Almost Intelligent

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Almost Intelligent Goes North-Man About Town

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This post was updated, but not substantially changed, to include a few more hard facts. I was not content with the original version for several reasons, but felt it would be dishonest to edit it retroactively with no indication that this was done.

Downtown Whitehorse is like and yet unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Take that with a grain of salt, since the list of “Places Colin Has Been” is both short and unvaried. It is not a big city, but with some 26,000 people calling it home(according to Statistics Canada, 2011), it is not precisely small either. In relative terms, it is gigantic. Those 26,000 people represent 77% of the total population in the Yukon.

One immediately notices, however, how short it is. I am told this is the result of the town existing on an earthquake fault. A bylaw prohibits buildings in excess of four stories, giving the town a unique profile. Anyone looking for the mythical wild frontier, the capital-N North, will be a little disappointed by Whitehorse at first. Sure, there are heritage buildings and various tourist-baiting enterprises, some of which pander to that image. But it is an image, the same way Saint John is “The Loyalist City.” I do not use image in the sense of inauthentic or fake either. In the case of Whitehorse, the untamed frontier is part of the foundations of the city, a real part of its past and an influence on its present, but not the reality of the present.

The view down Main Street. When there's a Scotiabank and a Subway, you're no longer on the rugged edge.

Whitehorse is a modern city, with all the good and bad that this implies. Concrete sidewalks, concrete buildings. One of those Wal-Marts with a McDonald’s inside it, which like everywhere else is located within walking distance of an additional McDonald’s. Streets where the buildings have fresh siding and fresh paint, other streets where buildings lean on each other and seem to stay upright out of habit. Thriving businesses and homeless people. Everything, in short, that any other city has. I write that not to denigrate the city or its charms. Whitehorse has many. But glossing over the rest trivializes the place. This is a real city, where real people live, not a fantasy-land frozen in 1910.

There are differences, however, from other places. They start out small, and start to weigh on you until you realize that this is not (my earlier comments notwithstanding), any other city. I mentioned that the low buildings are the first thing. Like so many cities, Whitehorse lives beside a river, and the river in a valley. Without the skyscraper canyons of a larger city you can see the valley walls on either side. Whitehorse is more obviously part of the landscape where other cities are the landscape.

Almost all the scenery in the Yukon is absurdly gorgeous. This is the view upriver from downtown. Apologies for the dirty lens.

Trucks utterly dominate the vehicular landscape. And not the pretty “I’m totes not compensating for anything” status trucks (although there are more of them then I’d like to see). More the “against all reason and good sense I’m still on the road” kind of truck. Every last vehicle here is covered with that lovely mixture of road-salt, ice and general filth that Canadian winter graces us with. You can buy your car in any colour of the rainbow, but by God come December it will be brown. Last but not least, the number of cars with Thule boxes for skis and other winter gear is just astounding.

As much as Whitehorse is a real city, it is also a tourist town. Some of it is tasteful, like the old-style frontier facades on Main Street. Several otherwise unremarkable concrete-block buildings have gorgeous murals covering their walls, paying homage to the history of the place.

This is one of several gorgeous murals in Downtown Whitehorse.

Some of it is less tasteful. I understand that the Gold Rush is key to the Yukon’s history. However, one city can only have so many gold-based names for pawn shops and jewelry stores.

“Real gold-nugget jewelry!” screams one particular shop window. Two things. One, if this is jewelry as I understand it, all that melting down and casting will kind of make any gold look like any other gold, making “nugget authenticity” hard to verify. Two, if it is instead just jewelry made with unrefined nuggets…well that’s sort of lazy isn’t it? Its the equivalent of going into a bakery asking for bread, so the baker hands you a bunch of wheat and calls it a day.

No, Whitehorse is no longer a frozen wild-west. But its existence is a testament to that time. Some terrible will, need or desire kept the first settlers here and carved the foothold that the modern city stands on. That drive was strong enough that it permeates the place, even though the same strength is not needed to survive here today. The Natives have a much different claim to this place, who were here before the first settler, but that is a story for another time, and quite possibly a more capable storyteller.

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Written by Colin Hodd

April 5, 2012 at 6:28 PM

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