Wednesday, January 31, 2007


today's the day: i have resolved to buy a sled to drag my groceries on...not the dog-driven variety (my dog would immediately & gleefully pitch into the deep snow near the river if i tried that) but an inexpensive plastic round sled. i've seen people transporting groceries, beer, electronic equipment, children, luggage, and dogfood on these sleds, and a bit of research indicates that for 10 bucks at the hardware store i too can acquire a sled...and when i'm not dragging groceries around, i can go sledding down the hill behind the house.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

moose tufting

There’s an art form up here called “moose tufting” --a very 19th-century kind of craft, reminds me of a Paris exhibition I saw a few years ago that involved Victorian "hair" art, woven jewelry out of human hair. moose tufting is more elegant: you take tufts of moose fur, arrange it in clumps against fabric, cut the clumps down to form flower patterns, and dye the fur. curiously, tufting only developed after Europeans arrived in the North, though looking at it, tufting does look very floral-English rather than the more geometric designs in beading & other First Nations art up here.

Monday, January 29, 2007


spent some time this weekend applying for a theatre grant, and despite what people might think, grants take time & energy. yes, working in the arts really does involve WORKING...but to sooth the tired grant-writing soul, there is this truly hilarious site, the market-o-matic (kudos to performer Emily Pearlman, who first sent Bremner the link). the site creates an artist statement specially tailored just for you, though i refuse to be responsible for the results if you use the thing for a grant application...

Sunday, January 28, 2007


the haggis has been piped in, poems have been read, tartan worn & gold rush old-timers remembered; the Double Bob was thoroughly & appropriately celebrated in Dawson City last night. this photo is in honour of Robert Service, from the inside of a modern-day Dawson saloon (the caribou horns are enormous, and wallpaper is straight from a dancehall girl's boudoir).

Saturday, January 27, 2007


turns out I was completely wrong about the band that plays weekend nights at the is not a thrash metal band but one of the last great Canadian bar bands. on Friday Rae Spoon sat in for a few songs (above, in stripes & snowboots). for the last set, Willy (in Yankees cap & bare feet) took down his fiddle from the wall and 'round about midnight, things were really hopping...

Friday, January 26, 2007

Double Bob

tomorrow night is the "Double Bob" celebration: a dinner organized by the library in honour of local poet Robert Service & Scot nationalist Robert Burns --both born in late January. i guess that shows you how many Scots were in the Klondike gold rush, to have Burns day being celebrated out here in Dawson! Sz is spending the day making haggis (that surprisingly tasty dish involving an inside-out sheep) and Bremner is practising his Scottish brogue...

Thursday, January 25, 2007


curling: a game played with granite stones and brooms on ice, originating in medieval Scotland. but it's a classically Canadian game (the oldest sports club in North America is the Montreal curling club...those Scots, once global warming eliminated their annual ice in Scotland in the early 1800s, had to came over to Montreal to find a place to hurl granite rocks at each other).
above, a photo of a bunch of artists and musicians learning to curl at the Dawson arena...those mops we're holding are actually essential equipment to sweep the ice. what we lacked in finesse, we made up for in enthusiasm. amazingly, no noses or kneecaps were broken, even though the granite stones are REALLY heavy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


further on wolverines…I learned today that they are actually on the endangered list for North America, although in the Yukon wolverines are doing well, especially in the Old Crow region just north of here (things aren’t so great in Alaska, apparently). I was listening to David Henry, a conservation ecologist, on CBC; he describes the wolverine as being similar to the grizzly bear! it’s the biggest weasel in the world, with the largest feet-to-body ratio of any mammal anywhere…so the wolverine is actually BigFoot.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

underground springs

"CAUTION: Glacier appearing on road" is a roadsign I've never had to deal with before...but here it is, up at the north end of Dawson. the so-called glacier is a large bumpy ice slick created by an underground spring, which periodically breaks into people's basements, overflows across paths and roads, and in some cases has moved entire houses. few buildings here have underground foundations, because of the permafrost, so a moving mini-glacier can actually pick up a house and slide it downhill. fortunately, Berton House is apparently not built on one of these springs...

