There is something about gold, Robert Service told us, that drives men mad. I don’t think it’s the gold, actually. I think it’s the North. The Yukon, the Klondike. Once under its spell, normal blokes grow a little goofy. Not just in 1897, but even today. The mountains are painted with yellow trees in this extended summer, but the strange things go on in Whitehorse and Dawson City and everyone takes no nevermind.
In Whitehorse, His Worship the Mayor is Dr. Don Branigan. The medical profession and the officers of the law look unkindly on His Worship, but he has beaten the rap on a whole host of charges dealing with his billings, and his constituents love him still.
In Dawson City, the town that spawned the one-man industry known as Pierre Berton, His Worship the Mayor is one Peter Jenkins, surely the only man who learned to fly while in jail. His Worship is known fondly by the locals as “Peter, Peter, the Meter Cheater,” this having some reference to the circumstances that brought the law after him after he circumvented the usual means of providing power for his motel. A 45-year-old refugee from Montreal, Jenkins says it was “fibbing to a judge” that led to his incarceration in the Whitehorse slammer.
Not being regarded as a dangerous character, he was given plenty of leeway and filled his free time by taking flying lessons. Things are different in the Yukon. Did this discourage his fans? Of course not. He was elected mayor and selected as the town’s Man of the Year. Trouble with the law, whether in the gold rush or in modern times, is a relative thing.
His Worship boasts that he works for $1 a year, but in full formal regalia wears around his neck the mayor’s sash that bears a dozen or so pure gold nuggets that are worth “$22,000 or $23,000—around there.” He is owner of the Eldorado Hotel: “Purveyors of Clean Rooms, Hot Baths, Potable Spirits, Excellent Meals, Livery Service.” The bar is called the Sluice Box Lounge. There are four people on his
city council, a number he likes. He is a strong Conservative in what is now an NDP territory.
There is, in Dawson, Capt. Dick Stevenson, who is still attempting to achieve world fame because of his insistence that no visitor to the town can escape without sampling his “sour toe cocktail.” This is a drink contained in a glass wherein a pickled toe rests at the bottom. Stevenson says he and his wife found the original toe, but he is now working on the third successor, an overeager imbiber having accidentally swallowed the first one. He declines to reveal where he gets the toes.
Town fathers, for once growing squeamish, put their fully toed feet down, however, whén the captain, having never made it past the Johnny Carson show, attempted to dispense a new drink containing bear testicles. His new attempt for immortality is the offer to one saloon that if it will cut a glass-covered pit in its
floor he will donate his skin and have his stuffed corpse exhibited on his death. His lawyer says the law forbids a man to be stuffed, but not his skin.
It is cold and lonely up here in the winter, and someone—His Worship is the suspect— thought of subscribing to Home Box Office of New York for its service through satellite dish. One membership was bought, under the name of George Dawson, for $19.95 a month, the whole town was hooked up and happy residents enjoyed every channel under the sun until visiting reporters, coming upon soft-pom movies, blew the whistle.
There is Ruby’s Place, a celebrated house of ill-repute that has been restored—so to speak—under the auspices of Parks Canada, which is turning the whole joint into a picture postcard town for the tourists. Ruby and those who followed her operated the house of plea-
sure right into the 1960s, the era when Ottawa decided to put big money back into the town. The story is that a group of federal bureaucrats and their wives arrived on a junket, the men arrived back at the hotel rather too late one night and, shortly after, Ruby’s Place was closed. The Parks Canada plaque on the front identifies Ruby as a “dancehall girl.” So Ottawa.
At the Palace Grand Theatre, built in 1899 with tiers of boxes rising three levels, the prim puritans who took over the place in the 1920s covered over the sinful barroom area. When the theatre was finally restored to its present glory, they panned the dirt covering the lobby to find the location of the bar and found a straight line of gold, revealing where the drinkers had drunk.
The bard of the Klondike gold rush, the man who made it famous around the world, wasn’t there to see it happen. Robert Service, raised in Scotland, was a bank clerk in the Yukon in 1905 when he borrowed the name of a depositor to create The Cremation of Sam McGee. It’s not true that he had to slave in the bank while his ballads went unnoticed; the bank manager fired him when he found out that the lyrical clerk was making more money than he was.
The author of The Shooting of Dan McGrew ended up a rich man on the Riviera and refused to return to the Yukon “because it was too cold,” a sensible poet if not a romantic one. Today “his cabin” is a local shrine, but it contains some eight logs from his original abode, the others having been sprinkled about among other claimants to his ghost.
I tell you, it’s more than gold that’s responsible for all this.
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