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Klondike Creative Class Photograph by Sarah Fuller.

Klondike Creative Class

The gold rush is long gone, but a new generation of artists is stoking the myth of the Yukon.

THOUSANDS OF FOUR-INCH brass screws dangle on fishing line. The lights of Dawson City’s ODD Gallery give the screws a gold hue and make the line shimmer, creating an ethereal cloud that hovers above a solid base of rocks on the floor. Welcome Stranger is an installation inspired by the largest gold nugget ever found. Upstairs, the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC) ballroom is dark except for a little light leaking past the blackout blinds and a small reading lamp in front of the installation’s creator, Paul Griffin. Cross-legged, wire-frame glasses way down his nose, he tells the more than fifty people at his artist talk that imagination can change a society. “We imagine something and then we do it.”

Griffin has been one of two KIAC artists-in-residence this summer. When I suggested he could have been speaking about Dawson City as much as his art, the Mount Allison University lecturer said, “I was.” 

Ever since the Klondike Gold Rush, people have come here to reinvent themselves. And lately, this Yukon town with just 1,300 full-time residents—1,900 if you count the surrounding communities—has been trying to pull off its own reinvention. In the last fifteen years, Dawson has opened an art institute and an art school and a quarter of its residents now work or volunteer in the cultural sector. That’s the town I came to in the spring of 2012 to be writer-in-residence at Berton House, the childhood home of Pierre Berton. As soon as my three months were up, I wanted to return—and in August 2013, I did.

If you research Dawson before you go, you’ll read about a bar called the Pit, characters such as Caveman Bill and the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, which tourists join by drinking a shot of whiskey with a human toe in it. Yes, it’s true, the place is fun, but while I patronized the Pit and visited Caveman Bill’s home in the west bank of the Yukon River—it’s surprisingly comfortable—the Dawson I’ve come to love is not the cartoonish one I’d read about. 

Still, Dodge, as some locals call it, is a funny place. I’d been giddy about my return, but as the beat up Toyota Corolla I was riding in sped toward town, a pit of anxiety exploded in my stomach. What if this is a mistake? What if no one remembers me? What if I’ve totally idealized it? 

A city built on myth, Dawson is an easy place to idealize. By 1898, two years after the discovery of the first gold nuggets in a nearby creek, more than 30,000 people had made the trek to “the Paris of the North.” The most popular route took hikers through the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway, Alaska, to the Yukon River before leading them downriver to Dawson. More stampeders turned back or died than made it and many of those who reached the Klondike discovered the easy-to-find gold had already been found. Though some followed the promise of riches to another rush in Nome, Alaska, Jack London and Robert Service stoked the Yukon legend with works such as The Call of the Wild and The Cremation of Sam McGee

This is also a city saved by myth. By the 1950s, Dawson was practically a ghost town—the population had dwindled to a few hundred. But in 1957, the National Film Board produced a documentary about the town called City of Gold. Narrated by Berton, it won the Palme d’or at Cannes for best short film and earned an Oscar nomination. Berton’s bestselling book Klondike came out the next year. Although the tourist rush didn’t start right away—in fact, when the last of the gold mining dredges stopped operating in 1966, some merchants walked away from stocked stores—the film and book spurred Parks Canada to document and preserve what was left of Dawson. In the ‘70s, the Klondike Visitors Association opened Diamond Tooth Gerties, then the only legal gambling casino in Canada, and the preserved gold rush town started to become a popular tourist destination. The RVs and the busloads of Holland America sightseers, and the young people who serve them, still come because of what Berton rekindled. 

And now, according to a new myth, plucky, creative non-conformists have conjured an arts community out of nothing more than their audacious vision, pioneering spirit and the belief that they can make anything happen. There’s more to it than that, of course—lots of government money, for one thing—but out of their imaginations, they began writing the next chapter of Dawson City mythology. 

YOU MIGHT THINK people would have to be crazy to so much as dream about putting an art school in a tiny, remote sub-arctic town. But the idea had been in the air since the ‘70s and by the late ‘90s, Greg Hakonson and John Steins were tossing it around at dinner parties. Born in Dawson, Hakonson, a successful independent miner before he turned to homebuilding, worried about a problem that plagues many small towns, especially northern ones: all the young people were leaving. One day in the spring of 1998, he saw Steins, who’d left a career in advertising to move to Dawson (and would serve as mayor from 2006 to 2009) walking along Eighth Avenue. Standing on Hakonson’s driveway, they agreed: “Let’s just do it.” 

