Freeze Up: A First Timer’s Experience on the Other Side of the River

Like plenty of others around the territory, I’m no stranger to cabin life sans plumbing – my usual mode de vie involves a bucket under the sink and an outhouse in the backyard.

My Yukon story is also like so many others: I came for six months a few years ago and stayed. I love this place deeply, yet something internal was asking for more challenge, more of the pure, distilled Yukon-ness I’ve come to appreciate.

Thus, this September, the idea that I’d spend freeze up in West Dawson was born. It was the end of field season; I didn’t relish the idea of being trapped in an office, staring at a computer screen over the winter.

My other half, let’s call him The Frenchman, has lived over the river for eight years. I’ve been visiting for several months so when he invited me to stay I jumped at the prospect of adventure and isolation in the little off-grid community while it waits for the Yukon River to freeze, reconnecting it with Dawson.

I spent a couple of weeks preparing, inner control freak in heaven: I made spreadsheets, packed boxes of food, labeled things, repacked, and stressed about starving. Or scurvy. The Frenchman took care of big things: gas, propane, water.

Due to the warm autumn, we debated my departure date from Whitehorse. The Yukon Government solved it by announcing the final day for the ferry to West Dawson would be Oct 28. That morning with possessions, provisions and my dog in the truck, I drove north.

The following day I walked down the hill from The Frenchman’s cabin to the river. The world was silent, fresh snow everywhere with more falling lightly.

When I arrived at the west bank the ferry was already out of the water, pushed into dock by two bulldozers.

I watched the comings and goings on the opposite side through my camera’s zoom lens. A small black dog, tail tightly curled, scurried around. Ravens swooped, landing now and then to bounce jauntily along the shore and peck at unseen things. Someone walked with a stroller. A transport truck slowly hauled away three shipping containers. Ferry staff meandered between an orange pickup and the boat, high-vis vests sharp against the snow.

I marveled at how busy we humans make ourselves with the things we’ve engineered.

It seemed like I was watching a play unfold from a far-off gallery. A quarter mile of cold, gunmetal-grey river lay between me and the action, flowing along sinuously, silently. I heard only the occasional shout, the beeping of a reversing vehicle, the echoing knock of a remote hammer. Even with these few sounds I still felt distant, as though looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Then I realised that’s what freeze up is about: being apart from the crowd, watching the world go by, and finding my place in it.

I took my leave, whistled to the dog and walked back up the hill, satisfied with my first lesson from freeze up.

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