Tom Witte is an old Montreal friend, a Canadian, a savvy drinker and talented raconteur. When I knew Tom, he was a city guy, who knew the best Montreal microbreweries, the fastest bike routes across the city and which weird experimental electronic music shows to go to. Nowadays, Tom is a bushman, having spent the last five odd years in Dawson city (population 2000), deep in the Yukon territory. Dawson is next door to Alaska, at about 64º latitude, and a five-hour drive from the next biggest “city” (Whitehorse, pop. 20,000). I wanted to know what it’s like, spending your twenties in a town of 2000, how twentysomethings there compare to us city-folk, and just what the fuck he’s doing there.
First off, why don’t you describe Dawson City.
I think more Americans are getting to know Dawson City thanks to that TV show “Gold Rush Alaska”, though they might not realize it’s in Canada, since the show is pretty vague on that little detail. Historically, Dawson City used to be a thriving hub of gold-seekers at the close of the 19th century, booming to around 30,000 people at the height of the Klondike rush. Since then, it’s dwindled in size, frozen and thawed countless times, rotted and rebuilt and survived thanks to the continued efforts of small-time gold miners, tourism, and an active first nations community.
Dawson has eight avenues and about 15 streets. There are no chain stores here. There are two grocery stores, eight bars, a ferry crossing the river, and no movie theatres. In the winter, the river freezes and you can drive a truck across it. Considering its remote position on the map – there’s only two roads in the entire territory, which is bigger than California – Dawson is actually fairly connected to the rest of Canada. People travel from all over to experience the geographical remoteness and the feeling of community you get from a small town of thinkers. So, it’s basically a diverse, hip, tiny mining town in a remote corner of the world and for that reason is totally unique.
What are you doing there? What brought you there in the first place?
Initially I came up here looking to party at the end of the Earth. I was sick of Montreal, sick of big city attitudes and anonymity, sick of my shitty Anthropology classes at McGill and sick of crushing economic inequality shoved in your face every day. I wanted to explore Canada’s massive, un-developed northern landscapes and had heard from a close friend that this city was a great place to get my drink on/find work with a useless degree.
Six years later, I find myself rammed into the mineral exploration field. I’ve been swept up in a gold rush. When I’m not setting up a camp in some remote ridge or lakeshore, I’m living in a cabin with no water, wood heat and complete silence, next to the Klondike river.
Contrast living in the summer and living there in the winter.
Let me first just say that I don’t really live here in the winter. I tend to travel. Work stops and I pick another piece of the globe to trot. That said, I’ve spent one good winter here though and I’ll do it again this year, because it’s a great place to take time for yourself, develop creative skills and learn about sub-arctic survival.
Summers are warm, the sun shines 24 hours a day, seasonal workers flood the town and parties rage every night of the week. Winters are dead cold, dark and still – a bit like being at the bottom of the ocean, I’d imagine. Another way to look at it is that winters here take a lot of discipline and imagination, where summers are all about just givin’er hard.
When I knew you, you’d been a city guy your whole life – now you shoot guns, ride helicopters around the bush and snowshoe it to the whorehouse in -20F weather (I’m assuming) – do you feel like you’re the same person or how has living in such a remote for 5 years changed you?
Yeah, there’s nothing like a good salty whorehouse to warm you up when it’s -20F (or even -50F) out. But really, I can’t even remember who I was 6 years ago. I mean, my life now was unimaginable to the person I used to be – most mornings for the last three summers ,I hung off a helicopter and dropped into the woods with an axe, auger, machete and mattock, clawing the earth for gold. I’m still a city guy at heart here, having to learn things the hard way, like how to drive through a river or build a survival shelter in the snow, but I consider myself to be much more capable in a zombie apocalypse at this point. That’s what women really want, right?
Seriously though, I wouldn’t say I’m a proper bushman by any stretch, but I’m moving more towards that direction every year. I have a lot more self-esteem and confidence now. I’m also starting to open my eyes to the reality of living in a cold, anonymous world, and realizing that to want the solitary wilderness life is a complete mistake. I think what makes us human is social networking in the deepest sense.
What percentage of the town would you say are what I call ‘New Adults’, people in their 20s to mid 30s? How many men to women? Where are they all from?
I don’t really have any solid percentages for you here but I’d say it’s close to half. Dawson has a very young population, most of whom aren’t from Dawson. There are groups of friends here from various places in Canada. There’s always the odd Australian wanderer around, maybe a Brit here and there in the summertime. Summers see more women than men, since a lot of men like me go out into the bush to work. During the winter the numbers even out and maybe go a little the other way too, with more men than women.