Steins had experience. Back in 1979, he was instrumental in establishing the Dawson City Music Festival. The annual fest has hosted many top Canadian acts and some international ones, including Chicago cult hero Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It now injects almost $600,000 into the Yukon’s annual GDP as out-of-towners surf on every available couch and even pitch tents on lawns. Not just the town’s biggest event of the year, the festival begat a generation of community and arts organizers. 

“John is a consummate artist. I dabble in the arts, but I was more concerned about the economy of Dawson,” says Hakonson. “It was a lovely marriage.” The pair set up the Dawson City Arts Society to realize their vision: an accredited, degree-granting four-year art school with 150 students. Throw in faculty, staff and spouses and you have 250 new residents, about what a small hard rock mine would bring in, but without the boom and bust (or, unfortunately, the miners’ wages). 

Launching a college straight away was impractical, so they began with an art institute. They bought the derelict Odd Fellows Hall from the Klondike Visitors Association for a dollar and Hakonson cadged $850,000 from the territorial government to renovate it. Laurel Parry, manager of the arts section of the Yukon’s Tourism and Culture department, calls Hakonson a visionary and a persuader, roles usually played by two different people. 

Opened on New Year’s Eve, 1999—with a bash called the Odd Fellows Ball—the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture sits in the heart of the town at the corner of Second Avenue and Princess. The ambitious programs started right away: the Dawson City International Short Film Festival, which runs every Easter, began in 2000. The next year, KIAC launched The Riverside Arts Festival (held during Discovery Days, the Yukon’s mid-August long weekend celebration commemorating the Gold Rush); Youth Art Enrichment (four days of workshops in November for forty-eight Yukon high schoolers); and the residency program, which brings in top artists from across the country and, increasingly, around the world. After visiting classes, giving workshops and interacting with the community during their stay, artists-in-residence become ambassadors, spreading their enthusiasm around the country. KIAC also hosts a full roster of art, yoga and other classes, monthly coffee houses (I once saw seventeen violinists on stage at the same time) and fundraisers.

In Dawson, art isn’t merely art: it also plays a social role. Dan Sokolowski, the producer of Film Fest, and his wife Laurie are the den mother and father of the arts crowd, making sure everyone has fun and newcomers feel welcome. Sokolowski did the KIAC residency in 2004; he’s one of four former artists-in-res who now live here. You’re unlikely to see him without a ball cap on—he has about sixty, and that’s after taking two garbage bags’ worth to the Salvation Army. When Bombay Peggy’s, a Gold Rush brothel-turned-Victorian inn and bar, started closing in the winter, the Sokolowskis opened their home for Friday evening happy hours. Bombay Danny’s was so popular that Dawsonites now take turns hosting. 

YOU’D BE SURPRISED how big the Discovery Days parade is. Locals and tourists line Front St. to watch the procession of RCMP dress uniforms, period costumes, floats, and old cars. And then there’s Eldo Enns, riding his penny-farthing while waving newspapers and barking, “Extra, Extra! We found gold!” 

If Dawson had a glossy city magazine that compiled a power list, the couple gracing the cover would be Enns and Karen DuBois, the art institute’s creative director. Both are liked and respected by just about everyone in town—if you’re ever in a bar with Enns, you’ll see how often people send over drinks—and both play crucial roles in the arts community, even though Enns insists, “I am not an arts guy.” Now a math, business and English instructor at Yukon College, he twice served as the interim director of the Yukon School of Visual Art. In the summer, he works at the Visitor Information Centre to practice his German (about 15 percent of Dawson’s tourists come from Germany, Switzerland and Austria).

On his lunch break a couple of hours after the parade, Enns is in his kitchen standing at the counter smearing Stilton from a huge wheel onto crackers and telling me how he ended up here. 

While on a break from his faculty position at the University of Manitoba, he went for a long ride on his motorcycle. In Whitehorse, he stopped at Yukon College and received a job offer to teach in the eastern community of Ross River starting that afternoon. He went for a coffee to think about it and then said yes. After one term, he moved to Old Crow in the northwest part of the territory and never returned to the U of M. Old Crow is a dry community with no roads in or out, so he’d fly to Dawson for fun. “I used to come down here for a $247 beer once in a while. That included the flight,” he says. “The second beer was cheaper.” When Yukon College asked him to run the town’s satellite campus, he jumped at the chance. At the time, there was an Arts for Employment program, but the art school was just a dream. A crazy one, he thought. “I still think they’re crazy.” 

The Yukon School of Visual Art (Yukon SOVA) actually has three parents: the Dawson City Arts Society, which supplied the dreamers and doers; the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, which helped find funding and develop the curriculum; and Yukon College, which offered accreditation and helped with administration, human resources and communications. 