Monday, January 22, 2007

husky mitts

Barclay the French griffon modelling husky mitts in the blue morning light by the river...purple felt mittens held on with extra-strength velcro that we bought at the Dog House, a local shop dedicated mostly to huskies. in two weeks, the Yukon Quest begins, with teams of sled dogs coming through Dawson en route from Whitehorse. in the spring melt, apparently all k inds of mitts appear that were lost in the snow by dogs running through town.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

river gi'ver

spent the afternoon at the Arts Centre (in an old Oddsfellow Hall downtown) being part of the "Yukon River Gi'ver Dance"...not that I know how to line dance, in fact I've never even seen Riverdance/Lord of the Dance/or any others. However...Rae Spoon, known as the bravest banjo player to ever escape from Alberta, came up with the concept of designing a Dawson dance (for eventual play on youtube--stand by) to be performed in large heavy boots & parka. it was really hot inside the Oddsfellow Hall, so we eventually took our parkas and dance steps outside to the riverbank --much to the amusement of skidoo drivers whipping by in clouds of powder snow.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

river ice

walking towards the river this morning there is a new sound, loud, that I can’t figure out until I get close to the junction of the two rivers. Then I see it: there’s a tear in the ice on the Klondike, and the noise is that of the water rushing past, very grey, turning the ice at edges blue. I’ve never thought about how fast rivers run underneath their layer of winter ice, but the Klondike certainly is in a hurry. Not sure if this is an example global warming (it has been suspiciously mild up here lately, barely lower than -12) or just a fluke tear in the ice that happens every now and then.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Kid Koala

went to the most "all-ages" gig I've ever seen last night...ages 4 though 60+something, all to see Kid Koala, the scratch dj from Montreal. every single one of these people had apparently already heard of Kid Koala, except me. my only criticism of the show is that it was very short...mind you, with all the kids doing cartwheels in front of the turntables, maybe short 'n sweet was the best way to go. in with the usual scratch stuff, Kid Koala (whose off-stage name is Eric San) included a fabulous tribute to Louis Armstrong, Drunk Trumpet, and did some pretty cool things with Blue River...he's known for including thrift store vinyl and odd-ball movie soundtracks (last night's set including Jessica Rabbit) in with the classic beats. so now i'm educated and I can say "Kid Koala's a classy turntablist" (which is a new word that I really love).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sam McGee

walking down by the junction of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, there is a wooden panel for the “Klondyke Millennium Trail” and right next to that is a sponsor panel for the Trans-Canada Trail. I’ve often thought that it would be an interesting project to walk all across Canada on the Trail, so it pleases me to walk a tiny bit of it here. The odd thing about the sponsor panel is that, in with the various sponsor names, corporations, dates and so on, there is a good-sized space with the name “Sam McGee” and no further information. Now this intrigues me because Sam McGee is a fictional character from one of Robert Service’s most famous long poems, so the idea that he sponsored the Trans-Canada Trail is...interesting.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Robert Service 133

yesterday was the 133rd birthday of Yukon poet extraordinaire Robert Service…this is his old cabin, from my living room window. And in honour of his birthday, the sun got to Dawson City yesterday afternoon: actual rays of sunlight coming in the windows of the buildings nearest the river, and a marvellous day for walking outside. A friend has told me that you should let your teeth see the sun—something to do with absorbing vitamin D that I really don’t understand—but I decided not to walk around with my teeth in a bracing leer. The sun hasn’t gotten to where I’m staying yet, as I’m up in the part of town that is in the lee of the hill, but soon, soon…

There’s a rippled edge of snow trimmed in icicles hanging off the eave on my house here—the ripple comes from the pattern of the tin roof. Nearly a century ago, legislation forced the roof (and sometimes side and back walls) to be covered with tin, in an attempt to keep the town from burning down so often. I imagine that in spring, the whole snow pack slides off the roof in a big sled-like whoosh. But I’ll be back in Paris by then, right when the really old cabins, like the one Robert Service used live in, bloom with spring flowers…because the roof is covered in mud & grass for insulation.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dawson bars

we’ve discovered the infamous “Pit”, which despite its ominous name is really just a run-down bar in the middle of town, with all kinds of paintings, classic little glasses of beer and a pool table shimmied up with different wedges of wood in an effort to keep the surface level in a very crooked old hotel building. Slightly more upscale is the saloon at the Downtown hotel, which also has a pool table. But I’m looking forward to visiting Bombay Peggy’s, a 1901 hotel bar which previous writers have advertised as the best place in town. It’s named for Margaret Vera Dorval, who ran a bootlegging business and brothel in the building in the 1950s. The current owners bought Bombay Peggy’s in 1998, moved it from the swampy end of town where it was (many of Dawson’s historic buildings have been dragged into better locations, as the town has shrunk), and added a back section, making the house large enough for a hotel and thus legal as a drinking establishment. I particularly like this photo, from its big move.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dawson's riverbank

