Dawson City – A Funky, Quaint Post-Industrial Wasteland

Before we get into our experiences in Dawson City, You might have noticed not much in the way of mechanical issues on the Bus in the last couple posts. That is true!!! RV WHERE YET has been a steadfast steed!   But Steve had an issue with his MUCH NEWER (yet still a vintage 1996) Foretravel!  

Precision Percussive Persuasion

It seems his Battery Charger stopped working, and he was noodling on that part of the time we were in Whitehorse. Actually, that was a fortuitous place, because we had good Internet AND good Cell Service AND FedEx and UPS deliver there, if necessary. AND, the battery charger is a essential piece of equipment as we drill further and further away from civilization! Steve was not leaving Whitehorse until this was either resolved or replaced.

I was helping with Google Searches just cuz I could, not because I knew much (or anything) about his Bus. I BARELY know anything about our own bus!   I did happen on an article that seemed to describe the symptoms. The article proposed a DECIDELY HIGH TECH method of resolution called “Precision Percussive Persuasion.” In other words, smack the Charger/Inverter with a hammer just so.

I gotta get me one of those Magic Mallets, clearly!

 

 

 

Nothing to lose, and Steve even had a rubber Mallet — CLEARLY he had used “PPP” before in maintaining his coach!!! Anyway, he smacked the recalcitrant Charger, and IMMEDIATELY electrons began to flow as they should!!! And continue to do so! It seems that there is a relay and a circuit board inside the Charger, and the connections can get slightly corroded or loose after years of bouncing down the road. PPP can shake things back together!!!   I gotta get me one of those Magic Mallets, clearly!   The mallet thing seems to work for Thor, the Avenger, and for Steve!

Pelley Crossing Campground

En route to Dawson City, we stopped at a First Nation’s Campground in Pelley Crossing. An AWESOME spot – free, and pretty well-maintained by the locals. Much appreciated by tired travellers as we gazed over the Yukon River from the campsite. Saw moose tracks near the river, though no bear scat containing sneakers OR seeds. 2 days later, though, Steve and Kathy, who had decided to remain in Whitehorse a couple extra days, came through and stayed in the exact same spot. Steve said there was a huge pile of Bear Shit right next to “ours.” No sneakers or backpacks, but I guess we missed all the fun!

Discovery Claim

Dawson City was really the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush…the original “Discovery” Claim is just outside of town, in fact. At one point, there were 20,000 people there, and it was the capital of the Yukon Territory.

Tailing Piles

Today, about 1,000 people remain, and many are still working claims, though on a small scale. For a long while, industrial Gold Mining was VERY profitable here. The surrounding area is, in fact, an Industrial Wasteland, essentially. There are huge tailing fields, derelict dredges and other rusting equipment littering the landscape. At least the part of Gold Processing that involves Mercury was done elsewhere; some of those areas having just been re-opened to the public after years of toxic cleanup.

There is no better example of the industrial scale of mining early in the 20th century than the Heritage Site around Dredge #4. Early miners panned in streams. Then they dug shafts down to bedrock, first needing to melt the permafrost by building successive fires to soften inches at a time.   Later, they blasted hillsides away to get at the gravel away from the stream that contained Gold. This had to be sieved and panned using all sorts of manual and red-neck engineered means involving tumbling cylinders, automated sieves, etc. Eventually, someone figured out how to use HUGE dredges to chew through and pan MASSIVE amounts of landscape, 24×7.

Heritage Dredge #4

This was a distopian nightmare fully the equal of the steelmills and coal mines in the industrial USA.    Dredge #4 was at the time the largest Wooden Dredge in the World. This is a HUGE machine, that REEKS of Redneck Engineering, except that it was purpose built at a HIGH cost.   Using components such as a 13’ diameter main gear (there are actually 2 of them, and a bunch of “smaller” ones only 10’ in diameter) for the conveyor of bucket shovels, all of which had to be shipped here by Steamer. Even despite this, it recovered its cost in its FIRST dredging season.

Interestingly, The dredge did NOT operate on the creek or river or in any natural body of water. The builders CREATED a pond at one end of the seam of paydirt, and built the dredge floating within it. Thereafter, the pond actually moved with the dredge as it chewed through the earth. The dredge would “eat” forward, expanding the pond in that direction, depositing tailings (and filling the pond) behind it. 24hrs a day for the entire season (can’t do this at 40 Below). The dredge AND the pond moved A LONG WAY across the landscape — #4 chewed 13KM crosscountry in its 50-year life.    

