Words the Yukon Gave Me
A project realized by 5 writers, 5 printmakers, and 1 musician: the Sourdough Starter project is a multimedia literary art project that combined creative writing, journalism, filmmaking, and performance art, culminating in a finished work that is a printed, online, and broadcast piece.
There are several words that are unique to the Yukon and the North. In many ways, these words help define our existence here. The first part of the project involves a documentary about local words that help define us as Dawsonites and Northerners. The connecting thread is an essay about how Dawson City’s Writer-at-Large Dan Dowhal came to encounter these words and understand their meanings, which is interwoven with interviews of locals who ruminate about the words’ connotations and significance.
The second part of the project involves five Yukon writers (and an accompanying visual artist for each) being given one of these words to use as the seed for a short commissioned work (hence the title “Sourdough Starter”). The written pieces were then combined into a printed zine, and each was also recorded during a live performance by the individual writers, then amalgamated into a web magazine (see it below) , as well as a podcast on Dawson City radio station CFYT, and a documentary film televised on local cable channel 12.
Listen to the Sourdough Starter CFYT Podcast
Watch the Sourdough Starter Video as seen on DCTV Channel 12
The artwork and the literary pieces are embedded in the blog post below.
Words the Yukon Gave Me
by Dan Dowhal
I don’t know if I love words because I’m a writer, or I’m a writer because I love words. Still, words are my stock and trade, and I’ve spent a lifetime building up my toolkit. Although I’m not one of those guys who purposely sets out to learn a new word every day, if I encounter a word I’m unfamiliar with, I’m almost certain to look it up in an attempt to expand my vocabulary. This doesn’t just include sesquipedalian academic words or technical buzzwords, but new slang or vernacular too.
Since moving to the Yukon, I have added dozens of new words to my vocabulary. Some are specialized terms specific to activities like, say, mining or dog mushing, while others are more generalized, relating to living in the North, the Yukon, or Dawson City (or all of above). So, here, from A to Z, is a smattering of words the Yukon has taught me.
We also took five of these words and gave one each to some local writers and artists … using that word as a seed for their creative interpretation. Hence the title of our production — The Sourdough Starter Project.
Parka, of course, is an extremely common Canadian word, even for those of us originally from the south. During a Canadian winter, happiness is a down-filled parka, and I’ve been through a parka or two since moving here. But anorak was a new word for me.
The words anorak and parka are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically they are different garments. An anorak is a hooded, pull-over jacket without a front opening (i.e. no zipper down the front). They’re often a lighter covering than a parka, meant to be worn as part of a system of layering the clothes underneath, allowing more freedom of movement. The Caribou Inuit of Nunavut invented this kind of garment, originally made from caribou or seal skin, for hunting and kayaking in the frigid Arctic, coating them with fish oil to help make them water resistant.
Seeing anoraks worn for the first time, I asked myself, why anyone would want the hassle of a pullover you have to wrestle over your head — until I felt the cold air wafting through my parka’s zipper at -50°C (-58°F). Now I understand the attraction.
I can just hear some of you going,”What! You never heard of bannock before?” And, admittedly, now that I know it, it’s weird for a born-and-bred Canadian kid to never have encountered bannock before moving to the Yukon, but it’s true. Growing up, my multicultural neighbourhood in Toronto offered Portuguese, Chinese, Jamaican, Ukrainian, Jewish, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Vietnamese cuisine, but no indigenous offerings. Once you’re north of 60, though, well, you’re hard pressed to have a large gathering, especially those involving First Nations attendees, where bannock isn’t served.
The Oxford English Dictionary says bannock stems from panicium, a Latin word for “baked dough”. It was first referred to as “bannuc” as far back as the 8th century, and its first cited definition is in 1562. Bannock’s historic use was primarily in Ireland, Scotland and Northern England.
How bannock came to be synonymous with indigenous culture is still a point of some debate, but it has proliferated throughout North American Native cuisine, including that of the Inuit, the First Nations of the rest of Canada, the Native Americans in the United States, and the Métis.
