Tales from the Road: Robert Blake and CR Avery in the Yukon

By: Robert Blake

When the car broke down, it was 7 degrees out. I changed into all my warmest clothes and gave Dawn my extra jacket and hat. We sang and danced to keep warm.  We were lucky. It only took the tow truck an hour and a half to get to us. Had the car broken down in the middle of the drive to Dawson, we might still be there.

There are only two roads in the Yukon. The Alaskan Canadian (ALCAN) Highway runs east/west connecting B.C. to Alaska.  It was built in 1942 by the U.S. military to provide a supply line to Alaska in case of a Japanese invasion.

The Klondike Highway runs north/south mimicking the trail that miners took from Skagway to Dawson City in search of gold, gold, gold. For 20 miles surrounding Whitehorse they are the same road.

The tour was set up by Winnipeg folk organization, Home Routes.  Twelve houses in the Yukon waited for us to arrive and perform in their living rooms. The hosts were responsible for feeding us dinner, putting us up, and most importantly gathering a crowd.

CR Avery and I were sharing the bill. Joining us was his 13-year-old daughter Dawn, who, unlike any 13-year-old I’ve known, never complained.

Population is sparse near the Arctic Circle. Five of the 11 shows were in towns of less than 400. The entire Yukon Territory has 30,000 people with 23,000 in Whitehorse.

As anticipated, the temperature never rose above freezing. A quarter of Dawson’s residents live across the Yukon River. During the summer, a ferry connects the two, and after freeze up, an ice road is built across the river. We played Dawson while residents on the west side were patiently waiting for colder weather to reunite them with loved ones and… the many, many saloons of Dawson City.

The locals go on with their lives, just with a few more layers. Every house has some sort of mudroom for the extra layers to be stored. Our hosts in Carcross go swimming the day the ice breaks each spring. To discourage second thoughts, they ride a dirt bike down a hill and off a ramp into the lake.

On our third morning, I woke up with the sun at 9 a.m. The lake and mountains quickly changed colors as the early day evolved. I layered up for a bone-chilled walk to catch the morning light and saw the hotel owner jogging. Asked how cold it needs to be to NOT jog, she cheerfully replied, “I don’t go if it’s 43 below!”

Spiritually in the Yukon, but politically in B.C., Atlin was a side story in the Klondike Gold Rush. While most headed north to Dawson, a few took boats east and found gold by the lake. Today, Atlin, (pop 350) is at the end of its own partially paved road 100 kilometers south of the Alcan Highway. Heading to Atlin, we’d missed the turn-off and driven an hour in the wrong direction. After finally turning around, we saw a stunning sunset over the lake and drove the partially paved road in total darkness. I imagined the car breaking down and having to walk the rest of the way. Every few minutes, I silently celebrated the fewer miles we would have to walk.There were no houses, services, other cars or moonbeams. We arrived after the gig should have started. The host greeted us with hugs and filled our glasses shouting, “Let me guess. You missed the turn!” An old brothel, at the edge of town, paints the picture of the wild north. Burned but still standing, it’s withering away in the frozen temperature with a historical plaque reading its nickname: the Rabbit Den.

The road connecting Whitehorse and Dawson City is 331 miles. Crystal snow ice splashed against our window bringing temporary whiteout each time a car passed the other direction. Luckily, we only saw seven cars on the 6-hour drive so it wasn’t much of a concern. In our borrowed car (from songwriter, Sarah MacDougall), we traveled 40mph with the snow coming down. CR and I swapped stories of our first tours, our worst gigs, our best gigs, generally compared life notes, and naturally… we listened to Dylan. “Time out of mind” kept us calm and the car fishtailed on icy hills. CR boldly claimed there were four great songs on 1988’s Down in the Groove and proved the point blasting “Ninety miles an  hour (down a dead end street).” I played 1980’s “Saved” as we crossed White Pass heading to Skagway. Approaching the U.S. Border, Dawn realized she’d lost her wallet. On the side of the road, in vein, we unpacked and repack the car in blizzard snow. We rolled to the border attempting to keep calm. CR had no work visa and his daughter no identification at all. The power of the gospel was with us as the border guard waved us through. SAVED!

In Alaska, we left the living rooms and sang in the Elks Club.  Although there are many, many bars in Skagway, there are only three open in the winter. The Elks Club is members only, but they let community groups use their function room. We were warmly welcomed with pints of Alaskan Stout and use of their two-lane bowling alley.

While returning to Canada via the Dalton Trail, the car began to scrape. At a diner in Haines Junction, CR and Dawn ate curly fries while I tethered the muffler to the bumper with duct tape and bailing wire. We’d grown accustom to only seeing out the front window (the others covered in ice), but now, the cold had taken its toll and only the navigator’s door would open from the inside. At Canadian inspection, CR had to get out of the car, walk over to my door, and open it so I could pass the inspector the paperwork.

Wildlife was scarce, but we did see horses, a dog sled in action, a porcupine, and are responsible for the death of one small squirrel. No bears or elk were sighted but we did enjoy moose and caribou on the dinner plate.

And the shows?

I’m not sure there’s a stage large enough for both CR and I so we spilled into the audience every night. My abused guitar and his foul mouthed beat box raised a few eyebrows but the songs brought laughter and tears as the stories cut through our shut-up-the-drunk in-the-back-of-the-barroom antics. In Whitehorse, I worked part of Robert Service’s “Ballad of Sam McGee” into one of my rambles. In Teslin, the party went till 7 a.m. after a local beat boxer challenged CR to a duel. In Dawson City, I played a second show with a pickup drummer in a tavern called the Snake Pit. Our waitress from the Chinese restaurant was in attendance and she nearly passed out while requesting Lucinda Williams. In Pelly Crossing, we helped seven high school kids write a song. They combined beat box, native drum, and rap with Gangnam Style and Tutchone Style dance. I drove and CR smoked. We talked about Dylan and we talked about Frank Sinatra. Someone watching Fox News in Skagway said it was going to be a landslide for Romney. Dawn made sure we sang lots of John Prine in the car and on Halloween night, we played cards in an abandoned hotel on the Alcan Highway watching the semi-trucks blast through the night.

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