Dawson City, Yukon Friday, March 22, 1996


Feature Stories

Dawson Finds a Second Season

by Dan Davidson

The trip from Tok, Alaska, to Dawson City is about 320 kilometres long, following the Top of the World Highway most of the distance. Depending on the weather it can take anywhere from three and a half to ten hours to make this trip on a snowmobile. Just as long to go back home.

"It's a trip for experienced riders," says Trek Over the Top organizer Eric Zalitas.

You could be facing temperatures down to -40 C and winds of 100 kph on the summit. Machines have gone down slopes out of control and flipped into gulches.

"It can be a dangerous trip," says Pat Cayen.

In spite of that - or maybe because of it - close to 450 Alaskans have trekked that distance since the beginning of February. Most of them - about 400 - made their journey during the two relatively mild weekends that made up this year's Trek Over the Top.

"If the temperature is -20 degrees or warmer, it's just perfect for snowmobiles," Cayen says. "The machines run well and the drivers get off happy."

Arriving ready to participate in activities rather that stumbling around frozen and cranky is a real advantage, since organizers Cayen and Zalitas, with the help of a lot of other people, have set up many things for the visitors to do. The list includes a lot of ski-dooing, two weekends at Diamond Tooth Gerties, a special trail called the Gold Run (with 3.5 oz of gold in prizes), a barbecue and a banquet.

The response from the visitors has been excellent, with a fair number of repeat trekkers and a good percentage who return to visit in the summer.

Pat Cayen waxes optimistic on the significance of it all: "When I first arrived here and got involved with the KVA, the big concern was extending the shoulder seasons. Now we've got this new season. No shoulder at all. It's just a boon to everybody."

And just about everybody seem to appreciate it. Cayen and Zalitas are very happy with the amount of support in the community, as are the organizers from Tok's Alaska Trailblazers Snowmobile Club. There are places in Alaska where this many ski-doos wouldn't be welcome for the weekend, due to the noise factor. Here, however, the Klondike Visitors Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the municipal government have bought right into the concept.

"Look at this shirt, for instance," Cayen says, indicating the T-shirt he's wearing. "The Raven's Nook produced this. This isn't 'our' shirt. They approached us and asked if they could use the name on a shirt."

The Trek concept didn't originate here. Members of the Alaska Trailblazers Snowmobile Club first came over 4 years ago. There were just a few of them here for a weekend, and nothing was laid on for them to do, but they enjoyed the ride and the town and came back again the next year in larger numbers, about two dozen that time.

It was at this point that a few local people realized there was potential in this idea and became to develop it. The two-day weekend for a few immediately blossomed into two 3 day weekends for hundreds, starting last year, in 1995.

The bookings are made in Tok, and very little promotion has been required. There is a brochure distributed by the sponsors. There have been ads in a number of recreational magazines. Cayen and Zalitas contributed an article to the fall edition of SnoRiders West. And, of course, there's a listing on the InterNet.

But for the most part, it's still a run for the joy of it.

"It's fun," says Eric Zalitas. "Everybody's outside the whole time. It's just enjoyable. Everybody's so supportive, and right with us. With all the machines that have been here, we've had no problems. None of these people have ended up in jail. No machines have been vandalized. It's been great."

Enjoyable enough for Pat Cayen, Dawson's fire chief, to use up part of his holidays to oversee it. Enjoyable enough for Constable Eric Zalitas, who has been posted to Faro since last year, to take his holidays and spend them in Dawson assisting.

One of the surprises has been the cooperation from Canada Customs, which has sent a representative to Tok to pre-clear all the riders at the beginning of the trek.

"Can you believe that?" Cayen says, thinking of all the customs complaints that the KVA hears every summer. "Canada Customs leaves the country to go to Tok. They actually work for us, and they did it on their own. Who would ever expect that?"

American customs are just as cooperative on the other side, but with the amount of traffic they've had, week after week, they're getting used to it.

It's hard to expand the concept beyond what it is right now. The trekkers fill every available off-season bed in town, and while the Downtown Hotel is willing to open its annex next year, a larger number each weekend would soon be hard to accommodate at the banquet in Gerties. Then too, there is a limited number of weekends when a things like this can actually happen; depending on the weather, early February through to mid-March seems to define the period.

To open things up more, planners would have to begin to think about mid-week events.