Bannock’s popularity probably has something to do with its ease of preparation — it is made with a handful of simple ingredients and can be cooked on a frying pan over an open fire, as well as baked.
As it turns out, I had encountered berms before, I just wasn’t familiar with the actual terminology.
In medieval military engineering, a berm (or berme) was a level space between a parapet or defensive wall and an adjacent steep-walled ditch or moat. It was intended to reduce soil pressure on the walls of the moat to prevent its collapse. It also meant that debris dislodged from fortifications would not fall into (and fill) a moat. In modern military engineering, a berm is a low earthen wall adjacent to a ditch. The digging of the ditch (often by a bulldozer) can provide the soil from which the berm is constructed.
But here’s where berm entered my vocabulary. In snow plowing, it is a linear ridge of snow (parallel to the highway center line) created by snow removal equipment. Anyone who owns a driveway will have cursed the berm that snow plows create across the end of your drive, forcing you to shovel them out by hand. But, over the course of a long, snowy winter, berms can grow quite high, and if the top is flattened by specialized equipment (or constant use) then they form a special trail along the side of a highway suitable for snowmobiles and dog sleds.
Although I’d never heard the word chipseal before, it turns out it’s not unique to the North. In fact, it’s very common in rural areas throughout North America.
Chipseal is a pavement surface treatment that combines one or more layers of asphalt with one or more layers of fine aggregate. Think of chipseal as being somewhere between a smooth paved asphalt road and a dirt road. In the US, chipseal is typically used on rural roads carrying lower traffic volume. Other aliases include tarseal, tar and chip, sprayed seal, or surface dressing.
Chipseal came on to my radar because the North Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson City, among others, is composed almost entirely of chipseal. I’m not sure why they chose chipseal for the surface. Probably it’s the cheaper cost per kilometer, or maybe they just figured there was no point to make the road too nice since it’ll be covered by snow for most of the year anyway. But for any Dawsonite, chipseal is our magic carpet to Whitehorse in the South, be it for shopping, dental work, or to catch a flight, and so the condition of the road becomes a prime topic of conversation. It’s a rough road, with huge cracks and potholes in spring, and delays from repair of the roads in summer, especially since chipseal also is more susceptible to the heaving of the ground during the pronounced freezing and melting of the seasons, of which we have a preponderance in the North.
(Cracks in the) Chipseal
by Mary Fraughton
5:00 in the morning at the Stewart Grader Station:
Little brown bats flit like fish from the bedtime fog
their tent-flap arms through the open eaves
into our staff accommodation ceiling, scritch-
scratch, squabble and squeak
their way to sleep.
Two hours later our alarms go off
and wake them just (I imagine) as
they’ve drifted off. Outside
at last and half
light the tiger torch. This job
is all about what sticks – cigarette salt adhering
to each other’s hair as we burn yesterday’s tar
from the shovel blades, scraping old hours
hot and sticky right on the heels
of our steel toed boots, fog
up-folding from the Stewart river.
If Theseus had a road, it would be
the Alaska Highway (two thousand
yesterdays of aches
and pains and potholes) every part
of which has been patched
a smoke and a coffee break, by someone
with a shovel just like Doug’s, the same
bad back, estrangement
from his own lungs (and one step-son), made
to be (mostly) mended.
Fog sags on the gravel shoulders.
At Crack Alley (where each spring
the road gets two feet wider, shifting in its sleep as the permafrost
slumps) we sweep
rainwater out of each new fracture, slosh
shovelfuls of “that black shit” from the pickup box till a filling falls
from Doug’s half-open mouth
into the last
wide-open mouth of pavement. We
just bury it over,
flat-enough. Already today
is heavy on our boots
Back at the yard, barn
the puddle between loader tires, wings
tucked up and back like small neat sailboats as they suck
mouthfuls for their spit-brick homes.
