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In Dawson City, follow the outhouse to the bridge

Nita Nettleton column: Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2001

What does Juneau have in common with Dawson City in Yukon Territory? As well as a mining history, fondness for historic structures and coffee and an emphasis on tourism, we share a chronic road issue. We and they have chosen to use a ferry to cross the water from our communities to the larger world. We have Lynn Canal, they have the Yukon River.

Dawson is a rich little town. Not necessarily in dollars, but in history, scenery and character. Yards are full of flowers and mining artifacts, restored buildings host photo exhibits showing the bustle of a century ago and miners still come into town for supplies and diversion. Bus tours cruise the dirt streets as locals go about their business on the boardwalks. One of the town's riches is its sense of humor. I submit the Annual International Outhouse Race. Not only is it a regular old outhouse race, but this year the racers did a scavenger hunt along the route and had to hand in a limerick at the finish. Apparently, there are no political correctness police in Dawson, so the race teams are free to dress themselves and their outhouses to illustrate any topic.

A recurring political theme highlighted by a race team is the question of building a bridge across the Yukon to connect Dawson with West Dawson and points still farther west. The engineering obstacles include ice, ice and more ice. The river freezes in the winter (except most of last winter) and breaks up in a messy way each spring. Then there is the permafrost. It would necessarily be one heck of a bridge. To get from Dawson to the campground, homes and businesses of West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway, people use the government's free ferry in the summer and an ice road in the winter. During freeze up and thaw, they don't. Locals want and don't want a bridge, just as Juneau does and doesn't want a road.

I learned of the bridge controversy a few years ago from an outhouse race entry involving Arab terrorists with guns and explosives and a mission to blow up the bridge. Just as I learn my U.S. politics from reading Doonesbury, I know all about the bridge issue after seeing another race entry this year called A Bridge to Nowhere. Actually, I made a couple inquiries and got, well, some facts. Dawson historian John Gould told me the bridge has been considered for 40 years. "Hey," I said, "my town has been considering a road for 40 years!" He gently told me that in January of 1896 the Yukon Order of Pioneers asked the federal government (theirs) to build a road from Juneau up the Taku to connect to the river system. He said the feds (his) put up $5,000 and William Ogilvie did a survey. So it's been a little more than 40 years. Let's get back to Dawson's bridge.

The river is a big part of Dawson's look. As you look down from the hill above town or stroll the riverbank, it's easy to imagine the thousands of homemade boats full of gold seekers floating down to the mouth of the Klondike a hundred years ago. Would a bridge over the Yukon destroy Dawson's historic views? It might.

Rather than build a bridge over the river, dig a tunnel under it. If Dawsoners secured a mining claim on either side, no one would even notice the digging and tailing piles until a ratty old pickup disappeared on one side and reappeared on the other. Local history is full of accounts of miners "burning" their way down through frozen ground and "drifting" along a gold vein. So dig and drift under the river. Since we're talking living history, how about having persons detained by the Mounties do the digging as they used to work on the government woodpile? Other cost mitigating measures could be gold recovery during excavation and a user toll. Let the ice come and go on the surface, traffic would come and go beneath it all for a modest fee, less the exchange rate, plus GST. Call the tunnel a Runnel and sell T-shirts "A river runs over it."

Let's get back to the International Outhouse Race. I was embarrassed to learn all the entries were quite local. On the way home, I made a deal in Skagway to field an entry next year. We may be hard pressed to come up with an interesting Alaskan political theme (Jees, let me think), but we'll give it our best shot. I would be honored to write the limerick.

*****

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.



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