"It would totally change everything," says Cayen. "That starts up all kinds of new talk about Gerties year round and entertainment year round."

The two have looked into the impact of recreational snowmobiling in tourist traffic. In Ontario, says Cayen, towns that used to subsist on summer traffic have turned their economies around with winter tourism. For Dawson, it could be a second tourist season. Cayen estimates that last year's trek brought around $400,000 into the local economy, and predicts the numbers for this year will be higher.

"Maybe we'll get to where the only months people can take off are November, December and April," he says, warming to the topic.

Well, maybe we will. Nobody saw this bonanza five years ago, and it's come a long way with relatively little effort. Who knows what the future may hold?

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An oasis of Yukon hospitality in the big city

by Timothy Sawa

As I walk into the small North Vancouver bungalow and leave the din of the crazy city behind me I'm overwhelmed by both the wonderful smell of home cooking and the surprising but always charming Yukon hospitality. I've been away from the Yukon for nearly two weeks now, and after having spent the last three days of my holiday in Vancouver, I am about due for a dose of Northern reality. So, a lunch date with four die-hard members of the Vancouver-Yukoner's Association is a welcome break from this hectic down-south city life. "Leave your shoes at the door," says 81-year-old Alaskan born Neil MacLeod. He's a past president of the association and has been putting together its newsletter for five years now. "Just be careful," he adds, cracking a smile, and giving me a taste of his overactive sense of humor, "those shoes might not be there when you're ready to leave." He and his wife Frances, who is also a long time member and the association's secretary, invite me into their home. We've never met before, but I only had to mention over the phone that I was a reporter from the Yukon to become an honoured lunch guest. Also sitting down with us to a wonderful meal of homemade soup, fresh bread and a bubbly bottle of B.C. rosée are Dawson born and raised Clarence and Evelyn Craig. They are the only remaining original members of the Vancouver-Yukoner's Association. "We really need to attract young people to the group," says 90-year-old Clarence, in between spoonfuls of soup. "If we don't, the group will go when we do."

* * *

It was in 1928 when the group first formed itself. A gentlemen by the name of Bert Parker, known in Vancouver as the "Kid from the Klondike", was the impetus for the group whose membership has since swelled as high has 700 in its peak years. Parker, when he first moved from the Yukon to Vancouver, quickly earned a reputation as the person to contact when you needed to find someone from the North in the big city. It was in the back room of Vancouver's Castle Hotel, which by then had become the "Yukoner" hangout, that he and his friends decided to make their group official. Today the association is registered under the Society Act in B.C., has a constitution in which it is mandated to "foster and perpetuate among the membership, the spirit of good fellowship and loyalty between those who (have) live(d) in and/or are descendants or spouses of persons from the Yukon, Alaska and/or north of latitude 56" and has a membership of about 300. The group is also associated with 10 other groups, mostly from the U.S., that make up the International Sourdough Association. Although the membership numbers are down right now, a recent surge of interest from younger members seems to be breathing new life into the club. Just this year they enlisted their first descendent, and she's working hard to bring more into the group. So they'll be able to continue to hold their "social" meetings five times a year and the big March banquet will live on. They are also pleased to still be offering the annual Lu Lu Fairbanks scholarship to a northern student pursuing post-secondary education. "As long as we can keep attracting young people then we'll keep going," says Frances.

* * *

An hour of good food, tasty wine and Yukon tales will have to be enough to get me through the remaining two days of my holiday in the city. Vancouver's not such a bad place, actually, but after a summer and winter in Dawson - a town of fewer than 2,000 people - the 3-million who have settled in Canada's largest west coast city are maybe just a few too many to take all a once. "Thank you so much for the beautiful lunch," I say, swishing down the last of my raspberry trifle with some wine. "Just wait till you get the bill," replies Neil.

For more information or to join write The Vancouver-Yukoner's Association, c/o Frances MacLeod 338 West 16th St, North Vancouver, B.C. V7M 1T8

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Wishing Upon a Star

by Dan Davidson

It's Thursday night, and Sabrina Frangetti has just finished watching "Star Trek: Voyager" on television. It is still light in Dawson now until several hours later, but she plans to spend a little bit of time this evening gazing at some other stars.