What sticks? The road
outstretches like a summer
than it should be.
Mary Fraughton lives in a small off-grid cabin in Northern Canada, which she shares with one husband and one large Newfoundland dog, as well as the occasional (and quickly evicted) pine marten. Since completing her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing she divides her time between summer construction work and winter travels through the secluded wilderness. Her hobbies include snowshoeing, juggling, baking, and tuba playing.
Sometimes, you learn additional meaning for words you already know. This was the case with crib. Now, I already knew crib (as in baby’s crib, or gangsta rapper’s crib) but the Yukon taught me some new takes on that word.
In engineering and emergency rescue parlance, a crib or cribbing is a wooden structure, usually temporary, used to support heavy objects during construction, relocation, vehicle extrication and urban search and rescue.
A box crib is the simplest, most stable, and most common method of cribbing. It is constructed by arranging sets (two or more) of matched blocks, usually timbers or logs, in a regular log-cabin style to form a rising square or rectangular frame.
Because of the permafrost, and the subsequent heaving of soil, almost all the buildings in Dawson City don’t have permanent foundations, and instead sit on cribs. Levelling one’s house by shimming the top of individual cribs is also a periodic maintenance task for any local homeowner. (Maybe, given that they’re already sitting on cribbing, that’s why it’s so common for houses to be moved in Dawson City. My own home, Tyrrell House, was once located blocks away at Third Ave. and Church Street, and was moved up to Seventh Avenue by its original owner in 1904.)
Coincidentally, cribs were also the name given to the tiny one-room structures used by the “good time girls” (i.e. prostitutes) of the Klondike Gold Rush. Rock-a-bye baby indeed.
Gee and Haw
Okay, that’s two words, but I hate to break up a set. Until I started mushing, I didn’t fully appreciate that a dogsled doesn’t actually have any steering. Where you go is determined by voice commands to (as well as the inclinations of) your lead dogs. You call “haw” to tell them to go left, and “gee” to go right.
Historically the terms derive from traditional commands given to teams of horses or oxen. They didn’t actually mean “left” and “right.” Gee (sometimes written jee) was telling a team to turn to the off side, or from the driver, who traditionally sat on the left. Haw was towards the driver.
Because the dog driver stands in the middle, the terms have evolved to simply mean left and right in mushing. Since learning the words, more than once I’ve chided myself metaphorically, “Way to go, DanO. You geed when you should have hawed.”
My First Mushing Trip
by Gabriela Sgaga
A story inspired by Gee and Haw
It was during my thirties that I hit a mid-life crisis. I was living in Kingston, Ontario, had a job I liked, lots of friends, but still I wondered, is this it or was there more out there? I needed to find the answer, so after several months of mulling over what I should do, it came to me – a year of adventure in the north!
My decision made, I quit my job, sublet my apartment, and along with my friend Maggie, hit the road for the Yukon. Six thousand and thirty kilometers later, we were living in an isolated, rustic cabin in the bush with a local named Brad and his 19 sled dogs.
I knew nothing about sled dogs, heck I was allergic to dogs and had only ever had fish for pets. But the idea of this traditional way of travel sounded so incredibly glamorous, I threw myself into learning to become a musher.
It turned out not to be as simple as I thought. There were many things to learn, including how to hook dogs up to the sled, which dogs were good in lead, the commands used to steer the leaders – gee for right, haw for left and whoa (the most important one!) for stopping. I fell off the sled, chased after the sled when the team took off without me, got run over by the sled, and whipped past trees at breakneck speeds on the surrounding bush trails. It was exciting, painful, stressful, and the most fun I’d ever had.
After five months of training, Brad suggested we take the dogs on a fifty-mile trip down the Yukon river to a remote cabin where friends of his were staying for the winter. This would be our first multi-day trip into the true wilderness. The plan was to break it up into three days, staying in empty trappers’ cabins along the way. I was to take a team of five dogs, including a blind dog that Brad assured me was up for the journey as long as she had a dog beside her to guide her. Maggie and Brad would both take a team of six.