What are they all doing there?
As far as work goes, I’d say the “New Adults” mostly work in tourism, service industry, government (both First Nation and territorial) and geology.
The ‘why’ of it all is a great question to ask people. Are they getting away from painful relationships, family feuds, shameful secrets or crime sprees? Did they just want to hit the road and see where it ends? Are they chasing down an idea of the hard North we’re taught as kids here in Canada? Are they raging alcoholics? I think everyone here, to some degree, just wants to drop out of the busy, superficial, stressful life down south and be where the news rarely affects you emotionally or otherwise.
What is the social life like in Dawson? How does the average twentysomething spend the average Saturday night?
The social life here is a riot – last night a handful of friends and I piled 13 wood pallets up on an abandoned tailings pile, poured a bucket of diesel on it and watched the flames roar two stories high. Later that night, pounding fine vodka from the bottle as the flames died down, we watched the northern lights slither around in the sky. Then I cycled three blocks back to my cabin and passed out.
The bars here are cranking in the summer. The average Saturday night is spent getting drunk and then being drunk. I prefer to drink at Bombay Peggy’s, a renovated old whorehouse from the gold rush, and then dance at The Pit, a greasy dive bar with tin ceilings, sagging floors, leaking pipes and a live band every weekend. Another favorite is to hang out on the riverbank of the Yukon, where the ravens scan the shores. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a moose swimming through town. It’s a great place to gaze into a fire.
Does the Internet/technology/social networking make you all feel like you’re more connected to the rest of the world, or does it make you guys feel kind of cut off?
We use online social networking to organize bigger events, but not so much for daily communication. Our social networking is done every time you walk down the street – it’s impossible to walk a block here without seeing someone you know and stopping for a chat. Cell phones were recently introduced to town after much debate, but we still don’t have iPhone support, so awkward silences in conversations are never filled with neurotic Facebook checking. They’re still just awkward.
The internet makes us feel way more connected to the rest of the world, though, no doubt about it. When I come back from the woods, I’ll just spend an entire day on the web, writing emails, catching up on current events and stalking former lovers on Facebook.
When you go back to other parts of North America, do your peers in the towns/cities seem different than those in Dawson? How so?
It’s not that people my age are that different everywhere I go, it’s just that they operate under a constant barrage of media messages, forced consumer choices and social pressures that we don’t have up here. People seem distracted and disconnected from each other when I visit them. People have trouble stepping back from their routines and getting a little wild. Also, time passes far differently south of the Yukon. It’s relative, and hard to explain… just spend the fall here and see what I mean.
No one I know in Dawson watches TV. We get a newspaper three times a week. We hike in the wilderness every weekend and on some weeknights too. I never go to a gym. I crap in a bucket and pour my grey water into the earth. I don’t shower every day. I don’t think these things make me better or worse than my peers in the city, but I definitely have less patience for people who take the luxuries in their lives for granted. People have also forgotten about the simpler joys of nature, probably because it’s been paved over for miles around, or locked into parks.
In coming back, is there any sense of culture shock?
Yeah, there used to be, especially with traffic on the streets, noise and light pollution, and strangers everywhere who don’t look you in the eye. Cities are weird places, artificial organizations of materials to house and filter hundreds of thousands of humans along in their routines and relationships. It’s weird to live somewhere and not have the slightest clue where food, construction materials and even your neighbours come from. Parties are weird for me now, since I have to put a lot of effort into finding things in common with the people around me. I don’t have the cultural capital I used to have when I was more synced up with current events and pop culture. I also have zero fashion sense now and stand out like a caveman at a scotch club.
Do you think you’re only going to live in small, seemingly out of the way places from here on out, or do you eventually want to come back in from the cold?
I struggle with this question more often than I like to admit. I still live year to year, and work with what opportunities are presented to me more I seeking out opportunities elsewhere. I think, in some ways that’s a fault, but it’s hard to say. Life is easy up here, but I can’t escape the feeling that I’m in a dream, and the gears of the world grind on without me when I’m in Dawson. “Coming in from the cold” seems like facing up to a world of greed, excessive consumption, corrupt politics and power struggles. In some ways I feel like I have one foot in the small remote town, one foot in the big city, and firm footing in neither.
In short, I still don’t know what to do with my life when I grow up.
Well it’s Saturday night… I’m off to Peggy’s for a drink!
Henry Goldman is founder of yr an adult, and sadly, a city guy, through and through.