Later, her mother, Micheline, will carefully lift her from her cot in the living room and place her in a special reclining wheelchair. This will be rolled under her new telescope, which is waiting by the window of their Han Housing provided home. The living room ceiling is hung thick with countless feathered and beaded dream catchers. Making them is Sabrina's hobby, and the way in which she had hoped to raise enough money for a trip to Hawaii this winter.

While Sabrina, who suffers from brittle bone disease, can't get around much these days, the telescope, her second gift from the Make-a-Wish Foundation of British Columbia, will help to make her world a little bigger.

She's been interested in the stars since she was six, she says, but the family has never been able to afford a telescope. Sabrina's condition has made a lot of other expenses come first. With the telescope came a couple of books, one on star patterns, and one on UFOs. Sabrina is also enjoying the glow-in-the-dark wall chart which shows her the relative positions of the constellations. They make her feel like she is realizing an old wish to reach out and touch the moon.

Sabrina's skeletal structure is so brittle that she can't stand to hear the sound of another person cracking his knuckles. The noise is too much like the sound of her own bones when they break. And they break so easily. On the evening of this interview, mother and daughter are trying to decide if she has just broken a bone in her little toe. Most of the major and minor bones in her body have been broken at one time or another during her 14 years.

During an episode of the flu last year, there was fear that she would break her ribs from coughing. A lot of the time she is unable to attend occasional classes at the Robert Service School for fear of catching a bug from another student. Teachers and educational assistants who work with her have to keep their immunization shots current so they will not pose a threat.

Most of the time Sabrina has to stay home, her grade 7 education being assisted by regular visits from designated school staff. The little girl with the tiny voice and the big smile has to spend most of her time on the cot or in a special reclining wheelchair. The disease has progressed to the point where the pressure of sitting up is too much for her spine.

This has put an end to the extra mobility she was granted a few years ago when the community raised money to buy her a motorized wheel chair. She had to stop using it when she injured her back. Her mother hopes that when she has healed more they will be able to find a way to recline the seat so that Sabrina can be self-propelling again.

The Make-a-Wish foundation first heard of Sabrina in the fall of 1995, when she was trying to raise money for the trip. By the time they had contacted her she was unable to go for health reasons, so April Hamilton, administrator for the foundation, asked if there was anything else they might do for her instead. At the time, Sabrina's video cassette player had broken down, so Hamilton set out to find her a new one.

"This isn't a normal thing," Hamilton said, when asked if she usually deals more than once with a client. "The magic in this wish is unbelievable. Michael Gates phoned us to tell us about Sabrina because she had sent a dream catcher to his daughter who was down here in Children's (Hospital) and he was so moved by this that he phoned us. We started our natural process of checking with the doctor and checking with the mum to see if we could do a wish. And her wish was Hawaii, but physically, since we received the wish she's been unable to go.

"I had been keeping in touch with the mum, and I was just about to phone her one day when a woman phoned from here in Vancouver. She said, 'My daughter died a year ago today. We would like to do something for one youngster and we'd really like to do it today.'

"I told her I was sitting here looking at the file of a most magical little girl and so I phoned Micheline and indeed their VCR was broken."

Hamilton contacted the woman to tell her this and to say that she could only be in her office until 3 o'clock that day, after which she was going to tour Canuck Place, a hostel for terminally ill children. It turned out that the donor had always wanted to do that because of the loss of her daughter. She brought the VCR to Canuck Place to meet Hamilton, they toured the facility together, "and it was just magical. Everything's been magical."

After that, Hamilton ordered some dream catchers from Sabrina, and kept in touch with frequent calls. As time went on, it became clear that her health would not allow the trip this year.

"I told my board and we decided," Hamilton said, "that we'd see if we could do something in the interim." So that was how Sabrina came to receive a telescope during the second week of March.

"I was very surprised," she pipes during our interview. "I didn't even know that my Mom said that to that lady on the phone."

"I hope one day we will be able to meet her and give her a big hug," says her mother.

"Not me," says Sabrina, showing as she always does a constant awareness of her condition. "I can't give her a hug." She shrugs ruefully.

Then she turns to the telescope with enthusiasm: "Next week there's gonna be a comet around. I'm gonna go outside there, take everything outside and see it."

As for Hawaii, the foundation considers that trip to be part of the same wish, and will still help to fund it when the time comes. It will still come within the original budget, partly because the woman who donated the VCR has some connections with an airline.

As Hamilton says, it's a bit like magic.

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