The day we were to leave, the temperature dipped to fifty below. I was lucky to have a down-filled parka with a fur lined hood – just a few seconds of exposed flesh in temperatures that cold could result in frostbite. There was a brief discussion as to whether we should postpone the trip, but in the end, we decided to go for it. I was both excited and nervous – let the glamour of mushing dogs begin!
We made it to the first cabin in less than three hours. It was extremely tiny, with a dirt floor and low ceiling, but still, it provided us with shelter after being out in that mind-numbing cold. After we took care of dogs and had supper, I lay down in my bunk, tired and content, listening to the howling of the dogs.
We woke to another brutally cold day. I bundled up, putting on every piece of clothing I had. Our breath froze in the air as we packed up, hooked the dogs to the sled and headed out with ice fog in the air and unknown conditions of the trail ahead.
Eventually we ran into jumble ice; huge frozen chunks jammed together and jutting straight up, sometimes as high as our waists. The going got rough. I tried to keep the sled upright and undamaged while smacking into the ice on the narrow trail, rocking it from side to side, and climbing up and down over the chunks to try to help steer and assist the dogs. It was hard work and seemed to go on forever.
Several miles later the trail finally smoothed out again. I was exhausted, and my legs felt like rubber – I needed to rest. I stopped the team and put down the anchor. As I heaved for breath, I heard wheezing and rattling in my chest. Oh no, I thought, that did not sound good at all.
I tried to damp down feelings of panic. Maggie and Brad had pulled ahead and were already out of sight; I was completely alone. I leant over the handlebar, crying and gasping, thinking that I was not going to make it.
After several minutes of sobbing, I straightened up, my tears frozen on my face. I looked around at the mountains and ice, the isolation, the vastness, and realized there was no one here to help me; it was just me and the dogs. I looked to the blind dog, which had gotten this far with me and took inspiration from her. If she could do it, so could I. I pulled the anchor and gave the command to move on.
I eventually caught up with them at the second cabin. After taking care of the dogs and unloading the sleds, we made our way in to start a fire and have some supper. I was soaking wet from sweat and sickness – I looked like I had just stepped out of the shower. I desperately needed to warm up and dry out.
But as we started to make a fire in the stove, we discovered that it wasn’t working properly. There was no damper, so all the heat went right out the chimney rather than into the cabin. I tried not to worry as I sat there in the cold, soaking wet and wheezing with each breath, waiting for it to warm up. After almost three hours, me and most of my clothes were finally dry, but the cabin remained drafty, the ice in the corners of the walls never quite melting. Eventually, I drifted off into a fitful sleep.
We were packed up and on the river by day break, our final day of travel. The trail was overblown with deep snow and the going was so rough, the dogs started to walk rather than run. I ended up walking beside them as the wind howled around me. I reached up to pull my scarf over my face and noticed how numb my nose was. I used my hand to warm it up, but when it finally thawed, the pain was so extreme I felt like I’d been hit in the face by a hammer. Frostbite was now added to my list.
After what felt like years, I finally arrived at our destination – I was the last to pull up. I staggered into the one room cabin and just stood there, unable to move another inch. Warm bowls of stew were waiting on the table, a fire was roaring in the stove, and a glass of wine was pressed into my hand. Despite being drenched in sweat, breath rattling, frost bitten, I started to smile — I had made it!
Dawson City writer Gabriela Sgaga lives off the grid in her West Dawson cabin with her eleven sled dogs. She enjoys mushing, skijoring and writing about everyday life in the Yukon.
Komatik (also spelled qamutiik) is the Inuktitut word for a sled designed to travel on snow and ice, built using traditional Inuit design techniques. Komatiks are well adapted to the arctic sea ice environment, and variations on the traditional design are still widely used today for travel in Arctic regions.
