the Breakup Ice Pool. The organization began running this contest in the 1940s, and uses its profits from the lottery to fund a number of educational and charitable projects.
After IODE member Joyce Caley and a helper unlock the clock and check the time, the person who comes closest to the date and the exact time will take half the lottery proceeds after expenses. The last two years have seen solo winners collecting over $3,600, but the two years before that had splits, with each of the pair taking over $1,600.
If you’re curious about what the event looks like, Mammoth Mapping runs a website at www.yukonriverbreakup.com. It contains both still panorama photographs and some video of the event over the last five years. It also contains a handy database that can be sorted by year, day, or time of day.
In addition to that information, the Klondike Sun publishes a statistical chart each year.
Retired mining engineer Stephen Johnson has charted all the available breakup dates from the very first recorded number to the most recent. The chart shows a general tendency for breakup to happen a little earlier each year, though there are many factors that can throw that off.
After ten years of breaking up between April 29 and May 11, last year the river fooled everyone and hung on until May 15.
This year the chart suggests that it might happen at 10:00 pm. on May 4, but Johnson says there’s just a 13.2 per cent chance of that.
April 28, in 1940, is the earliest date on record.
Whether by day or by night, you can be sure that the breakup will attract a large local audience on both sides of the river. By then the ice bridge will have become unsafe and there will be people who have been unable to cross for a week or so.
The ferry will enter the water about a week after break-up and summer traffic flows will begin again.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.
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