My great uncle Donald Leary used to tell me stories about the Yukon when I was a child. His stories were probably my favourite part of our family reunions in Roseisle, Manitoba.
My mother, siblings and I used to drive there from the family farm in southern Quebec every year to see our grandparents and extended family. Packed into the back of our Volkswagen, or whichever vehicle was in working order that year, with my brothers and sister, we used to talk about our fascination with the North.
I memorized the “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and know it by heart to this day. I’ve been in the Yukon for a solid three years now and it’s the second time that I’ve ventured into the 98 hotel. One of the first pieces of advice that I got when I moved here was to avoid the place. It took a while before I resolved to check it out.
Located at 108 Wood Street in Whitehorse, the 98 Hotel was originally called the 98 Ballroom, and was a popular Whitehorse dance hall according to Heritage Yukon. While the date of construction remains unknown, land titles imply that it was built in the 1940s. It’s a one-storey building with a false front that you can’t help but notice walking through downtown Whitehorse.
Home to the famed breakfast club, a badge of honour worn by morning drinkers, the establishment opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. There’s an air of mystery around the place.
“People will either tell you to avoid the 98 like the plague or make a point of going for an authentic Yukon experience,” says General Manager Angel Sunderman. “We’ve got the most colourful people in town. There’s nothing fake in this place.”
Newcomers are encouraged to ring the bell at the end of the bar. Which means you’re buying everyone a drink.
“Before they changed the laws this was the only offsales in town so it got that rough reputation,” she says.
The 98 claims to have the second oldest liquor licence in the Yukon and according to legend they got their license just a few minutes after The Pit in Dawson City.
“They beat us by five minutes,” says Sunderman acknowledging that hearsay is the local currency. “It’s the place where everyone would meet up before going out to a party or starting their night. A lot of the patrons still come here because it’s where they have always come to meet up with their friends.”
She points out that they stock non-alcoholic beer for some patrons who just want to be reminded of the good old days without getting drunk.
Bartender and occasional bouncer Nancy Sheane is standing under “Pervert’s Row.” Laughing, she explains that the sign is there, “Because you can see the bar girl’s tits from that spot.”
Sheane knows who is allowed in the bar and who is banned. “We keep a tight ship,” she says.
A well known local character and troublemaker who shall remain nameless peeks his head in through the front door, looks around and walks away. Maybe he’s not allowed. I figure he might have been checking to see who is behind the bar. This gives me some comfort.
It’s Fiddle Thursday, which means Joe Loutchan and his band will be playing. Loutchan has been fiddling since he was in his early teens in Manitoba. He learned to play by ear and all of his music comes from memory. He’s the longest standing fiddle act that I know of in the Territory.
Loutchan says that his old time fiddle music is influenced by Ukrainian prairie music with hints of East Coast Irish and gypsy.
“Back in the day the bars were swinging. The best way to get into a bar back then was to pack a fiddle and they’d let you right on in,” he says.
One of Loutchan’s bandmates, Nicole Morgan, is a born and raised Yukoner who works in government. She developed an interest in fiddle music during a visit to the East Coast years ago. When she returned to the Yukon she was looking for a place to play and was told “You gotta go to the 98.” That’s where she met Loutchan. She’s been coming to the 98 to play fiddle for years now, and Loutchan is teaching her nephew how to play, too.
Joe Loutchan takes the summer off, so June 8th is the last Fiddle Thursday till the fall, so catch the show if you can!
The 98 Hotel hosts a “badass” Sunday afternoon jam from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The jam features “an eclectic mix of people and genres and all levels of musical ability” according to the 98 Hotel’s Facebook page.
Avid jammer Ian Smith works as a barback and is a regular participant. “I’ve never seen a fight here. It’s all about knowing who is allowed in and who isn’t. It’s a real community bar the likes of which I haven’t seen anywhere else,” says Smith. Resplendent with furs on the wall, a broken piano and guns hanging from the ceiling the the 98 hotel fits with the picture of what the Yukon would be like that I had in my child’s mind before I came here to Whitehorse and found a government town. The Yukon of my great uncle’s time lives on in a small and much maligned corner of Whitehorse and I can’t help but hope that it stays the same.