ice skeptic: shelley hakonson

Dear readers, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that all my ice adoration needs a counterpoint, since ice isn’t always kind and friendly and tame. In particular, Shelley Hakonson provides this story as a contrast to my obsession with ice’s beauty. (At the bottom of this post you can find a brief bio for this Dawson City painter and maker of incredible cakes that out-mouthwater any bakery’s work.)

Fear of Ice

Let me say right off that I’m not a devotee of ice. At the very least it fills me with anxiety, and at its worst, it consumes me with panic.

We had a placer operation over in the 60 Mile Valley a while ago, and that meant the Yukon River was between us and it.

It was a hassle at times with the ferry, but the crew there knew we were on the clock and did their best to accommodate.

But in the spring, it was the ice we were travelling on.

I would drive to town in my faithful step-side Robin’s-egg Blue Ford pick-up every week or so for groceries and parts. I didn’t have to deal with a huge frozen river on the upper Eldorado, our previous ground, and I didn’t like this new obstacle at all!

And I began to develop my escape plan, if anything dire were to happen.

The shore edges of the ice bridge rot away first in the warm spring weather, they get punky. The top layers of the ice bridge generally become softer and melt as the day goes on. Vehicles keep going back and forth, causing deeper and deeper ruts that smaller vehicles have trouble with.

Not my Old Blue though. My plan: I would pull up to the ice bridge, take my seatbelt off, fling the door wide open and floor it as fast as I could drive that old Ford, hoping maybe it would hydroplane on the water and not fall into a hole somewhere. That was why my door was open: it was supposed to magically stop the truck from going straight down into the river! I was sure it would catch on the ice and I could then jump out and run to a safe, solid place.

And I believed that implicitly.

It was a good, workable plan. And thankfully, I never had to use it.

But the tension in the cab of my truck was very thick, and the language to get through it all was atrocious. I was quite possibly channeling one of the C.B. truck drivers.

And I had to cross that ice twice in a day.

But let me backtrack here a bit.

My first two years in Dawson City were spent downriver in a beautiful log cabin, designed and built by my husband Greg. Actually, they were my first two years ever out of the city.

It was exhilarating and so foreign to me, a girl from Vancouver, lately of The Gaslight Follies, the summer show for the tourists at the Palace Grand Theater here in Dawson, and the reason I arrived here in 1976.

Away went all my theatre buddies to the South and I stayed behind with my soon-to-be husband as the entire town emptied. It was exhilarating to be whisked off the stage and brought to this quiet and beautiful place downriver from Dodge.

And there was no lack of learning to be done. But I couldn’t chop wood as I was too afraid of the ax, I was sure it would bury itself in my shin…and I still don’t chop wood.

Getting used to an outhouse for every day use, year-round no matter the temperature? Okay, outhouses were summer things for me, and if experienced on a weekend at Lac la Hache campground with 100 other people, an outhouse could be almost exotic.

Not so much now.

Our water was hauled from the Yukon River two buckets at a time on Greg’s shoulders, and we flavoured it with a tad of bleach, just in case there was anything nasty in it.  (Which there sometime was!)

In my city life I was used to chin-high steaming hot perfumed baths, and I now had a galvanized washtub where I sat with my knees up to my ears with a bar of Ivory in hand. Really hoping no one would come bursting through the door.

However, I did learn to excel at cooking on our beautiful woodstove (before the bear tore it apart). I had to have something I was good at being married to Greg, the Yukon outdoorsman!

So I learned to cook on that hot, wood-hungry beast and I loved it, buns, muffins, bread, cakes, you name it, appeared regularly on the table and in the spring, Greg and I rolled into town like butterballs – a case of too much of a good thing.

Shelley and Greg's cabin after a bear tried to break in to access Shelley's baking

But back to the ice! I clearly recall standing on the bank down at Clear Creek that first year watching the first small ice cakes come by. They looked like bits of wax floating on the cold water, and I realized our riverboat was going to be hauled out very soon, cutting us off from town.

It was a disconcerting feeling for me, a mere city girl, to think that all we had in the cabin for human contact was a C.B. radio.

We listened to truckers talking to each other as they were hauling loads to who knows where – always entertaining. And “As it Happens” with Barbara Frum became a nightly tradition.

Oh, and there were bears and wolves there…did I mention that?

When I first heard the wolves howling on the ridge, it was an extraordinary feeling for me…a shiver of uneasiness, but yet a wonderful sense of wildness for me…where had I ended up?

And who was this guy chopping wood incessantly?

So! We hunkered down, got involved in our leisure time activities (cooking and baking for me) and enjoyed the time away from everything…usually.

At times I had a definite sense of not quite belonging yet and felt very cut off from Everything, even though I had a Styrofoam outhouse seat (a very appreciated wedding gift, thank you, thank you) and a guy who cut all the wood to keep me warm.

