The first week at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon, is already behind me. Flying up from Whitehorse in the early morning last week, our plane was delayed due to low fog over Dawson, making it impossible to land. When we finally left, what I did not know was that if visibility remained limited, the plane would continue onto Old Crow and then Inuvit. A six hour round trip. Luckily on the approach to Dawson a window opened and we descended.
It has been a week of walking the town. The tourist season is just winding down as the Labour Day weekend is already here. I have taken the time to see inside the Robert Service cabin, the Palace Grand Theatre, the Commissioner’s House, the British Bank, the SS Keno. Having recently read Laura Beatrice Berton’s book again, ‘Married to the Klondike’, each of these places becomes animated. The Macauley house, as part of the residency, is of that era.
The house has two bedrooms and two studios for artists. I am, bravely it seems, sleeping in the larger bedroom. Bravely, I say, because a ghost is rumored to be living in the closet of that room. I have decided to let her keep the closet. For the few clothes I brought, this is a reasonable compromise. Or so I think.
The upstairs studio is my favourite room, with plain white walls and windows looking over the street and the distant hills west of the Yukon River. I have begun a number of small works, settling into a routine, finding my place here.
When Dawson City was booming, small miner’s cabins extended far up the hill behind the town. Even as the population declined, 9th Avenue remained a viable housing location. Today, 9th Avenue is mostly a trail through the forest. My first day here I wandered up there. Stepping onto the path I turned to my right and there was a black bear. He or she was heading away from me but hearing my footfall turned and looked. We both jumped and quickly went off in opposite directions. Since then I have bought a bell. And I carry the can of bear spray provided by the residency. But mostly I am just cautious, respecting again boundaries already established.
Today a chill is starting to bring a feeling of fall. The white birch and trembling apsen leaves are turning a golden yellow. By the end of September I may witness the first snow. But that is a ways away yet.
Leaving Dawson City
It appears that I am bookending my experience in Dawson City, writing about my first week here, and now my last. What has been in-between? Day trips out of town hiking in Tombstone Park and to Moosehide, the northern landscape exposed through distant valleys and mountains and, alternatively, within the closeness of the black spruce and white birch forest. The light has changed, the band of golden birch leaves across the eastern hillside has disappeared, and tour buses have vacated the nearby lot leaving a quieter stillness.
Walking along the exposed rocky beach of the Yukon River there is a sense of knowing something I did not just weeks ago. A woman chatting with me at the Alchemy Café explains, “this is not just any town, this is Dawson City”. You feel this everywhere. A small environment isolated enough to be its own place. People know the geography of the land, trails that lead out, creeks that run nearby, where to cut firewood or pick blueberries, places to camp in all seasons. They know the streets by the houses located on them, rather than the names. Nature here is always within sight with the knowledge that it goes far beyond; the river can take you hundreds and hundreds of miles in either direction. There is an intimate sense of being placed. Even I feel inklings of this and I have only been here five weeks.
Still, there feels something unfinished about leaving. Maybe I did not accomplish everything I wanted to but that is not what I mean. It is more like looking down a highway and wondering what lies further on. What would it be like to spend a winter here? Residents, in part, define themselves by this feat; years tallied witnessing the dark and cold of the north. Would I come to understand a different type of isolation here and, in turn, a truer sense of existence? As my conversation with the woman at the Alchemy ends, the old adage comes to mind, ‘Isolation is a state of mind’.
From in and around my time here:
PS Lots of time isolated in the studio working too!