Eagle Plains – Dawson City
6:00am. Eagle Plains has been destroyed. It was a brutal death. Heavy rains and angry 18 wheelers unrelented all night. Deep rivers of mud flowed across the compound and four days of held in trucker faeces was just too much for the fragilities of wilderness plumbing. Gasoline and foul language filled the air in an unwitting homage to the omnipotent Apocalypse Brain.
I don’t mind a bit of bad shit-arse jazz language, but I do object to the following terms: motherfucker, pussy and faggot. These are all terms that etch out the crooked silhouette of the imbalance of power that our great civilisation is built upon. The world steps on the faces of the weak to bathe in the warm glow of mediocrity. I’m all for equal opportunities and I don’t discriminate. I hate everyone equally.
Our tent is battered and everything we own is dribbling. Paranoid nightmares. Tired. What will Dempster look like today? As long as it doesn’t look like Inuvik, it will be dealt with it accordingly.
Cereal, toast and a full tank of gas later and we’re back on the Highway. No rain, but the car slides through the calcium chloride slime covering the road like a drunk on a boat with a goat.
We stop briefly at Ogilvie Ridge at 10:00am. It’s magnificent of course, but all we can think about now is getting back to Dawson City. We must evade the bubble.
Dawson was made famous as the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush. This mass migration of insanity began in 1896 when prospectors found rich gold deposits along the Klondike River. The name Klondike evolved through the repeated mispronunciation of Tr’ondëk, the original name of the area.
Daring and desperation go hand in hand. Greed is the mother of ingenuity. Stupidity is the embryo of adventure. Only when there is nothing left to lose can one truly hope for something great.
So went the inhabitation of Dawson City. Aspiring prospectors made their way from Skagway, Alaska to the Yukon River, via the notorious Chilkoot Trail, a sub-arctic cortege which saw an end to many. Unidentified faces lay buried in the snow, stepped over in the stony-eyed march for gold. Starvation, disease and hypothermia cast a farewell to the weak.
Those who survived the Chilkoot met a new failure in Dawson: there was fuck all gold. Most of it had gone by the time news of its discovery reached Seattle. All was in vain. What little was left lay buried under the permafrost, a tomb too strong for the archaic extraction methods of the time.
What kind of person would value the glory of gold over their own lives anyway? What kind of person would abandon everything and, quite literally, walk thousands of miles into the arctic? What kind of person would be capable of making these decisions and actually survive to see Dawson at the other end? A fucking badass, that’s who. And what happens when 40,000 insane badasses wind up stranded in a sub-arctic wilderness, diseased, dejected and in poverty? Shit happens, that’s what. Dawson City became the Wild North-West.
Forget gold. Semi-organised crime pays. And in a gold rush era Dawson City, it pays well. Every fucker and his mother (see what I did there?) was a thief, gangster and card shark. If you weren’t a bunko, you were a shill. If you weren’t a sharpie, you were a smoothie. Hustlers and hosers flim-flammed the flimps who gaffled the grifters.
There may not have been much gold in the ground, but these were fertile lands for antiheroes, free-thinkers and unconventional innovators such as Soapy Smith, Jack London and Scrooge McDuck.
184 miles of Dempster Highway to go, but what is Dawson now? What havoc has 100 years of Disney and Ikea wreaked here? Will we find shelf loads of Justin Bieber hand towels or will we be shot in the face in a duel at dawn? Which would be the worse outcome?
The front and back wheels slide left and right and we almost lose it on a corner. Brown ice. A slow and boring sub-arctic death avoided, we lunch at Tombstone Territorial Park.
1:10pm. End of Dempster Highway, eight days after we first began. Paved road comes four days too late. Rain runs rivers down the windscreen and we roll long hills under heavy cloud. But there are blue skies over Dawson City in the distance and it’s lit up gold like a beacon in these dark afternoon storms.
There were no winners in Us Vs. Dempster. We took from it and it took from us in a zero-sum battle to the semi-metaphorical End. We looked into the eyes of an empirical impasse and wondered what question we should have been asking. What conclusion can we draw when no question was asked? What was it that we hoped to achieve with this exercise?
As we approached Dawson City, the world, the ‘real’ world as we once knew it, looked very different. How long have we been gone for? Can it really only have been eight days? We cross the Yukon River and drive into town. What progress these beasts have made since we left!
