West Dawson residents prepare for the isolation of freeze-up

Last week it was the turkeys. Next week it will be the chickens.

This week it’s the pigs.

Dorian Amos, his son Jack, and about half a dozen neighbours are slaughtering pigs at the Amos homestead in West Dawson, just outside of Dawson City, Yukon.

It’s not a pretty job: the pigs are shot, bled, soaked in hot water so the hair can be scraped off, hung, gutted and split. But with six pigs on the chopping block today, there’s enough to keep everyone here in bacon, ham and sausage for the coming winter.

Stocking up is key for the residents of West Dawson, located across the Yukon River from Dawson City. When the river is open, the George Black ferry transports vehicles from Dawson City to the Top Of The World highway, which runs through West Dawson on its way to the Alaska border.

In the depths of winter, the ice on the Yukon River is thick enough for cars and trucks to drive across. But during the fall freeze-up and the springtime break-up, travel across the river ranges from difficult to impossible. Depending on the weather, freeze-up can last for weeks at a time, or longer.

Getting ready for freeze-up means lots of work, chopping wood, stocking up on dry goods and, in the Amos’ case, butchering a supply of meat for the winter.

“I started doing the wood when I was about five years old,” says 13-year-old Jack. “I’ve split wood, I’ve cut wood, I’ve probably done several cords full by hand just using my hand saw, bow saw and axe.”

That can take up to a month, he says, although he hasn’t done as much this year because he’s begun attending school in Dawson City part-time. Until now, he’s been home-schooled.

The key to getting through winter is staying busy, Dorian says. Maintenance on the house (a hand-built log cabin), his job as a park ranger at Tombstone Territorial Park, and his business, the Klondike Distillery, which produces small-batch vodka, take care of that.

While freeze-up means a lot of work, the only real alternative is throwing up your hands and moving into town, Dorian says.

“The first couple of years winters were hard, but you get the hang of it.You know what you’ve got to do and you just muddle through. And if it goes wrong, it goes wrong. You’ve got to have that attitude.”

That’s how the Amos’ neighbour, Jesse Cook, survived last winter, his first off-grid in West Dawson, after the water tank in his house sprung a major leak and flooded his basement, while he was in town on the other side of the river.

Cook’s stash of musical instruments, and a whole lot of fibreglass insulation were ruined. Cook’s wife and friends pumped most of the water out and closed off half the house for the rest of the winter.

All Cook could do was stay updated by cellphone.

“There was nothing I could do short of hiring a helicopter. Even if I showed up it wasn’t going to matter. The damage was done.”

Despite all the work, risk and hassle, Dorian says the freedom and solitude of life in West Dawson are absolutely worth it.

“When it’s 40 below outside and it’s warm in your house, and you’ve made it warm in your house — you got the wood — it’s rewarding just to sit there and enjoy being warm and comfy,” Dorian says.

CBC North, October 14, 2014.