In front of the dredge, crews worked with steam and water hoses to melt the permafrost across the area the dredge would operate for the next year. HUGE noise, VERY dangerous working conditions, immensely profitable – for awhile. Now now. Dredges made a LOT of money until the Gold Standard set the price arbitrarily low. By 1950, the dredges were no longer economical and the equipment is mostly abandoned in the countryside.   But Tailing fields are everywhere – lining the highway for miles.

With the price of gold now floating free (and pretty high), small scale mining is still going on. Some miners are even reprocessing the tailings from the dredges, which recovered only 75% of gold they chewed into. The dredges also PURPOSELY discarded BIG nuggets because they were optimized to recover dust and flake. Big nuggets are rare, and the dredge operators could not BOTH economically process tons of ore for the amount of dust and flakes they KNEW was there and ALSO look for the VERY occasional nugget that MIGHT appear. But this is another reason people are looking at the tailings.  

You cannot actually know how well these miners are doing – they won’t tell you a thing. The scruffiest-looking guy on the street may well be a multi-millionaire! HOWEVER,   our tour guide on the #4 Dredge disclosed a way to tell: By how they spend their winter vacations! You can only mine from March to November. The rest of the year it may be 40 F Below zero!!! If the miner spent New Years in Whitehorse, it was not a good year. If he spent it in Hawaii…

Of course, in the old days, they DID mine through the winter. They would build fires in the winter to thaw the permafrost in order to dig a shaft. 6 inches at a time, move dirt away, more fire, more thaw, more digging until they had a shaft down to bedrock – and the gold-laden gravel, called “pay dirt” just above it. Then, they would dig sideways from the shaft, hauling the hopefully-gold-laden gravel up in buckets. The frozen ground/permafrost above these side-shafts helped keep things secure. The gravel would be piled next to the shaft for the whole winter – awaiting spring and liquid water to use to Pan the gravel to extract the gold. VERY brutal conditions and very low-tech.  

Speaking of Permafrost, in Dawson we learned a little (perhaps more than needed) about building techniques in areas where there is Permafrost. There are MANY old buildings up here that are collapsing in various ways. This is because the Permafrost can thaw under a building, and when it does, the building will essentially sink into the now-mud. Since the thawing is uneven and the permafrost is uneven, the settling is decidedly uneven – and destructive.  

There are a variety of solutions – some VERY high-tech whereby you build refrigeration coils into the substrate under a building and artificially keep the Permafrost Frozen. The Transalaska Pipeline has a lot of engineering like this. That is NOT how construction has evolved in the Yukon. Here, there aren’t resources to do that, so more of a Redneck approach is used.

Permafrost Building Strategy

There are two lower-tech solutions. One involves pilings sunk to Bedrock, and this is used IF the bedrock is not too deep. Plenty of experience digging to Bedrock in a Gold Mining area! More common is building on top of a wooden crib-foundation that just sits on top of the ground (or sometimes on Gravel bases). This allows the ground to stay frozen (because there is airspace under the warm building). And, if the building DOES start to settle, the Cribs can be adjusted by means of wedges driven in to the cribbing to raise sections that have started to sink (an annual ritual). We saw LOTS of this type of construction.

Unpaved Dawson City Main Street

Permafrost (and the desire to keep things as they were) shape a LOT of what Dawson looks like. For example, streets are not paved, with the exception of the “Highway” that comes through Dawson (more on that in a minute). The streets are all sand/dust. Which in the winter is frozen, spring is mud and summer dusty as hell. Why? Because if you put “BLACK”top down, it would absorb heat from the sun, melt the underlying permafrost and the road would heave. Or disappear.   But, it would look “new” for a hot minute — and the folks in Dawson don’t want things to change! Probably BOTH reasons are equally important.