mild day (-15) so I went for a long walk along the Yukon River with the goofy dog (who spent her time leaping into snow banks) and I tried to imagine how the place looked in 1898 when the Gold Rush hit. Suddenly 20,000 people descended on this previously calm bit of riverbank...a swampy area that the First Nations didn't use for habitation because it flooded too often. Pierre Berton has a great description of Dawson by the end of that crazy summer, in his book Klondike:
“Dawson was a city of sawdust and stumps and the skeletons of fast-rising buildings, its main street a river of mud through which horses, whipped on by clamouring men, floundered and kicked. In between these threshing beasts moved a sluggish stream of humanity. They trudged up to their calves in the slime, or they negotiated the duck-boards that were thrown across the black morass, or they shambled in a steady flow along the high boardwalk that was mounted on one side of the street.”

Sunday, January 14, 2007


in the summer, I'm told that tourists sometimes walk right in the door of where I’m living, to visit the “historic house of Pierre Berton”. No doubt they usually back away in horror, finding some unkempt writer sitting at a laptop in his underwear. Their mistake is understandable: the Robert Service cabin across the street is a tourist attraction you can walk into, and just down the block, there’s novelist Jack London’s cabin, with a re-built food cache on stilts and a proper visitor centre.
To help the tourists, there is a little viewing platform out in the Berton house garden, nearly snowed-over at this time of year (see above!) The platform has a nice wooden banister, benches, and small information panels explaining the history of the house with a brief biography of Pierre Berton. It’s a good idea, though I do wonder if writers living here in summer ever wake up like rare birds, tourists staring in from the viewing platform with binoculars.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Art and snow

Brem has arrived! Bringing the muppet-dog Barclay…so the Berton house is much more lively than before. There are books and music all over the place as Brem unpacks.
Within an hour of outfitting the beast in a little boots and a classy borrowed dog-coat, Barclay had lost of one her boots in deep snow—dogs were probably not meant to wear clothes, and who can blame them. But walking last night was spectacular: it was snowing but the sky was clear over the hill just behind town, so we could see the stars, while snow sparkled diamond-like in the air and over every surface. There is a huge husky mutt nearby whose enthusiasm gave us an excuse to visit C’s beautiful log house, meet her very tough cats Lynx and Raven, and admire her wonderful art collection. More details to come...

Friday, January 12, 2007


carrying the groceries home (celery wrapped in layers of newspaper so it doesn’t freeze) makes me think about the provisions that used to be needed for a winter in the Klondike. There was a mandatory list of supplies for the prospectors, dancehall dames and everyone else coming over the Chilkoot Pass:
200 lbs bacon, 800 lbs flour, 200 lbs corn meal, 150 lbs beans, 75 lbs sugar, 150 lbs dried fruits, 50 lbs rice, 75 lbs coffee and 1 case of condensed milk.
I noticed at the Fur Show that everyone was taking condensed milk in their coffee, so I guess a taste for tinned milk still lingers over here. Given the prospectors' list, I'd ditch the coffee entirely & pack cocoa powder...

Thursday, January 11, 2007


one of the women in my yoga class tells me that she used to visit the house I’m staying in, before it became a writer’s residence. “Back when the paleontologist lived in it. He filled the rooms with bits of rock and bones and mastodon tusks. It wasn’t so nice as it is now…but of course as a kid, I thought it was the greatest house in town.” I would probably agree with her, even though the newly-redecorated house is probably more comfortable! There’s a mammoth tusk in the window of one of the closed-for-the-winter gift shops in town. (I can’t imagine trying to get a tusk through airport security these days.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


it’s -40.

useful fact for such weather: wolverine fur doesn’t freeze the way everything else does, when you wear it around your face. Wool and nylon and any other fabric you might come up with get covered in ice crystals from your breath. Don’t ask me why wolverine fur doesn’t do this, maybe because wolverines look quite fuzzy but have a particularly mean personality...far nastier than a wolf, apparently, even though a wolverine is more like a weasel (it's actually a trickster character in some stories: a mean, wily trickster.) Not that I’m meeting any wolverines; I’m too busy staying inside, finishing the Yukon salmon Sz gave me the other night. Last night, I had caribou made into Swedish meatballs (!) courtesy of Sz, who said it was Mr. C’s caribou. Sz obviously worries that I’m going to starve out here, far from the caf├ęs of Paris.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Rats, I missed an earthquake this morning. It was southwest of Whitehorse and registered 6.1 on the Richter Scale. But it wasn't felt as far north as Dawson. So instead I went for a walk until my toes got too cold (it's -36 on the thermometre outside the kitchen window).

