Spring is an exciting time to visit Dawson City, perfect for the adventurous traveler who likes to get off the beaten path and experience something truly unique. The sun is higher in the sky, making for longer days to get out and enjoy Dawson’s many hiking and mountain biking trails, scouring the bluffs for the first fuzzy crocuses poking their heads above ground, or watching for migratory birds journeying to their summer nesting grounds in the Arctic. Plus, the northern lights can still be seen dancing overhead on clear nights. The town begins to stretch and come alive after a long, cold winter: Easter long weekend features the Dawson City International Short Film Festival, bringing a variety of short films by filmmakers near and far.
Mid-April is also the time when people begin placing bets on the exact date and time they think the frozen Yukon River will break. This quirky tradition has been happening annually in some fashion since 1896, the year that hopeful prospectors first began to flood into the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, now known worldwide as the Klondike. Since the 1940’s, the “ice pool” has been run by the local chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, or IODE. It’s their biggest fundraiser: the money goes right back into the community in the form of scholarships, Christmas parcels for seniors, and aid for families experiencing medical emergencies.
So, how does the ice pool work, exactly? Tickets are distributed to local businesses, where folks can then purchase single tickets or whole books, wagering their guesses as to the date and time, down to the minute, that the river ice will break. A huge wooden tripod is placed out on the ice near the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, with a cable running from it to a clock hung outside the centre. As the open water pushes out the ice, it causes the tripod to move, stopping the clock and marking the official time. The earliest recorded breakup is April 23rd, 2016, and the latest is May 28th, 1964.
In the days and weeks leading up to this event, patient river-watchers can be seen walking up and down the trail on the dike, keeping an eye on the progress of the open water pushing downstream. It’s amazing to watch the ice rot day by day, the leading edge a jumble of icebergs. Locals say that once the first seagulls return, it’ll be a week until the ice breaks. When it happens, someone alerts the volunteer fire department located on Front Street, and the siren will sound out over town, no matter the time of day or night. If it’s daytime, everyone from school kids to bar patrons to office workers will rush down to the dike to watch the spectacular display of huge ice pans grinding and crashing together, a symbolic washing away of the depths of winter. Summer has finally arrived!
And with that sudden rush of open water comes a swirl of activity: Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall is open every night, with Gertie herself taking the stage to entertain. Parks Canada runs their annual Doors Open Dawson event, where historic gold rush buildings normally closed to the public throw open their doors for all to explore. This is the time when you can feel the excitement and energy of the midnight sun, already in the sky until 11 pm or later. Be careful, though, because like so many Dawson City sourdoughs, you might just fall in love with this charming community and never leave.