Rendezvous made Marj Eschak move to the Yukon.
It was 1977. She’d only come up for the weekend, but was so impressed, she decided to stay.
“So I’ve been in every one since then,” she said over the phone, a couple weeks before the 2019 Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous.
Eschak started volunteering in the Rendezvous office just after she’d had her son. She joined the board. She met and mingled with all the Rendezvous characters, and she was even responsible for inventing some herself, including the Snowshoe Shufflers … even though they were kind of an accident. It was 1985 when Eschak and fellow Rendezvous enthusiast Mary Fitton tossed around the idea of a special act for the Queen’s coronation during the festival. She said they got together thinking it would have something to do with Robert Service, but once the red wine started flowing, the act took a completely different shape.
“By the end of the red wine, it had turned into a couple of gals from the claim who, after that long, dark Yukon winter, had a bad case of cabin fever,” she said.
“We put on our cleanest long johns and our prettiest skirts and snowshoed to show those skinny girls how to do the can-can.”
If you’ve ever been to Rendezvous, you know the shufflers. Dressed in frothy square-dancing skirts and waffled long johns, they stomp out a choreographed dance while wearing snowshoes. These days, there are 11 shufflers, ranging in age from 30s to 60s, but back then, it was only Eschak and Fitton, and it wasn’t supposed to be an enduring part of Rendezvous. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but it snowballed from that first year, said Eschak.
“We walked by a place and if there was a group, we would walk in with our cassette deck and I would whistle (I have one of those real great whistles) and we would just dance. We were so mobile.”
So mobile in fact, that they took the act to Yellowknife for the Caribou Carnival, and dropped in, unrequested, to a chamber of commerce meeting between representatives from cities across Canada. She said they plugged in their boombox and did their shuffle once at the front of the room and once at the back. By the time they finished, they had a request to come to Edmonton for Klondike Days.
From there, they appeared at Expo ’86, Festival by the Sea in New Brunswick and trade shows all over the country. It was that travelling that led to the creation of some another well-known Rendezvous character – Sourdough Sam. When Eschak and Fitton were in Edmonton for Klondike Days, she saw their Dapper Dan contest.
“We looked at each other and said ‘we could do that,’” she said. “We brought if back here (in 1986) and it was huge.”
“It” was a version of Dapper Dan, re-worked for the North, and christened Sourdough Sam. And the first year, the prize for being named Sourdough Sam was a “well-used pick-up truck.”
“We probably used that truck for 15 years because the Sams kept giving it back,” she said.
“Second prize was a night on the town with the Shufflers and they all wanted second prize.”
Another popular title is that of Mr. and Mrs. Yukon. It’s not really one that you earn, or, at least, it’s not one you know you’re earning. It’s a sort of dignitary position, offered to you based on your history in the North.
In 1980, for example, the title fell to Jack and Mary McDiarmid – a couple whose romance began in Mayo when they were in their teens. Mary grew up in the community, and Jack was there from B.C., working one summer. When he had to return to B.C., they kept up a correspondence that was part of the reason he came back to the Yukon, four years later, in the 30s.
Shortly after, the couple married. Together, they did some prospecting, had five children, and moved around the territory, from Dawson to Mayo to Stewart Crossing, where they eventually established the lodge there. They bought and sold Mayo’s Tim-O-Lou Hotel (re-naming it North Star) before returning to prospecting and “whatever they wanted,” according to an interview they gave in the 80s.
That’s the kind of effort that nets you the title of Mr. and Mrs. Yukon, and that’s the kind of thing that makes Rendezvous fun, said Eschak. It’s less the event and more about the people and the community that puts the event together and comes out to vie for the coveted titles – the Sams and the Queens and everything in between. Rendezvous is just the venue for getting to know them.