Dawson’s Writers’ Block

There’s an area of town in Dawson that I like to refer to as the Writers’ Block.

I do this because of an inherent weakness for puns, and because three of the writers who helped Dawson outlast the fate of most mining boomtowns are connected to the place.

Without them, it’s safe to venture that our northern outpost would never have achieved its current state of brand recognition.

What we have on Eighth Avenue are three buildings that once housed three well-known scribes: Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton.

All three places are tourist attractions, and we celebrate them collectively each August during the Authors on Eighth event, on the Thursday before the Discovery Day holiday.

None of these guys ever suffered from writer’s block, of course. All of them lived by their written words, and lived well.

London came first, following the Stampeders in the hopes of escaping the poverty in which he had grown up. The gold he found was not the mineral kind but a literary mother lode, and his best known books and stories, churned out at breakneck pace over the remaining 17 years of his life, all feature the Yukon.

The cabin in which he lived out on the creeks is shared by Oakland, California, and Dawson City, and the Klondike Visitors Association runs a museum in his honour.

A fourth writer, Dick North, is responsible for starting this venture. North has also written books about the Mad Trapper, the Lost Patrol, and Jack London’s Klondike years. There are daily presentations here during the tourist months.

Robert Service reached Whitehorse as a bank clerk six years after the Gold Rush, and wrote two of his most famous verses there before being transferred to Dawson.

The thing is, he wrote about Gold Rush days and people, and made a fortune writing poems that were scorned by the literati of the day, but beloved by the general public.

He didn’t own the Eighth Avenue log cabin in which he lived but when he left it to report on the Balkan Wars, swearing to return, its owner kept it for him. He never did come back, but by 1917 the place was already a tourist mecca, and has remained so.

Today the Robert Service cabin is owned and managed by Parks Canada. There are daily readings and viewings during the summer, and Parks has just finished refreshing the landscaping of the site.

Pierre Berton was born in Whitehorse, but spent most of his first 12 years in Dawson, returning in his late teens and early 20s to work as a labourer in the gold fields.

Embarking on a career in journalism, he made his name with several series of newspaper and magazine articles about the North (not to mention exposure on radio, television, and most of the other mass media of his day) and eventually turned his hand to writing popular history books.

The first of these was Klondike, a book that had a direct impact on Parks Canada’s interest in this town.

His boyhood home passed through a number of hands until Berton bought it in the late 1980s and it was refurbished to become a writers’ retreat. It opened in 1996, the 100th anniversary of the Klondike discovery.

It has now seen some 50 writers spend three-month stints here and has generated a number of books, some of which I mentioned a few weeks ago. It is managed by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, with local assistance from the KVA and the Dawson Community Library.

Normally not open to the public, Berton House is the last stop on the free Authors on Eighth Tour.

It is the place where the winners of the annual writing contest are announced, and the afternoon concludes with a tour of the residence, led by the current writer in residence (this summer sees poet Jacob Arthur Mooney in that role).

The themes for the contest change annually, but this year it is to write something in the spirit or style of one of the big three, which leaves it wide open for a short story, a poem or an essay.

A previous two-time winner of this contest, David Thompson, recently published his first short story collection, Talking at the Woodpile, so perhaps this small contest is a good place to get started.

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