David Curtis, a new-in-town carpenter who’d worked on Odd Fellows Hall and started Film Fest, was one of only two people in town with an art school degree, so he ended up taking the lead on the project. The plan was to start with a foundation year that would allow students to transfer to colleges in the South while easing the transition from Northern towns and First Nations communities to big-city schools. Since the school opened in 2007, the surprise has been its appeal to Southerners, (as people from the Yukon call anyone who lives south of 60 degrees) who’ve accounted for about two-thirds of the students. 

Veronica Verkley has taught there since it opened. Every fall, she takes her students to the dump. Scavenging is part of Northern culture and along with a free store full of clothes, books and other useful items, the dump has rows of appliances, a clump of bike parts and other cast-offs. “It’s a candy store for a sculpture student,” says Verkley. In the printmaking part of her course, students use a local company’s compactor to crush dump metal and then make prints with the flattened objects. “There’s so much improvisation here because the place hasn’t set itself in stone yet,” she says. “There are no rules.” 

Despite the appreciation for eccentricity, Yukon SOVA hopes for traditional success. The next step for the college would be a second year, but Curtis Collins, director since January 2013, believes schools need a niche—and SOVA’s is foundation years. 

The school’s survival isn’t yet inevitable, especially since it has yet to reach its yearly goal of twenty students. A similar college, the White Mountain Academy of the Arts in the Northern Ontario city of Elliot Lake, tried and failed. But for now, Yukon SOVA is thriving, and changing Dawson in the process. “It attracts people willing to go where it says ‘Here Be Dragons,’” says Verkley. That self-selection process means students can be hard to get rid of—some come back every summer, while others stay, get married and have babies. 

YOU CAN’T MISS the massive scar on the slope at the north of town. When I look at this rare geological feature, I see the Rolling Stones’ mouth logo, but many generations ago the Hän people saw a stretched hide drying in the sun and called it the Moosehide Slide. Sunday morning, under the Slide, monster trucks race through mud tracks beside the Yukon River. One revs its engine again and again at the starting line, creating a huge cloud of exhaust, then barely makes it through the course. It’s all mindless fun, if you don’t think about the environment. But few in the large, appreciative crowd are regulars at KIAC events. 

The annual Klondike Valley Mud Bog is a Discovery Days tradition, but the Riverside Arts Festival has changed the long weekend. In 1979, I worked in a mine at Elsa, Yukon, and a friend and I hitchhiked to Dawson to party at the celebration. Which we did. Which may be why I have only vague memories of my first visit: drinking beer in the streets, attending a wild bash with bands in the arena, crashing on the floor at some stranger’s place. No wonder people called it Drunken Days. Now, though, Arts Fest attracts a different type of visitor, which disappoints some residents. 

The joke about Music Fest is that it was just an event the organizers wanted to go to: they invited musicians they liked rather than the ones who’d sell the most tickets. That approach has also worked for the art institute, which doesn’t expect everyone to enjoy every gallery show or Film Fest flick. “Our achievements are certainly recognized across Canada more than they are at home,” says DuBois, a born-and-bred Dawsonite. “If we were just programming for the local population, things might have taken a very different turn.” 

It’s easy to forget that this town is the size of a high school. The three main cliques are the artists, the miners (as the arts crowd calls non-artists), and the First Nations peoples. While open hostilities aren’t a problem, the groups don’t mix much and the miners and artists do grouse about each other. Artists gather at Bombay Peggy’s, miners go to the Eldorado Hotel, and everyone drinks at the Pit. 

Operating since 1902, the Pit is located in the Westminster Hotel, a Gold Rush landmark. Dawson’s setting—a flood plain along the eastern bank of the Yukon River—isn’t classically beautiful, but the town is charming: dirt streets, wooden sidewalks and pioneer architecture featuring colourful flat fronts. Some buildings serve new roles after renovation, and others are tourist attractions, but still others are decaying or sitting in limbo. Being able to buy its headquarters for a buck certainly gave KIAC a head start, and the stock of historical structures encourages the imagination. For example, the old Daily News offices, one of Parks Canada’s twenty-six properties in the Klondike, remain an underused gem. In 2012, Arts Fest added a Print and Publishing Symposium here. The space would be perfect for SOVA courses in letterpress and bookbinding, but such ideas lead to grumbling about entitled artists who think they have a right to all the old buildings. 

