It seems only fair to warn strangers to the fair metropolis of Dawson City that there are certain hours of the day when it would be best not to be walking on or cycling past the boardwalk next to the S.S. Keno. This is especially true if you are easily startled.
The hours in question are noon and 5 pm, and the reason is simple. At these hours Parks Canada has the Keno blow its whistle.
It is a penetrating, yet breathy, sound that can be quite a surprise to someone hearing it for the first time.
I have seen pedestrians jump, cyclists lurch, and drivers jerk their steering wheels away from the sound until they realize just what they are hearing.
No, it’s not a large truck with an air horn telling you to get out of the way fast. The Keno is stationary on its berth beside the dike and is in no danger of running you down.
Parks began using the whistle a few years ago to call attention to the refurbished paddle wheeler. They had spent a great deal of money making it safe for tours again after the damage caused by 30 years of sitting beside the Yukon River.
The 1979 flood was a major factor, but the boat continued to be exposed to that risk until the dike was built in 1987.
The other motive for sounding the whistle is to remind visitors and locals of the era when the Yukon’s rivers were the highways of commerce and personal travel.
The Keno went into service on the Stewart River in 1922 and was used mostly to haul ore from the mines in the Mayo district, though it is said to have made early and late season trips to Dawson. By 1955 it had been dry-docked along with all the other riverboats and the highways had taken over.
In 1960 it was decided to relocate the boat to Dawson City. Thus it escaped the great Whitehorse fire that took its sister ships, Casca and Whitehorse.
Because it was in the care of Parks Canada, it also escaped the lingering death that continues to disintegrate the half dozen riverboats that were hauled out on the Yukon’s west bank just north of Dawson and remain there to this day.
I’m not much bothered by the whistle. I grew up in a town where a whistle sounded shift changes at the Minas Basin Pulp Mill, as well as noon, 5 pm and the 9 pm curfew for those under 16 years old.
The farmhouse in which I lived was across from the Baptist church, whose carillon sounded Big Ben-style chimes on the quarter, half and full hour during the daytime.
You get used to regular noises, and block them out. But the steadily reverberating thunder filling the valley over the last 45 minutes caused me to miss the five o-clock toot today.
I have heard people complain about the whistle, but I like it. For me it’s another sign that summer is here. With the weather we’ve had lately, we need all the reminders we can get.