The komatik was traditionally hauled by a dog team, but could also be pulled by humans. Since the late 20th century, however, they have been mostly towed behind a snowmobile, so think of them as snowmobile trailers. Sizes vary by function and the availability of materials.
The key feature of the traditional komatik is that it is not built with nails or pins to hold the runners and cross pieces in place. Each piece is drilled and lashed to the next, providing a flexibility of movement that can endure the pounding of travel on open sea ice, frozen land, ice floes, and across the heavy ice of tidal zones.
Another closely related new word I have come to know is skimmer, because like many Yukoners I often pull one behind my Skidoo. These cargo sleds are generally prefabricated from plastic, with a metal tow bar, although you will find many do-it-yourself skimmers made of other materials, such as plywood, sheet metal, or combinations thereof.
Gold mining is still a thriving industry in the Klondike region, and the most common form of this activity is placer mining. There are hundreds of such operations of varying scale in the creeks and hills around Dawson City.
Placer refers to an alluvial or glacial deposit, as of sand or gravel, containing particles of gold (or other valuable mineral). The word evidently comes from Old Spanish for a beach or sand bar. The term “placer” applies to ancient (Tertiary) gravels as well as to recent deposits, and to underground (drift mines) as well as to surface deposits.
In placer mining, washing to separate the heavier gold from the soil and gravel containing it is the most prevalent method. Some hobbyists may still use a gold pan, but generally sluices and trommels and other production-line equipment comes into play. Most of them have riffles.
It’s not a very common word unless you’re a working placer miner, but I just love the sound of it. Riffle. Sounds like something you’d wear or eat. But it is a technical term that refers to the lining of a bottom of gold-separating machines, like sluices, rockers, and long toms. Riffles are made of metal, or slats of wood, or even stones, arranged in such a manner that chinks are left between them. These are also sometimes referred to as riffle bars.
The term appears to originate from a natural aquatic feature also called a riffle, which is a rocky or shallow part of a stream or river causing rough water.
by Tara Borin
A poem inspired by riffles
Water sluicing through wooden flume
washes a winter’s hard-won paydirt—
riffle bars trap what certain men have deemed most precious
and let it sink to the bottom of the box.
Gold is 19 times heavier
than flesh, though just as soft and useless.
If only I could cast aside what’s not needed
leave a trail of tailings behind me
become my most pure & lustrous self.
Tara Borin is a poet and writer living in Dawson City, in traditional Tr’ondek Hwech’in territory. Their work has recently appeared in Prism International and elsewhere online, and their debut poetry collection, “The Pit” is forthcoming with Nightwood Editions in March 2021. You can find Tara online at taraborinwrites.com.
Skookum is an indigenous word that had historical use in the trade routes of the Pacific Northwest. It has a range of meanings — “strong”, “greatest”, “powerful”, “ultimate”, or “brave”. When used in reference to another person, e.g., “he’s skookum”, it conveys connotations of strength, size, stamina, and reliability.
Turns out “skookum” is hugely popular all down the West Coast, so much so that there are several companies who have adopted the word in their branding.
I first heard the word in relation to Skookum Jim, a.k.a. James Mason, whose indigenous name was Keish. He assisted William Ogilvie in his explorations of the upper Yukon River. He also showed members of the expedition the way over the White Pass. Keish is co-credited with making the gold find at Discovery Claim that led to the Klondike Gold Rush. He got his nickname in the mid-1880s, when he worked as a packer over the Chilkoot Pass carrying supplies for miners, because of his extraordinary strength.
There is also a well-known local Skookum brand of clothing, which makes, among other great products (wait for it) anoraks.
by elaine corden
“Skoo ‘ – kum , or Skoo – koom ‘ , n . , adj . Chibalis , Skukum .
A ghost ; an evil spirit or demon ; strong.”
A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, George Gibbs, Craimosy Press, 1863.
