Friday, October 5, 2018

#22: What DO People Do In Winter?

(reposted from January 1, 2013)
You Say Tomato in Skagway AK, Winter
You Say Tomato, across the street from my studio
Skagway in the winter is an interesting place to be, and I’ve been here since Thanksgiving—the idea being that it’s just as easy to look for nonexistent work in Alaska as it is in the Lower 48.  A few years ago, my son Blake introduced me to Skagway and seasonal work, driving motor coaches full of tourists into the highways and byways of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

Anyway, so here I am after three seasons, trying out Skagway in the wintertime. I’m keeping myself busy working on my book Skagway: It's All About The Gold and applying for everything from park ranger to police dispatcher to bank teller—and the usual office administrator and web design positions. All the while, I’m immersing myself in the history of the 1897 Gold Rush, reading, writing, drawing, my creative nature for the first time in years surging forth. I wake up each morning in the dark, wind howling outside; go to bed at night in the dark, wind howling outside. (They were not exaggerating when referencing this wind!) Rarely have I been happier. And it’s occurred to me that Skagway’s 1,000,000 summer tourists might be interested in what this place is like in the frozen dark months. What the heck do people do in the wintertime? How do they get through the day with a smile on their faces?

One of the things they do is socialize.

Brenda Wilbee's car buried in snow, Skagway AK
Arizona Lunchbox, a long way from home
I arrived on Thanksgiving. The room I’d rented at Windy Valley Lodge (a once-upon-a-time motel remodeled into apartments across the street from You Say—actually, You Say Tomato; I’m giving you the local lingo here) was not available as expected. Not for a few days anyway. What to do? Did I say they weren’t kidding around about the wind up here? Temperatures below zero, snow everywhere, wind punching down off the pass. I sat shivering in my car, my faux-fur-lined jacket meaningless, watching the boughs of Sitka spruce whip and snap. Mitty! I could call my buddy Mitty.

I’d met Tim Saulter while working for Alaska Excursions the summer of 2010. He’s a year-round resident. With shaking, numb fingers I poked at his name in my cell phone.

“Sure, come on over!” he boomed, talking tightly around his ever-present baby cigar.

I was once sick while driving for HollandAmerica-Princess…could hardly talk for the barbed-wire ball lodged in my throat. “Mitty,” I’d texted, “Can you go buy me some throat lozenges?” Half-hour later showed up at my hotel room (HollandAmerica housed us in the old Westmark, two to a room, kitchen and free laundry down the hall for a measly $196 a month—love, love, love that company) with a grocery bag full of stuff that he tumbled onto my bed. Throat lozenges, EmergenC, ginger root, fruit popsicles, mixed nuts. “What do I owe you?” I mouthed.


Knowing I could count on him three years later, I drove over to the corner of State and 15th in the biting cold. This is how we identify residences here. No street numbers, no mail delivery. “I live across from You Say.” “I live on the corner of State and 15th.” “I live behind the Molly Walsh Park.”

Tim Saulter Fixing Food For Senior Lunch, Skagway AK
"Mitty" Tim Saulter cooking for the senior citizens

Tight quarters at Mitty’s. In winter, he cooks lunch three times a week for the senior citizens. His living room is a storage room for a winter’s worth of canned peaches, boxes of pasta, sacks of flour and rice. Floor to ceiling. This is where you'll head should World War III break out. It’s also the place to be when you have no place else to go.

But Mitty barely had time to buzz my cheek with a kiss and mumble around his cigar “make yourself at home” before flying out the door to Thanksgiving dinner. Like I said, everyone socializes. Being Thanksgiving, all my friends were over at someone else’s house. Lonely, but not lonely, I poked around and opened up a can of Mitty's tomato soup.

SO THIS IS SKAGWAY. This is where you never go homeless, where you never go hungry, where friends move over and let you have their bed. Even it means they have to sleep on a camping cot next to a bicycle next to a crate next to a freezer.

I'm learning what folks do during the winter. And I like it.

#21: Curling In Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

(reposted from February 13, 2013)
I Give It A Go!

If tourists used to ask me what people in Skagway did during the winter, they certainly asked the question of Dawsonites in Dawson City, Yukon, some 400 miles even farther north. It seemed inconceivable to visitors that anyone would actually live way up there. "What do they do?"

Less than a minute out of the Westmark Hotel Breezeway, motor coach full of the curious, I'd answer. “Do you see the green building to your right? Well, that’s the curling rink. They curl.”

And this is what I intend to try, I’d think to myself. Lucky me, last week I did just that.

Bonspiel Score Board

First of all, scoring is complicated. The easy part is that you play the ice first one way, a team of four going with eight rocks (40-pound circular stones with a handle on the top) and then playing the ice the other way. Each is considered an “end” and the game is over after eight ends—or unless the losing team loses heart and quits. And this does happen. Too far behind to catch up, people give up.

Curling rink in Dawson City, Yukon

I first watched four games at Dawson City’s 114th International Bonspiel, fascinated by the skill, strategies, and scoring, perfect strangers happy to answer my questions and teach me the finer points of what was going on. I could hardly wait until Thursday night—when I could try it for myself.

It’s harder than I thought. I’m not strong, and you’ve got to figure out how to push off, keep yourself balanced, and get enough oomph to spin the rock down the ice far enough to “get in the house.”

Brenda Wilbee tries to curl
I played with a friend I was staying with, two strangers, and a Swiss woman I’d made friends with during the bonspiel. All were patient and helped me along, which was all part of the fun.

I actually got off two good shots, and when we played girls against boys, the girls won. Meet the winners: Myrta, Me, and Larissa.

So curling is one thing at least that people do in Dawson during the winter.