Whitehorse might not make many Vancouverites’ shortlist of dream mid-winter getaways, but the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous provides plenty of reasons to rethink the image of what Robert Service once called “the white land locked tight as a drum”.
With a history stretching back to 1945, the Rendezvous has long been embraced by Yukoners as an excuse to gather with family and friends in celebration of the culture, sports, and entertainment that make the territory unique. The word “sourdough” itself reflects the staple winter food of savvy prospectors during the Klondike gold rush, and now serves double duty as a badge of honour for those who permanently call the territory home.
Speak to most longtime Yukoners and you’ll hear glowing tales of gathering by the frozen banks of the Yukon River for Rendezvous past. Over the decades, the festival has hosted a rotating menagerie of competitive events including snowshoe races, ski jumping, bartender races, gold panning, hair freezing contests, and backgammon tournaments. Rendezvous is unquestionably a festival by and for locals, but even in its earliest incarnation as Yukon Carnival Week, the event drew international visitors from across North America.
This year’s festival featured over 180 activities over a full 10 days in February. Community challenge relay races at Shipyards Park were a comedic hit, while log tossing, axe throwing, and a family wilderness survival challenge kept the focus on no-nonsense northern skills. An East Meets North kitchen party saw fiddler Donnell Leahy bring hundreds of revellers to the dancefloor, while official Newfoundland screeching-in ceremonies tested their ability to stay on their feet. Where else can unsuspecting men be thrown in the clink by the Keystone Kops if caught not wearing a beard, or children enjoy fresh maple toffee from an authentic Quebecois cabane à sucre while nearby, mom heaves a chainsaw as far as she can in hopes of being crowned Madam Trapper?
This year’s snow carving competition battled multiple days of above-zero temperatures, but team Yukon emerged victorious over several international delegations from as far away as Germany, Japan, and Switzerland. The 2016 festival drew to a close with newcomer Brooke Graham being crowned Rendezvous Queen, and “Stone Cold Sam Dawson” claiming the Sourdough Sam title.
While there may be superficial parallels to be drawn with Ottawa’s Winterlude or Montreal’s Bal de Neige festivals, the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous adds a twist of Klondike Mardi Gras to the mix and represents just a sliver of what the Spell of the Yukon is all about.
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