Robert Service

So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands—my God! but that man could play!

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars—
Then you’ve a haunch what the music meant…hunger and night and the stars.
-Robert Service, from “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”

The poem takes place in Dawson; in fact, I'm just finished a novel by Robert Kroetsch based on the poem's mysterious female character, the lady that’s known as Lou. Robert Service spent 1909-1912 in the little cabin across the street from where I’m staying (photo to follow as soon as my camera gets here!), working on his third volume of Yukon-inspired poems. The title? Songs of a Rolling Stone.

Monday, January 08, 2007

CBC North


I’m sitting in the living room waiting for Eleanor Wachtel to interview Margaret Atwood on the radio, because it’s been advertised on CBC for the past hour. I’m wondering if it’s the same show I heard two months ago, Atwood being deadpan and caustic as usual, the interview trying to make her sound cuddly and failing completely. Then it’s the five o’clock news, all good (well, all bad, actually, but let’s not dwell on that for now), and then all of a sudden, the CBC is broadcasting what sounds like a record being played backwards. I think (and this indicates what a hopeless old luddite I am) “hey I wonder how long it takes before they realize they put the Atwood reel in backwards.” Then I pause, realizing it’s quasi-impossible to play digital backwards. And then my idiocy truly dawns on me: I’m listening to a local call-in show in Gwich’in (one of the First Nations communities up here--I only figure out which language by looking it up on the CBC website). Now I’ve been listening for twenty minutes; all I’ve understood is “New Year”, “Old Crow” (which is a town near here), and the fact that every now and then the host, whose name is Mabel English, says “Thank you” and plays a segment of Celtic music. Listening to Gwich’in is a lot more interesting than the parliamentary analysis show that was on this morning (which says a lot for political commentary in this country)…

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fur Fashion Show

I ended up going to the Fur Show twice…first in the afternoon, where the hall was set up with great rows of tables covered in newly-cured furs. Wolf, lynx, wolverine, fox (including a black fox), marten, and some other variety of weasel. People are bringing in furs for the judging contest later in the day; I get a little blue ticket at the door which reads “Feed Me! (this voucher is good for one serving of stew & bannock). But they’re not serving food yet, so I decide I’ll come back for the Fur Fashion Show, which starts at 7:30. My neighbour Sz. drops by at 7:15 (wearing a lynx-fur headband…I decide to leave my fake fur hat at home); we walk briskly downtown, Sz telling me which buildings are actually historic and which are well-done fakes--a fairly recent heritage law keeps new buildings within a Klondike/Wild West schematic. Mostly, this works pretty well, so an ordinary visitor like me can't tell the difference unless I think about the size or design more carefully.
When we get there, the fashion show is already underway. The hall is packed, there’s a television camera, local models showing off amazingly-beaded gloves and moccasins, kids modelling huge fur mittens, bearded guys in Davy-Crockett hats, and an MC wearing most of a fox on her head. She looks pretty good. For the thousandth time this week, I wish I had my camera. After the fashion show, Sz. introduces me to a slew of neighbours and drags me into the kitchen to get some stew and bannock. I’ve missed the moose stew--should have gotten here earlier--but the bannock is easily the best I’ve ever had, fluffy and chewy at the same time.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Bannock & skidoos

the house woke me up a couple of times last night – not with ghosts or mice, but with noises from the furnace. I’m currently by myself in the house, but the furnace keeps up a nearly-constant conversation, ticking and rattling and sending weird morse messages through all the pipes before subsiding for fifteen minutes, as if waiting for a reply. I don’t know what it wants to tell me, but at midnight, the creaking was particularly impressive. The permafrost here means that house constantly shifts as things change temperature: doors swing closed when they’ve stayed open the day before, cupboards refuse to close, and the house crackles like the Northern Lights. After chatting with the furnace for a while, I went out for a walk to the river in what passes for early morning here (10am); seems unusually quiet, until I remember that it’s Saturday, a day off. But soon, on the path along the river, there are bright individual lights, and four skidoos pass me, going politely slowly on the shared path. The drivers are wearing black terrorist balaclavas (useful accessories up here, though generally not used in bank robbery), and their skidoos each drag a sleigh of provisions…mostly red plastic tanks of gasoline, since there aren’t many gas stations out in the bush. Until today I’ve always disliked skidoos, figured they were noisy machismo, but I realized this morning that if I lived here, I might get myself one. The four sped out along the path and didn’t disturb me or take up much room, and they were gone in an instant, out into the white landscape that’s all around.