Recent mayoral history offers another sense of the tension. Steins was popular with artists, but not with miners, and public art was an issue during his second campaign in 2009 (so was a gas station owner’s decision to hike up prices during Music Fest). He lost by seven votes to Eldorado Hotel owner Peter Jenkins. Hakonson takes pains to point out that, as a member of the Yukon legislature, Jenkins helped with the creation of KIAC. But as mayor, he antagonized artists and wanted Music Fest to move outside of town. Many in the arts community joke about refusing to enter his hotel.

The artists and the miners also differ on how much all this art means to the town. Although culture has broadened a Klondike economy based on mining (lucrative, but cyclical), tourism (perennial, but seasonal and erratic) and government (thanks to Parks Canada cuts, increasingly precarious), it hasn’t remade the financial reality of Dawson. Most artists must work service industry or government jobs to pay the rent. “Did it save the town? Probably not,” says Wayne Potoroka, who became mayor after handily defeating Jenkins in 2012. “But the arts have improved our lives. They’ve transformed the town for the benefit of all and at the expense of none.”

Well, except for taxpayers. Public money powers this town: The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, which receives funding from the federal and territorial governments, is a significant employer and, despite recent cuts, so is Parks Canada, especially in summer. And without access to government largess, there’d be no KIAC, no Yukon SOVA, no arts community. Parry’s department gives Dawson $400,000 each year and Canada Council chipped in with $100,000 in 2011–2012. Three-quarters of KIAC’s $600,000 budget is public dough, but with costs rising and funding static, future growth won’t be easy. And that’s without cutbacks: if, for example, the grant that pays Sokolowski’s salary disappeared, Film Fest would look a lot different, if it survived at all. 

I DIDN’T EXPECT TO BE doing this: I’m standing on the stage of the Palace Grand Theatre telling humiliating stories about myself. Yesterday was my second day back in Dawson, and I agreed to do a short talk for the Grand Ole Soapbox, the final event of Arts Fest, because another speaker bailed.

This is a town without probation. I’d learned that a year earlier: I hadn’t been here eight hours when a woman I’d just met asked me to take tickets at Film Fest. Two days later, Sokolowski asked me to be a festival blogger (he was driving me up the Dempster Highway, so how could I say no?). Dawson gets more than 35,000 tourists a year and the last thing it needs is more gawkers; it demands participants. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve just arrived, or are only back for a visit: you can always expect someone to ask for help.

Living in a town that’s small and remote has its drawbacks, but the isolation breeds cohesion and a desire to make your own fun, assets when wrangling volunteers. Perhaps out of necessity, given the climate, Northerners have a natural inclination to help each other—a good thing since Sokolowski relies on 800 donated hours from eighty Dawsonites to put on Film Fest. 

Privately, people admit all the volunteering can be a burden. Meanwhile, DuBois worries about over-working her staff. So despite lots of ideas for other projects, KIAC may have reached its limit. And Peter Menzies, a self-identified “Dawson snob” and president of the arts society, worries about leadership burnout: with more than fifty boards and an average of six members each, the town needs 300 directors and executives. Most are acclaimed and president and treasurer are hard spots to fill. Menzies is on five boards.

While volunteers have been crucial, John Goldsmith, Canada Council’s director of stakeholder relations, believes Dawson’s success comes down to leadership. “There’s some alchemy in there—I’m not quite sure what it is.” The Yukon government’s Parry says the “Dawson miracle” is a case of “Richard Florida times magic,”—referring to the Toronto-based “creative class” guru—but later adds in an email that there are also prosaic reasons, including smart partnerships: “It’s more like a good marriage, you could list all the attributes but it is about the chemistry.” 

Housing could screw up the town’s formula, though. Home prices rival those in big cities and rents are too damn high—if you can even find a place. NIMBYism killed an affordable-arts-housing project when Jenkins was mayor. Housing woes increase the departure rate, which exacerbates the succession problem. Winter also adds to the turnover. Many, like Sokolowski, insist it’s their favourite time of year; in fact, every second summer he leaves the 24-hour sunlight of the Klondike for a few months and returns to Ontario because he misses the stars and being able to see campfires. But life-long Yukoner DuBois admits, “The winter is a challenge. It takes its toll.” 

The leadership transition was smooth at music fest, where some of the current organizers are children of previous ones. But replacing Hakonson and DuBois, who are both in their late fifties, won’t be easy. Despite having no formal role now, Hakonson and his original vision still hold enormous sway. And DuBois might be even harder to replace, even though KIAC has a solid core of younger people on staff. It bodes well for the future that the most popular programs are for kids, but her replacement will have to contend with the irony that the more the institute becomes an institution, the more people take it for granted. 

