Click on the cover image to open each story as a PDF. These stories were originally published in Yukon North of Ordinary magazine.
What People are Saying about the Sourdough Chronicles…
I live directly on the other side of the globe, in Zululand, South Africa. An opportunity came up to visit my daughter in Victoria, and we included a trip up to the Yukon.
My occupation is farming and I write a little about local characters and humorous events. When we boarded to Air North flight in Vancouver, I naturally picked up the copy of Yukon, North of Ordinary and paged through it.
I cannot explain my delight when I found Dawn Kostelnik’s article entitled “Memories of Rendevous which, I gather, is part of a series entitled the “Sourdough Chronicles”. Man, this just hit the spot, contributing to the most memorable trip of my life, and the feeling that the Yukon could grow on me, now and forever.
She writes in an easy, very entertaining, and descriptive style, and I have to obtain future stories. Because of this, I have decided to try to get back to this magical part of the world. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Dawn.
Dear North of Ordinary:
I moved to Dawson in 1974, overwhelmed by a feeling a déjà vu as soon as I set foot in town. Though I’ve now lived in Whitehorse since 1990, ‘Dodge’ is still the home of my heart. So I was glad to see Dawn Kostelnik’s story about being there in ’79 for the flood, as we’d missed the flood by about a month.
By 1978, I was living in Whitehorse with my 2 little boys. I’d enrolled in a teacher training course, which didn’t finish until June. When we moved back to Dawson that year, evidence of the high water was readily apparent throughout the town. Some of the old buildings had floated off their footings and into the street, locals wondered rhetorically whether there had been a change of address. I was very surprised to see Dawn refer in her article to my old pals and partners, the Dawson City Slugs.
Although there was no such thing as a membership, I fell in with these somewhat like-minded individuals from the start. The acronym is misleading, as few if any of them deserved to be called the names that made up this term. We’d invented it ourselves to describe how members of the ‘old guard’ (long-time Dawson denizens) seemed to characterize us. Some of them didn’t trust or like us much, and made no secret about this. It might have surprised them to know we understood why they felt that way.
This was partly, I believe, because people liked things to stay the same around town in those days, but there was also a culture clash. From the Gold Rush era when the town was first settled, Dawsonites always wanted to live as well and be as civilized as people Outside. For us however, the raison d’etre was to leave civilization behind.
From far-flung points of origin including Czechoslovakia, Newfoundland and Virginia, us Slugs arrived in Dawson with a will to go back to the land, but this wasn’t all altruistic. It had everything to do with living away from town, as cheaply as possible, and getting close to nature. So we did just that, many of us moving into old trapper cabins, or building our own on mining claims and at fish camps. We drove old beaters and power wagons held together with haywire and duct tape, scored our clothes from the Thrift Store and wore our hair long. Further separating us from the more staid locals was the fact that we liked to party. A lot. It probably looked to the townspeople like we made ourselves too comfortable too fast, and that’s a fair statement: we moved right in.
Some of the Slugs were fishers, it’s true, but others were miners, trappers, mechanics, seamstresses, bakers, woodcutters, and moms and dads. And Slugs were for the most part very hard workers, we had to be to get by during the long winters. It’s a fact that not many of us had regular jobs, but this wasn’t because we were lazy. There were very few jobs in the winter, plus hardly any of us lived in town.
That’s why Dawn didn’t see us in the winter. It was nearly impossible to find a place to rent, and few of the leery townspeople were willing to rent to us anyway. But unlike the summer people, which everyone expected us to be, we intended to stay year-round. That was the whole point, Dawson’s culture even then revolved around tourism and often seemed designed to discourage those who wanted to make the place home. The harder it was to stay, the more determined we became to do just that.
It wasn’t easy to get by during the cold dark months: a constant struggle getting wood for the stove, putting food on the table, and having enough coal oil for our lamps during the dark days. It really was colder then, we could count on at least a month of -45 F. or colder, and sometimes the bitter weather lasted longer. I saw the mercury go as low as -63 one winter. So it was hard to keep vehicles running, even if we had electricity to plug them in. For some, the tiger torch was part of the daily routine, to warm the oil pan until the engine would turn over. Rare trips to the grocery story were often disappointing: If you want something brown, get lettuce, if you want something green, try the meat.
I don’t doubt Ron’s story that naked women tried to distract him by flaunting their assets around the fish camps, I bet I know exactly where this was too. But most of the Slug women I knew were too busy cooking, cutting fish, hauling water, looking after kids and feeding the fire. Of course it’s possible that they’d try to run interference if there was no valid fishing licence. But most of the fishers I knew went to great lengths to obtain their licenses and follow the rules. They both prized and protected their permits and were very cognizant of the need to keep their catch within the allowed quota.
As we discovered after spending a few winters, living in Dawson pays off in ways that people Outside will never understand. There’s the feeling of elation when we reach the vernal equinox. And I admit to being proud when we came out of the other side of the long winter, every year, even though it was mostly a matter of grinding through. And yes, the return of the heady days of summer brought the flocks of kids looking for adventure and work in that order. Some of them did stay and became good friends of ours. Some of them got jobs at Gertie’s, but far as I know they never hired Slugs. Despite extensive experience as a server, I tried vainly for about 4 consecutive seasons before giving up, without even getting an interview.
Within a few years, being a Slug in Dawson became less of a stigma. I guess our durability proved to the locals that we were in it for the long haul, undeterred by the cold dark winters and the mistrust. They got used to us, and we realized that not as much separated us from them as we may have thought at first. Within a decade, the ‘lines’ between Us and Them had all but disappeared: even the most old-fashioned of the locals came to realize we were just people too. Meanwhile we’d outgrown trying to push our own agendas as it had quickly become obvious that the best way to get along was to go along.
I count myself as being privileged to have met Black Mike Winage and Fred Caley. Ms. Joyce Caley taught 3 of my 4 kids in Grade 1. I knew John and Annie Henry, and Dave Mierau was a pal from the start. That’s but a stellar few of the hundreds of great folks I met in and around Dawson.
I was fortunate enough to be friends with many Dawsonites from the old families in town, and I would be remiss if I didn’t make it very clear that lots of these people lent helping hands and made us really welcome, even right at the beginning. They gave us rides, let us use their phones, and sometimes lots more; not just showing but living the renowned Klondike Valley hospitality that persists to this day.
Despite how different the Slugs and the locals may have seemed at the start, we all shared the same experiences and memories of the place. And it’s important to note that we hardly became extinct, we became part of the landscape.
After 41 years in the Yukon raising my family, and now a grandma, I’m proud of my ‘checkered’ past as a Slug, and feel very lucky to have been a part of it. I love this place, and feel that fortune fully shined on me that I arrived here when I did and came to meet and know the people I did. It was a special time in a very special place.
Thanks for a great magazine, North of Ordinary!