“Skookum skoo·kum | \ ˈskükəm \
an evil spirit
1. marked by strength or power
2. marked by excellent quality “
There are two photographs of my parents on the day they landed, but they may not even exist. I might have dreamed them. The scuff marks on the edges of the paper borne of repeated viewings may just be a trick of memory. In any event, they are gone now, along with everything else that disappeared during one our family’s countless moves.
Photo 1: two skinny kids, barely 25 years old, are sitting in the concourse of Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, perched on a set of mismatched steamer trunks. It is 1975, and they are dressed for it. My father, with a Beatles mop-top haircut, black turtleneck, bellbottoms, and Chelsea boots, stares defiantly at the camera, chin jutted out in a pose I’ll come to understand is shorthand for invulnerability. My mother’s thick black hair hangs over her face and her body language shows her lifetime aversion to being photographed. She stares at the ground, curling away from both the camera and my father. Her thin legs are bare and crossed at the ankle, poking out from an impossibly short skirt that is just barely visible under my father’s leather jacket, draped over her shoulders. They know nothing about the place they’ve just arrived in, only than it is sufficiently far away from the council estates they grew up on. They are following in the footsteps of other Britons—grammar school friends, coworkers, second cousins— who have sent them aeromailed letters from “America”: this place belongs to anyone who wants to make a go of it.
Photo 2: the second photo appears to have been taken a short while later—my parents and their steamer trunks are now outside the station, and everywhere around them are fallen leaves. My mother, now wearing a hip-length Cowichan sweater over a paisley minidress, is mid-laugh, turned toward my father as he pulls an ear-flapped wool cap, knit in the same style as my mother’s sweater, over his eyes with both hands. In my mother’s right hand is a paper gift bag with “Hill’s” written on it in cursive. A cigarette dangles from between her middle and index fingers, and if you squint you can see in the curve of her belly the very first signs of my older brother.
My mother likes to tell a story from that day at the station, and though the details sometimes change, the plot remains the same. An old friend of my father’s brother picked them up there at the station, she says, in the biggest car she’d ever seen—a brand new Pontiac Grand Ville in harvest gold.
“We hardly knew him,” my mother will recall, sometimes adding that, really, she hardly even knew my father.
This man, who would one day become my Uncle Ernie, hoisted a steamer trunk over his shoulder and gestured for my dad to grab the other.
“There was an I****n hanging around the car, we best be quick,” he told my father, and my mother pictured only what she knew from television—a man in a feathered headdress, leather fringe, with bow and arrow, menacing.
The piled into the car, my mother squished in the back seat, and headed for Ernie’s home, a three-hour drive and a ferry ride away. On the ferry, my dad and Ernie knocked back bottles of Canadian beer and pitched the empties overboard, until suddenly the sky unleashed an amount of rain neither of my parents had imagined possible.
My mother remembers looking out the Grand Ville’s fogged windows as they swerved off the ferry and along the Sunshine Coast Highway; the strange-sounding place names on the road signs—Sechelt, Squamish, Sakinaw Lake, Skookum Creek—adding to her sense that she’d made a terrible mistake, leaving everything she knew behind. Ernie pointed out with some pride the pulp mill where he’d just been promoted to shift foreman. Finally, they pulled up to a little town that looked like something my mother could recognize.
She recalls the comfort she felt arriving at Ernie’s house, where his wife served her tea in a cup with a picture of the Queen on it.
“It was such a relief,” she says, “to feel at home.”
They sat in the living room, overlooking the Salish Sea, while Ernie and his wife gave them the lay of the land. They pointed out a spot further up the still-forested coast, where an extension of the pulp mill was to be built that winter. He pointed out five or six new houses that had gone up in the past year along with an extension of a port further up the coast.
“All that there,” he said, uttering a line my dad would eventually adopt as his own when welcoming family to Canada. “Before we got here, it used to be nothing.”
elaine corden is a writer and illustrator based in Dawson City. She recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at UBC.