Later today I’m going to the Fur Show. All I know is that they’ll be serving bannock (for those of you who don’t know what that is, try making the stuff, preferably in the wilderness in minus 20 weather: take 1 cup white flour, some salt, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tablespoon butter, 1/3 cup or more cold water... Add enough water to make a thick dough. Form into 1-inch thick cakes and place in the bottom of a greased cast iron frying pan. Cook on low heat until done on both sides, or prop the pan in the coals of the fire. For a variety add dry fruits, raisins, blueberries, etc. Serve with butter & honey or molasses when done).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Arctic Red

Walking back from the liquor store, I passed the occasional fellow-walker—usually a guy in brown coveralls, with a mustache and beard as impressive as anything on the Arctic Red beer label. That’s the beer I went to the store to buy. There’s a small brewery in the Yukon, in Whitehorse, and a few years ago I had the good luck to meet the man behind the beer, Bob Baxter, who cheerfully tours people through Yukon Brewing Company (you just have to call & ask). I had wanted to meet Bob because of the labels on the excellent beer the company produces: both Yukon Gold (the lager) and Arctic Red (my favourite) feature grizzled gold-panners, glaring out at the world. Turns out they’re local guys, Kevin on the Gold and Leo on the Red, not movie-extras. Fittingly, Bob says he paid them for the photoshoot with beer. So now I'm home with Leo on a box staring at me from the top of kitchen cabinet. I can’t think of a better way to kick myself in gear on getting down to work out here.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Eighth Avenue

I’m out walking at 10 am, it’s the very bright slightly blue early morning. It's a bizarre contrast to the way I spent December: walking the dog around Kensington Market & then rushing to rehearsal. Here at Berton House on Eighth Avenue, it's much more contemplative; there are only eight avenues in Dawson City, and that's big enough for the moment. It's snowing slightly. I consider shoveling the front steps, but why do it twice? I’ll wait until it stops snowing, maybe at mid-day; my eyelashes are starting to freeze, so back inside. Early afternoon I head out again (still haven’t shoveled the steps); the sun is just starting its very slow reddish slide back behind the hills. I walk down Eighth Avenue to the river and follow the path alongside the water. Invisible dogs are barking gleefully and eventually a 5-dog sled appears out on the ice, coming away from the trees of an island. Three of the dogs are black and huge, bigger than the other two white huskies, making the sled very much an apparition. Whisps snow spark up from the paws as the dogs fly across the river.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Getting to Dawson City

The worn Hawker prop plane flies Whitehorse to Dawson, with me, a couple of white Samoyed dogs, two teachers, and a slew of people heading to Inuvik. It’s cold on board so I wrap my absurd sheepskin coat around my legs. I choose a seat on the wing, it’s that wonderful old silver-coloured propeller wing where you can clearly see every bolt holding the different rectangles of panel together. For some reason this reassures me (after all, these prop engines were built by Rolls Royce, that should mean something). The sky is blue; everything in fact is blue, it’s that twilight moment before dawn, but as we are flying north, the whole hour and forty-five minutes of flying time stay in that pre-dawn moment. Blue sky, blue clouds, blue ridges of hills, cliffs, mountains, blue frozen rivers, blue trees. The silver of the wing is blue. Then a streak of orange for the sun’s arrival appears and all the blues mute suddenly to grey. The pilot comes on the PA and says, “Dawson is not a night airport, so we have to wait until ten to, for landing, though as you can see it’s plenty light out. We can see for miles and miles, so we’re just going to fly down the valley for a little bit…”
Waiting for the Dawson City airport to open, we follow the river down and back until it’s ten minutes before nine, and officially “morning”, and the Hawker is given permission to land. [The photo of Dawson at this time of year was taken by Kevin Hastings...because I left my camera in Toronto. It should catch up with me sometime next week.]