Drinking from the Yukon River

Upon our return from the Skagway library where I last wrote, we found the one picnic table in the tenting area of the campsite was taken by two older German fellows. Luckily for us, they offered to share…not just the table, but their stories. Manfred is from East Berlin, Peter is from West Berlin. Peter’s been visiting the Yukon for 30 years, paddling the river dozens of times. Manfred, who is 69, was unable to fulfill his travel dreams until the fall of the Berlin Wall. I asked him where he could travel before 1989. He wrinkled his nose. “Russia, Poland. Bah! Hungary.”

He’s making up for lost time — he’s seen India, South America, and climbed Mount Kilamanjaro. He has always wanted to paddle the Yukon, so this summer, he and Peter paddled from Whitehorse to Dawson City. “It’s easy,” they told us, and they gave us the brochure from the outfitter…so…

When we left Skagway, we took the train over White Pass, the one that followed the trail through the 1897 Dead Horse Gulch. Awesome ride, not to be missed. A bus took us to Whitehorse, where we stopped at the visitor’s center and watched a 15-minute film about the Yukon. It was full of what we thought was hyperbole. “When you come here, you want to stay,” the film said, over and over. Someone was quoted as saying, “If you drink the water from the Yukon, that’s it. You’ll never leave, or if you do, you’ll have to come back.” Cute movie, we thought. A bit over the top, though. What did we know? We were in downtown Whitehorse, for crying out loud. We hadn’t seen the real Yukon yet.

A couple of blocks from there, we rented a canoe and a couple of “bearproof” food barrels and purchased a strip map of the Yukon River. When we came off the river eight days later, after complete solitude and no trappings of “civilization,” I was starting to understand the movie.

We left the canoe at Carmacks, a little place where the road crosses the river, and boarded a converted schoolbus for the 5-1/2 hour trip to Dawson City, scene of the Klondike Stampede. Aboard, we met Jim and Heide, Corrie, and Dawn and Vern. I never cracked the cover of my book. We talked with them all the way there.

In his film, “City of Gold,” Pierre Berton says of the 1898 gold rush stampeders, “When they arrived (at Dawson City), many never dug for gold at all. They had already found what they were seeking.” Not hyperbole. By the time I’d spent five days in Dawson City, I understood what he meant.

There are tourists, and there are passers-through. There are lots of RVs. But there are also people who came 20 or 30 years ago, and haven’t left. We met a Vietnam-era draft dodger with roots in California. He bought a portion of the old school, moved it to a lot on the north edge of town, and now calls this place home. Across the river is Dieter, with his German accent. He’s been in Dawson City for 25 years, running the hostel for over 10. Our bus driver has been here since 1988. He’s not going anywhere, either.

This is no has-been ghost town, nor is it only a place for tourists. Dawson City is still a gold mining town, a special place that many people call home. We stopped to chat with a man perched on a boulder on Front Street. His name was Ian, his accent Scottish. Looking like a leprechaun (“I grew up only 12 miles from Ireland,” he admitted), he was trying to figure out the best way to make Dawson City a home for himself and his dog, Yukon. Another man, who leads Boy Scout trips up here from “down South,” is looking for retirement property. “It’s a special place,” he said. “It gets to you.” I doubted he’d seen the Yukon film, but he was quoting it directly.

When we paddled the river, we tried to drink from the tributaries instead of the river itself. But we must have gotten a sip or two by accident. Because I understand the movie now, and it’s not hyperbole. You can really get “the bug” up here, and then you have to come back.

I have this idea for a way to make some money, up in Dawson City. Once I work it out, I just might be back. See ya’ next year, Yukon!

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