Although I’m originally from Ontario, a land of 250.000 lakes, this word had never sunk into my vocabulary. A slough (pronounced “slew”) is a backwater to a larger body of water. In the U.S. the word is common, often referring to a wetland where water tends to be stagnant or may flow slowly on a seasonal basis.
Here in Dawson, I learned the word in relation to the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. Basically, on a large river, sloughs refer to a side channel, often shallower, and sometimes prone to drying out as water levels drop. The Sunnydale Slough is one of the better known local sloughs, although at one time, the entire south end of Dawson City straddled sloughs of the Klondike River. Back in history, Dawson was serviced by riverboats. Not only would navigators need to know which channels were the safest routes, but sloughs were sometimes used to park the sternwheelers during the winter … although not always successfully, as they were sometimes damaged during Spring break-up.
Sourdough and Cheechako
Maybe it’s because of all the old Westerns I consumed as a kid, but I’d certainly heard the word sourdough before — even if I really didn’t understand its properties. Sourdough bread is not just tasty stuff, it’s fascinating too. For example, since moving here I’ve discovered that sourdough starter, which has lent its name to this project, is the yeast used to make sourdough. It’s a form of wild yeast, actually, and long-lived. In fact, I was surprised to learn that there are sourdough starters that came over the Chilkoot Pass during the Gold Rush in 1897, and are still in use today.
But, sourdough also means something different in the Yukon. It refers to an oldtimer or veteran, technically, someone who has spent at least one winter in the Klondike, from freeze-up to break-up. Until you qualify as a sourdough, you are merely a cheechako, the local equivalent of greenhorn or tenderfoot. Cheechako springs from the traditional indigenous trade vocabulary of the Pacific Northwest, and both terms came into vogue during the Gold Rush, helped by Robert Service, the Bard of the Yukon, who included among his books Songs of a Sourdough and Ballads of a Cheechako. It seems to me that cheechako is used more affectionately than disparagingly in these parts, probably because all of us sourdoughs were cheechakos once.
Most people have heard of a lead dog, even those from the south who have never been dogsledding. Leaders are crucial to a dog team, but until I started mushing myself, I didn’t appreciate (or know the names for) the other positions in the line-up. After the lead dogs come the swing dogs, then the team dogs. Finally, closest to the sled, come the wheel dogs. But it’s not just the nomenclature, there’s a physiology and a psychology to these positions.
Wheel dogs are usually the largest of the dogs because they are the first to take on the weight of the load being pulled, especially during starts and uphill climbs. They also help reduce the whiplash effect of the sled when it corners. So, wheel dogs not only need to be strong, but they need to be calm and even-tempered, so that they’re not startled by constant banging of the sled runners behind them. Going downhill you have to be careful not to let the sled pick up too much speed and maybe run over the wheel dogs.
I love all our dogs equally, and do appreciate a good leader, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the wheel dogs, and not just because of the familiarity of their butts in my face for miles on end. I worry about overworking them, so we rotate them regularly, and retire them early from the position.
Dawson City sits in the territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the First Nation who have lived in the region for millennia. Their traditional language is Hän and, sadly, like many indigenous languages here on Sol III, it has been in decline. Recently, there has been an active effort to bring back the language and traditional songs, including a Hän Language program since 1991 at Robert Service School in Dawson City.
I won’t pretend to know many Hän words, although I’ve noticed mahsi cho — thank you — being increasingly used by locals. But one word I have come to learn is “zho” which means “house,” since several buildings in town bear Hän names incorporating the word. The most notable of these is Dänojà Zho (“long ago house”), which is the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in cultural centre. There’s also Tr’inkè Zho (“children’s house”), the daycare owned and operated by the First Nation. A couple of other Dawson buildings also carry alternate Hän names — Dähtla Zho (literally “paper house” but also “house of books”) for the Library, and the newly-renamed Dënäkär Zho (“house of colours”) for the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture building.
These are just some of the words I have encountered and absorbed since becoming a Yukoner. In many ways, they illustrate — and to some extent define — life here, as well as helping to mark my own personal journey.
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