Yukon-equipped RV

Which brings me back to the main highway, which the Yukon Territorial Government INSISTED needed to be paved properly. Why they didn’t insist on proper WiFi, I am not sure, but anyway…   The City had no choice but to agree to paving, but spent a LOT of effort (and money) obtaining a special top-coat – shipped ALL THE WAY FROM FRANCE, which is not trivial in cost or effort up here – that is cream-coloured like the former dirt. That the top coat “looks” like dust, assuages the purists, but also reflects vs. absorbs the sun’s heat and therefore saves the permafrost. That this works is evident – the road outside of Dawson City SUCKS –pot holes and frost heaves. The road IN the city is really pretty good!

Winter in Dawson City is a test of the fortitude of the folks that live here. In the not-so-very-old days, there were 8 MONTHS of time between the last steamer on the Yukon River in the fall and the First Steamer in the summer. No supplies in or out. Even today, the one road in is not always open, and the ferry does NOT run to reach across the river to smaller communities and settlements. What to do, when disconnected from everyone but your neighbors?

Winter activities like Snowshoe Baseball and “Thawty Gras” on Fat Tuesday

 

Well, obviously, you lay in a BUNCH of supplies before winter closes everything. But, how about one’s sanity during the months when it barely gets light, and only for an hour or 2 each day? We read about winter activities like Snowshoe Baseball and “Thawty Gras” on Fat Tuesday. More recently, our Parks Canada Ranger/Guide told us, there are art classes at the KIAC (Klondike Institute of Culture and Art), along with writer and artist-in-residence programs this NFP sponsors.   Even when we there, we went to a “concert” by an experimental saxophone “musician” visiting from Montreal – cost by Donation. The best word I can use about that is “interesting.”

And there was an Art Exhibition, the theme of which was how the Government ran roughshod for so many years over the land and the First Nations; Mining and Petroleum Pipelines being the most egregious examples.  Part of that exhibit was a transcript of a meeting between Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the first one) and representatives of The First Nations in the Dawson City Area regarding one of the first Oil Pipelines. The American Oil Companies wanted to build this Pipeline, and the Canadian Government saw it as an opportunity to bootstrap economic development in the Yukon. The local’s in the area saw it as yet another invasion, but at the same time were hoping and needing additional services in the form of health care, education and such.  

 

Hard to have schools and hospitals, which people want, without development and roads and more people, which they don’t.

 

It was a fascinating read – governments were and are insensitive and bumbling and frustrating to regular people with regular issues, though arguably they are seeking to help advance a region and its people as best they can. And Regular People have difficulty expressing their love for how things ARE yet allowing for how things will be, can be and need to be. Hard to have schools and hospitals, which people want, without development and roads and more people, which they don’t. The people AND the government are keenly aware of the contrary – even antagonistic — goals and Conflict results – sometimes civilized, sometimes not. In the transcript, with the perspective gained by distance and time, you can clearly hear the SAME PERSON contradicting themselves as they describe their goals.

In addition to all of this, Parks Canada has restored a BUNCH of older buildings, such as the first Bank, Post Office, a significant Saloon, the last couple of Brothels, etc., and offers interpretive tours and exhibitions. And the Local First Nations has a Cultural center, which of course was closed the day we tried to go.

All of this helps to keep the mind occupied and a sense of community strong! In fact, we were kind of struck by the “community.” People, many of whom LOOK like folks that live on the fringes of society (because they do?) are friendly, and look after each other. Our Ranger/Tour Guide told us how kids are the farthest thing from hovered-over and protected here. There is a K-12 school with 200 students. They grow up free, watched over ( but not too carefully) by everyone. The community gathers in pubs to talk as much as to drink. And they notice if someone hasn’t been seen for awhile. Sounds idyllic. And a bit too off-the-grid for me, but she was starry-eyed as she ‘splained that THESE were the reasons she stayed here after she came (from Nova Scotia) a dozen years before.

Wifi sucks – but mosquitos suck even worse.

 

One thing ubiquitous about Yukon, Dawson City, and we presume the nether regions of Alaska to come. Wifi sucks – but mosquitos suck even worse.   We heard a story about a fueler at the airport, who at the end of a long day (or perhaps a bender at the local bar) pumped 600 Kilos of JetA into a waiting aircraft, before the “jet” abruptly flew away…it was a mosquito. We’ve actually heard that story more than once, so either it happened more than once (in each and every town and every airport up here? It IS possible!) or has become the Yukon equivalent of an urban legend.

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