In mid-June, the tiny community of Keno City (pop. 25) was invaded.
The invasion was led by a veritable army of women from Dawson City (pop. 1,800), calling themselves the FOOPs, or the Female Order of Pioneers.
Not to be mistaken with the YOOP, or the Yukon Order of Pioneers – an historic organization, steeped in tradition and regulations – the FOOPs are all about having a good time.
Every June they gather in Keno for their annual convention, where they have one rule: there are no rules.
The women take over Keno’s campground and claim the Keno City Snack Bar as their headquarters. They come to relax, eat good food, go hiking – and party.
Indeed, wild things happen when the FOOPs are in Keno, but they hold strong to their maxim: what happens in Keno, stays in Keno!
Thankfully, this adage doesn’t apply to Dawson, when all this FOOPery started at a stagette party in 1994. Retired teacher Joyce Caley was at that party.
Sipping coffee in the Keno City Snack Bar, Caley, now in her 80s, recalls how the women got to talking about the legal battle between the YOOP and Madeline Gould, a long-time Yukoner who had been petitioning the fraternal organization for membership.
Gould’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the YOOP’s right to deny women was upheld.
Well, these ladies knew they were pioneers. Many of them had lived in the bush, trapped, fished, worked in mines and raised kids and gardens while doing so.
Then and there, the women decided to start their own organization and theirs would be all about enjoying themselves.
The hilarity started with one of the gifts given to the bride-to-be: a kinky red negligée. This fringed and tasselled little item, combined with a pair of rubber boots and a pick and shovel, became the official regalia of the FOOPs, donned by their leader – the “Grand FOOPA”.
“It all came about with a great deal of fun,” recalls Caley, who is a source of inspiration for younger FOOPs, such as Jennifer Flynn.
For Flynn, being a FOOP isn’t about proving anything.
“I certainly think that women should be recognized as pioneers … and that was how it originated,” she says, just back from a hike.
“We’re strong women, we women who live in the North, and [now] it’s a celebration of that.”
A big part of that celebration is the weekend getaway each June.
The FOOPs escape jobs, husbands and children and come to Keno to enjoy the camaraderie and spirit of fellow Yukon women.
And why Keno?
“It’s a very special place. And it opens its door to us and embraces us,” says Flynn.
As one local told her, “”Everybody who lives here wants to live here.”
“It’s not necessarily easy to live here, but they make it work and I think that’s pretty powerful, to be in a place where everybody loves where they are.”
The FOOP weekend is well anticipated by the town’s primarily male population.
The men of Keno pull out all the stops to impress the women of Dawson. This includes catching and frying fresh fish, blasting Tina Turner to keep the dancing going, and partying with the women until the wee hours.
Even the normally reserved and mysterious Milos – or “Dr. Milos”, a retired miner who’s lived in Keno for years – has stepped up, allegedly once offering to wash and massage all of the women’s feet.
An old silver mining town that boomed in the 1920s, Keno City has seen its fair share of ups and downs. Somehow the community has survived and now boasts a mining museum, campground, alpine interpretive centre, and of course, the Keno Snack Bar, run by honorary FOOP member Mike Mancini.
An honorary FOOP? Well, there’s a rumour involving Mancini and a tutu, but as the FOOPs say – what happens in Keno stays in Keno!
Mancini makes the women feel at home in the little town. He starts by making delicious pizza to serve the FOOPs when they arrive on Friday night, road-weary and hungry.
“I think they’re welcome here and they just feel comfortable … it’s a chance to get away from the ‘big’ city,” he jokes, kneading dough for a new batch of pizza crusts.
Jayne Fraser has been a FOOP from the beginning. For her, the weekend is about sharing of common experiences – of being a wife, mother and being a woman.
“The whole thing is about escape, right? You know that once a year you can have a weekend of venting and laughing and girl time and out of all the business of June, there’s an opportunity to regroup.”
Gail Calder, the current “Grand FOOPA”, echoes the sentiment.
“I come to Keno because the world stops and we start. It’s all about us,” she declares, taking a break from her poker game.
The FOOP weekend in Keno also provides time for these women to get to know each other.
“There are so many wonderful women who come, who you pass on the street during the year and say ‘Hi, how are you?’ but you just don’t travel in the same social circles. Even though you like and respect these women, you seldom cross paths, and this is a place where we all just meld together,” says Calder.
“We’ve been here through sunshine and rainstorm, we’ve cooked as a group, hiked as a group and danced as a group,” she adds.
To see the FOOPs in all their glory, check out the Discovery Days parade in Dawson on August 13. They often win the award for best float and always donate the prize money to a local charity.
And to understand the allure of Keno City, you’ll have to go visit the town for yourself. But beware – the town may be overrun by the FOOPs!