On the road to the Dawson City Music Festival
Actor Johnny Nunan is striding back and forth on an outdoor stage, midway through reciting Robert Service’s "The Cremation of Sam McGee", when the opening notes of a classic rock song come drifting in on the warm Yukon breeze.
Duh (pause), duh, duh, duh”¦
Nunan raises his voice in a vain attempt to stop “Eye of the Tiger” from diverting attention from this Parks Canada presentation held in front of the cabin where the well-known Klondike poet once lived.
Good luck. The Dawson City Music Festival is on this weekend, and Nunan’s audience, including me and my 16-year-old son, Spence, is really here for the music. We wait politely for Nunan to finish, then make a dash for the main festival tent to catch a jam session featuring members of the bands Mother Mother, Bend Sinister, and Crash the Car.
Dawson City’s annual tune fest is one of the main reasons Spence and I have come to the Yukon—that and the chance to see some sights, enjoy some outdoor adventure, and experience the midnight sun.
We’ve given ourselves 10 days to drive a 2,000-kilometre loop from Whitehorse north to Dawson City, then west and over the border into Alaska, south back into the Yukon to Haines Junction, and east back to Whitehorse. To ward off highway boredom, we’ve brought the 16 CDs we could both agree on. Bruce Springsteen made the cut, as did the Killers, Foo Fighters, Great Big Sea, U2, and, after a slight protest from me (because, really, did I not get enough of them in high school?), Journey.
On a lark, each of us adds one disc we know will drive the other person crazy. Spence chooses Iron Maiden. I counter with Seal.
The first leg of the trip, from Whitehorse to Dawson City, is along the scenery-filled Klondike Highway, which roughly parallels the route prospectors followed during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. I’ve printed out the festival lineup, and Spence—when he’s not busy changing CDs or exclaiming over the dearth of signs of civilization—reads out our listening options, which run from folk, blues, and klezmer to indie rock, classical, and country.
When we reach Dawson City, the performance venues prove to be as varied as the music and are all within walking distance along Dawson City’s dirt roads and raised wooden boardwalks. The first night, in the Palace Grand Theatre (which opened in 1899), we join locals and tourists, young tree planters and middle-aged bikers, urban hipsters and wannabe rockers for performances by two bands, the Acorn and Johnny and the Moon.
The next day, in St. Paul’s Anglican Church (built in 1902), we slip into a pew to hear a Spanish-flavoured set. Later, in the main-event tent, Spence and I bond over a mutual dislike of Chad VanGaalen and shared excitement about the twang-coloured guitar sensibilities of Luke Doucet. When the evening performances finish, at 2 a.m., we walk back to our hotel in the still-dusklike night, equally giddy with the fact that, this far north (64 degrees), the sun barely sinks below the horizon in July.
We take breaks from the festival to cruise the Yukon River aboard the Klondike Spirit paddle wheeler and pan for gold near Bonanza Creek, where the nuggets that launched the gold rush were found. But mostly we feast on music by great bands: Mother Mother, Gadji-Gadjo, and, on the final night, Bend Sinister.
During the festival’s final set, Sinister’s Dan Moxon invites the other bands to join him on-stage for one last song. He hands out lyric sheets but acknowledges, “You guys probably know this one.” Evidently, so does the entire audience, as we all join in for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.
Spence insists on playing his Journey CD the next morning as we cross the Yukon River by ferry and drive the Top of the World Highway. True to its name, this stunning ribbon of road runs along mountaintops and ridges and serves up views of tundra blanketed in purple fireweed.
We cross the border and stop for lunch in the tiny town of Chicken, Alaska. The menu in the café is predictable: chicken burgers, chicken strips, chicken with fries. I ask the cook what the soup of the day is. “Chicken noodle,” he answers without cracking a smile.
The Alaska Highway carries us back into Canada and an overnight in Beaver Creek before we reach Haines Junction, a small town that sits on the edge of a vast area of protected wilderness that includes Kluane National Park and Reserve as well as ice fields that form one of the world’s largest nonpolar icecaps.
Not having days to hike into the ice fields, we sign on with Sifton Air for a two-hour flight that takes us past jagged peaks, sheer mountain faces, and the sweeping Lowell and Kaskawulsh glaciers. But clouds move in and obscure the rugged terrain below us, and we are forced to turn back. “If we have engine problems and need to put down immediately,” pilot Thor Flender explains, “we’re toast.”
The next day, we shiver our way through a wet and wild rafting trip on the Tatshenshini River. In quiet stretches, we spy eagles, arctic terns, and a pair of kingfishers that buzz the river like jet fighters.
On our final morning, the young owner of Paddle/Wheel Adventures, Lee Drummond, takes us fishing. We catch two northern pike and head to the rocky shore, where Lee fillets and fries the fish. “Nothing much tastier than a shore lunch you caught,” he says. Spence and I nod vigorously, our mouths too full to answer.
Later, driving back to Whitehorse, we spy a black bear lumbering along the road and, further on, two deer nibbling scrub. As the evening sky takes on a baby-blue glow, Spence slides in another CD.
The opening keyboard riff fills the car. With big, stupid grins on our faces, we launch into the lyrics. “Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world; she took the midnight train goin’ anywhere”¦”