As we get closer to the time when Dawson sees an influx of summer workers, I thought I would take this week to reflect on the glory that was Tent City.
To begin with, there has been a summer housing crunch in Dawson from at least the 1970s on.
The shortage of suitable accommodation has led summerdoughs to camp out in shacks, pitch tents, and spread bed rolls where ever they can find a place.
We’ve even had people living on rafts anchored in middle of the Yukon River.
And how could I fail to mention Caveman Bill, who has been living in a couple of caves on the west bank for the last decade?
Right now the situation is not as bad as it was two or three years back, or so I would infer from the fact that there was no organized lobby group pushing for summer housing solutions at city council in the summer of 2010, as there had been the two previous summers.
From 2005 on those discussions had both locals and summer workers discussing camping options, and presentations at city council often focused on the good old days.
Once upon a time there was Tent City, a place that fit quite neatly into the Klondike ambiance, although the tiny tents that festooned the woods just off the Top of the World Highway across the river were certainly more colourful that those that can be seen in Gold Rush era photographs.
Tenting makes a lot of sense in Dawson, if you like that sort of thing. If it doesn’t rain too much, the months of May, June and July can be fine tenting weather.
The ferry to town is in walking or biking distance, and hotel owners have been quick to tell me about the number of times they found summer folk washing hair and sponge bathing in their public washrooms.
There wasn’t too much complaining because Dawson needs those summerdoughs. There’s no way to support the summer tourist business without staff, and there aren’t enough young people in Dawson to fill all those jobs.
So there was Tent City.
It went through a number of phases. Originally it wasn’t too organized, and there are people who wax nostalgic for those days. By the time I got here there were concerns about bear attacks and possible forest fires and the town had taken the administration of the place in hand.
A fairly nominal fee was charged to pay for the upkeep, site supervision and garbage collection.
The Klondike Sun hires student reporters every summer. One of them lived with his partner in a tree house someone had left behind in Tent City, and loved it until it started getting chilly at night in late August. A couple of others tented there as well.
Then came Land Claims, and the area where Tent City had been became the property of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, who vowed to keep it running for a specified term, but who did say they would eventually shut it down.
That this deadline arrived about the same time that the town council was under siege, and was eventually removed, was an unfortunate coincidence. The end result was that no replacement for the low-cost summer housing option was ever developed.
I watched both the trusteeship and the restored council give this some thought and debate, but nothing got done in the end.
Is there a connection between the closure of Tent City and the decline in the number of people coming to Dawson to find summer jobs? Some say this is so.
Others say that the wage gap between here and the southern provinces is no longer wide enough to be the lure it was.
Maybe it’s a combination, since the wages are okay if your housing costs are close to nothing.
At any rate, the days of Tent City are over, and those who do plan a summer in Dawson need to give some advance thought to where they might lay their heads at night.