We absquatulate into the anonymous bustle of Dawson City. I’m speaking ironically, of course, as the bustle of Dawson City is, in fact, a hustle and the streets are deserted. But something has changed. We pass the SS Keno, biggest of all Klondike sternwheelers. A lifeline during the gold rush, now permanently docked in the Yukon River by Front Street. The world is slower or I am faster. The beautifully decrepit skeleton of the old bank that employed Robert Service while he wrote ‘Ballads Of A Cheechako’ stands as testament to the anonymous struggles of gold delirium. I notice things. Weird things. We pass replicas. Replica banks, replica post offices, replica saloons. Things That Are. Things that were here before, but that I could never have known were here before. Or could I? Is Dawson City a museum? Everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will happen co-exist on the same dimensional plane. This plane is the scale of events. The scale of events is time. We experience events relatively using the axiom of ‘The Present’. ‘The Present’ is a metamembrane which moves through events at different rates and directions. The past is the future-now. So what is Dawson City?
Moosehide Slide looks down at us from the hillside disapprovingly as we walk 2nd Avenue. Yes, we know. And we know that you know that we know. Everything is a myth here. Somehow we get talking to a dishevelled looking guy sitting outside the Downtown Hotel. He says he’s a placer miner and he struck gold earlier today. It’s in his backpack, but we are not allowed to see it. I glance inside the Downtown Hotel. I think he might actually be for real. There are plenty of replicas in Dawson, but this guy is too tapped to be a clown. He glances at my glance. “You should go in. Everyone’s real friendly in there”. And so we did.
Years ago, no-one can remember quite when, Captain Dick Stevenson was rummaging through an old abandoned cabin just outside of Dawson. Inside the cabin he found a jar containing a severed human toe suspended in pickling alcohol. The toe had been well preserved and he wondered what to do with this new found treasure as he wandered back into town. Then it hit him. It hit him like a ton of severed toes. It was obvious: drop it in a shot of whiskey and serve it up at the local saloon. The Sourtoe Cocktail was born.
That local saloon was the Downtown Hotel and, although Captain Dick has since passed away, the legend of the Sourtoe Cocktail lives on. We sit down at the bar and order a pre-emptive round of Yukon Red and before we know it Captain Dick II has signed us up for two Sourtoe Cocktails. The bar was already full of drunks eager to suck dead toe and things were starting to get a little rowdy.
Captain Dick II says that the original toe found by the original Captain Dick was swallowed long ago. Since then there have been a number of toes. The current one belonged to a local trapper and was amputated due to frostbite around 20 years ago. I’m up next, he says.
The rules are explained as my glass is primed with whiskey and dead body parts: “Drink it fast, drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe”.
A crowd has gathered. Not being one for the limelight, I down my drink quickly and efficiently, ensuring clear lip-to-toe contact. Success. An easy victory in light of recent times. Laura on the other hand, being the showboater that she is, downed her drink, pulled the putrid digit out of the glass and stuck it in her gob like a foul necrotic cigar. She began to lick the festering hallux up and down while waving her arms in the air as a disgusted groan rose from the audience. She basked in her degenerate crapulence as surrounding stomachs inverted.
More beers as the Sourtoe crowd began to dissipate. The party is over for those of a weaker disposition and those of stronger grit could never match Laura’s heinous triumph tonight.
Eventually and inevitably, we were spilled out drunk across the streets of Dawson. Our boozy eyes had forgotten about the midnight sun and we blundered blind back to Dawson City Campgrounds.
Yukon Bath. Approaching cleanliness.
Everything we own still dribbled from the Great Trucker War of Eagle Plains, but we didn’t care. The sun fell behind the hills and while it remained above the horizon, the low light seemed to signal an end to something, but we couldn’t be sure of what. An end to our Inuvik imprisonment? An end to Dempster Highway? Whatever it was that we learned in the Arctic, it has formed a juncture. From here on in, we will look back upon our lives as before this point and after this point. It seems like a thousand years have passed in the blink of an eye. The air was cool and refreshing and we were certain that we had stumbled across some intangible truth somewhere over the last eight days, and that tomorrow would bring with it something exciting and new.
Still light. Just.