The first time I heard a skidoo coming across the field I was ecstatic. The ice was strong enough now to travel on, so friends and family were coming for a visit! Break out the homemade root beer (which was exploding in the mouse-ridden root cellar, making me jump at night). And let the celebrations begin!

Shelley and sundog heading to town

Off to town we’d go on a beater of a skidoo. It kept breaking down and I’d walk around stamping my feet keeping warm and watching Greg tinker with it until it roared to life again. Finally, we’d zoom into town.

Greg knew where the ice was going to be weak or not there at all. There were large patches of open water by the cliffs on our side of the river, but he just knew his way.

And we would walk to town on the ice regularly too. I think our valiant skidoo finally couldn’t be resuscitated, and anyway, it was good exercise for our cinnamon bun-filled bodies.

Being the gentleman that he is, Greg always went ahead so I wouldn’t fall in first. But eventually I got used to it and it didn’t make me so jumpy anymore. Or so I told myself, until:

One day he went ahead quite rapidly as he had to do something in town. I was ambling along far in the rear when I came across a message written in the snow, how amazing!

It read “Shelley, run fast here!”

Pardon me?
Run fast where?

There was some swearing involved as I ran my eyes over the ice in front of me, and saw there was water all over it.

Greg’s tracks went right into the water, which didn’t instill confidence at all. But what could I do? I started to run in my enormous Thrift Shop down parka and wool pants from Caley’s, jeans, long johns, heavy socks, two sweaters, balaclava, scarf and mukluks…oh yes, I was floating like a gazelle, crunching through a heart-stopping layer or two of thin ice to the solid ice below.

miles, and miles, and miles of ice wind through in the Klondike Valley every winter, and this c. 1978 photo shows no exception...

Overflow was explained to me later in the day over a few beer in the Eldorado.

Overflow is Mother Nature’s weird sense of humour surfacing…so to speak.

It’s when water seeps through cracks in the ice and forms pools on top, it’s sometimes hidden by fresh snow or a thin veneer of ice and it’s always startling, to say the least.

I had to be the butt of many “jokes” that winter, being so raw and new at this Northern Thing. And I took all the teasing graciously, knowing that I would get my own back on some poor newbie in the future!

At some point the ice had become almost routine, or as routine as it could get for my first winter here. I respected it greatly though.

Greg and I were walking by the cliffs just at the edge of town one sunny clear day, talking, relaxed and looking forward to an evening with the Townie friends.

All of a sudden there was this horrible CRACK and within a nanosecond of each other both Greg and I bolted for the shore. He didn’t think to save me first, and I didn’t think about him at all. It was a matter of getting the hell OFF the ice, and as fast as you could!

I thought I would turn around to see a huge fissure where we had been walking with the cold, dark water of the Yukon roiling underneath.

There was nothing.
There we were with nervous laughter, my heart beating like a startled rabbit and it was just the ice shifting or some normal ice activity going on.

But I was very interested in how we both reacted to the sound.
“You’re on yer own, buddy!”
Ok…I get it now.

And another thing!
Driving across the Yukon River Ice Bridge in the spring will add years to you, mark my words… I’m really only 33.

So you’re probably getting it now … ice is NOT my friend.

Yes, I like the icicles in April sun as much as the next person, they’re very pretty with the sun glancing through them. But I only enjoy them because it’s April and Old Man Winter is on the run – summer is coming.

B.B.Q. time.  Ice in my cocktail?  Yes, please.
And hockey…well, what would hockey be without ice?
So there ARE some good applications here, where ice is necessary and indeed welcome…

But precious few. Robert Frost found one.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Shelley and Sundog c. 1976

Shelley Hakonson‘s bio, sent by email today from a sunny, warm, bright location in Mexico:

“I arrived in Dawson in May of 1976 for a summer job dancing at the Palace Grand and Diamond Tooth Gerties, and unlike the geese who have brains the size of peanuts, never had the sense to leave in the fall.

34 years later…still in Dawson and loving it, except in Jan. and Feb. I figure I’ve earned my stripes and can go to a hot place for that time. In Mexico: no ice. Anywhere…well in my drink yes!

I still love to dance, love to cook and entertain, and work at my series of mixed media pieces.

Life is good.”

Shelley (R) celebrating New Year's Eve 2009 with filmmaker Lulu Keating (Red Snapper Films)
Shelley (R) celebrating New Year's Eve 2009 with filmmaker and producer Lulu Keating (Red Snapper Films), photo Gord Macrae

5 thoughts on “ice skeptic: shelley hakonson”

  1. Fabulous – my wonderful, quirky friend Shelley. Thank you for reminding us why we came to this fabulous land and never left…


  2. I loved your story Shelley. You were the flashy city girl that I would have voted least likely to survive in the wild. Survive and thrive – Go figure!


  3. Oh Shelley. I really enjoyed this story of your view and your life. It was fun and humorous and warm.
    You and Greg are a wonderful team and keep on writing. Very entertaining.

    love you, Ferone 🙂


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