SARAH FULLER IS STRESSED. Dressed in jeans, an Icelandic sweater and a toque with a pink pom-pom, she bounds through the woods with nervous energy instead of her usual infectious enthusiasm. Tall and slim, with a nimbus of curly reddish blonde hair, she photographs herself doing handstands wherever she travels and is working on a video series of her cartwheels in unusual places (I saw her do one on the Dempster Highway, though tundra isn’t the most stable surface). Tonight that sense of fun is gone because rain, which has threatened all day, starts to fall just as she takes the plastic off her installation, The Homecoming. When the dredge maintenance compound at Bear Creek closed in 1966, several nearby homes were moved elsewhere in the Klondike. In the summer of 2012, using a large format camera, Fuller photographed five of these buildings in Dawson. She also shot where they’d originally stood and then Photoshopped the two together. Over the winter, Fuller printed the not-quite-life-sized result onto linen in sections and then sewed them together. This summer, she hung the “buildings” at Bear Creek and lit them from behind, meaning they look best—almost spooky—just as it’s getting dark. 

Arts Fest’s opening night Gallery Hop ended with free rides here and about one hundred people came. Even more showed up the next night after Fuller’s artist talk. But Saturday night had been all frustration. It rained, she couldn’t start the generator for the lights and no volunteers—nor anyone else—arrived before she gave up. Now, on the second last night, it’s raining and Fuller and her volunteers are worried no one will show again. 

Her project has created buzz because Bear Creek is special to long-time Dawsonites. Hakonson’s original vision for the arts society included converting the old compound into studios, performance space and living quarters for visiting artists. He still considers it “the jewel in the crown.” The first step was Art Gate, an opportunity for local and international artists to shoot, sketch and generate ideas with similar events in cities around the world. A pilot project in the summer of 2012 included Berlin artists. For Hakonson, Art Gate is a way to move toward his audacious Bear Creek dream and put Dawson on the international stage. He wanted an expanded event this summer, but the arts society board was worried about taking on too much. “They didn’t understand it,” says Hakonson. While the pilot was successful, DuBois says KIAC needs money to make it an annual event and Menzies agrees: “I love the idea, but Art Gate’s time is down the road. It’s not fundable right now.” Menzies is patient and says Bear Creek may be twenty years away, but Hakonson worries the buildings will deteriorate beyond repair: “Time is ticking.” 

I FIRST FELT WHAT SERVICE CALLED the Spell of the Yukon when I worked at Elsa in 1979. There, everyone was running from women, debts, cops or calamity. Dawson seems different. In Charlotte Gray’s Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, the former Berton House resident points out that of the three writers most responsible for the Gold Rush mythology—London, Service and Berton—the first two, in particular, portrayed an all-male world. But if you visit now, you’re sure to be struck by all the strong, independent, creative women. Indeed, a bit of Yukon wisdom holds that “men go to hide, women go to thrive.” And, sure, some people are on the lam from earlier lives, but others just want an adventure or a good place to create. Nova Scotian filmmaker Lulu Keating, a former KIAC artist-in-resident who moved to Dodge in 2004 to run Film Fest, says, “My personal commitment to the place has to do with my work.” And with enough other artists to keep her stimulated, she says, “Dawson feels like Leonard Cohen’s Greece.” 

Although the easy assumption is that the arts gave the town its vibrancy, it’s really the other way round. The endless summer daylight and the long winter darkness generate a strange, intense energy. So do the gorgeous landscapes, the remoteness, the northern lights, and the active clouds. Hakonson’s wife, Shelley, an artist, arrived in May of 1976 to dance in Gaslight Follies at the Palace Grand. She drove up from Whitehorse with other cast members and as they turned the corner around Crocus Bluff, Dawson came into view. It was misty and sunny and warm and everything was green and smelled of spring. She knew she’d found her home. Talk to people who live here and you’ll hear lots of stories like that.

David Curtis has lived in places throughout Northern and Western Canada—he grew up a socialist brat rather than an army brat—and now lives off the grid in West Dawson. He says Dodge is as close to an egalitarian society as he’s come across: no one cares about your hometown, your education or your clothes. “People treat you with respect here and encourage you to pursue your dreams and be who you are,” he says. “And then leave you be to do it.” 

You’ll probably just dismiss that as more mythmaking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, either. And maybe that’s why I’ll always imagine going back to Dawson City.

The print version of this piece incorrectly refers to the Yukon School of Visual Art as the School of Visual Art. Maisonneuve sincerely regrets the error.