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Uffish Thoughts: Waiting as the River Flows November 26, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: Waiting as the River Flows

By Dan Davidson

November 1, 2012

–  710 words –

The Yukon River fascinates Dawsonites at this time of year. Just a fortnight ago at this writing people were cruising by daily just to see if the ice was beginning to form – trying to get some idea when the ferry would be pulled.

It wasn’t easy to judge. One day there were circular lenses of frazil ice in the river; then they were gone and nothing appeared for several days, although the surface had that glassy appearance that makes you look twice.

When the lenses came back again they we more numerous and they had frosting, but it still seemed as if we might get close to last year’s October 26 date before the George Black ferry got pulled out.

The ferry schedule gets chopped back from its 24-hour service once the tourists go home, and it can get extracted from the river any time after Thanksgiving, but that was early this year, so people weren’t expecting a great rush. Sure, the cable spools had been placed on the dyke, ready for the block and tackle to be attached and the heavy equipment to move in, but the little ice pans weren’t that thick yet.


Even knowing that the crossing service sort of runs on a day to day basis after the first third of the month, people expect the usual 24 hours notice before it actually gets pulled. This year unpredictable Mother Nature only provided about 6 hour’s warning – on a Sunday afternoon of all things.

The very next day, Oct. 22, the Highways crew was out with all its equipment, doing the job in quite chilly weather. It took the entire day shift and then some to extract the boat from the river, which seemed destined for a really quick freeze-up this year.

What follows is always the wait for the river to stop flowing completely and the first tentative footpaths to form on the icy frosting. People drop down daily to see how things are progressing. I know that because I do, and I’m never alone for the 5 to 10 minutes that I sit and wonder.
The river is nothing if not a source of drama however. While delivering copies of our bi-weekly newspaper on Hallowe’en I dropped down to the ferry landing again to see what had changed this time.So imagine my wonder on October 30, when the main channel was almost completely clear and I was faced with a glassy mirror in which only the a few glittering ice lenses were floating slowly north. Gone was the mass of heavily frosted pans that had been floating by for days. I was shocked and so were the folks who looked at the 25-second video I posted on Facebook later that afternoon.  Six other vehicles arrived while I was there and they left quickly, as if disgusted with the view.

Only everything. Where there had been open water the day before, there was a solid blanket of icy white from bank to frozen bank. There were a few small open pools, but none of them were in the path of the traditional ice bridge. More significantly, the surface wasn’t moving.

A couple of days before I had jokingly remarked that it was too bad we couldn’t figure out some way to have an ice bridge pool to go with the breakup pool we have in the spring.  That wouldn’t work, of course, because the transition from footpath to ice bridge is gradual and determined by human effort. A pool like this has to have a natural basis, something out of human control.

If we could figure out a way to determine just when the river stopped moving, that might be an option. In the spring it’s easy (more or less) as the movement of the ice stops a clock. Determining the hour and minute when the ice stopped moving would be a trickier proposition. Maybe some kind of video surveillance would do it.


I’m sure I don’t have an answer, but I’m throwing the idea out there for comments.



* IMG_0556 – Open water on October 30.






* IMG_0560 – Frozen Yukon River on October 31.










Uffish Thoughts: Why all the Omnibus Bills, Mr. Harper? November 25, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: Why all the Omnibus Bills, Mr. Harper?

By Dan Davidson

October 20, 2012

–  768 words –

As much as I hate to repeat myself so soon, there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. I can, of course, say that Stephen Harper made me do it, though that seems to be a little too close in phrasing to that old cliché in which the devil is the subject of the sentence.

I really don’t see the Prime Minister as wearing a red union suit and brandishing a pitchfork, but putting himself at the center of most Conservative pronouncements does tend to paint a target on him.

I mean, nearly every press release or press advisory that appears in my in-box continues to contain the phrase “the Harper Government”, as if the nation had undergone a name change over the last half-decade and the notion of a Canadian Government or a federal government had become passé.

That being said, when the government does something one believes to be wrong, and continues to do it even after repeated admonitions by a whole lot of people, many of whom are not members of Her Majesty’ Loyal Opposition, one feels an obligation to protest.

The subject of the week is omnibus bills, and the question is why?

News reports indicate that we’re now looking at the second of these phone book sized monstrosities in six months. It’s thicker than the last one and, like the last one, it’s full of legislative amendments that have only the most tenuous of connections to the federal budget.

The standout item for the Yukon last time around was the gutting of Parks Canada, but it was also interesting that they altered the protection of fish habitat so substantially that, had this amendment been in place five years ago, Dawson could not have been found guilty of damaging the Yukon River with its waste effluent and there would have been no need to built our new wastewater treatment plant.

I’m sure there were many other items that might have been of interest, and I made an effort to locate a table of contents for the bill so that I could request information about them. I was told that there was no such thing. No table of contents? How is a person supposed to navigate his or her way through all that small print legalese without a finding aid?

This time around Mr. Harper seems out to cut the efficacy of regulations related to navigable waterways by striking most of the lakes and rivers off the list. Why? No one seems to have a clue. This time, at least, the Yukon River has been spared.

In a recent rant, Rick Mercer suggested that Mr. Harper’s approach to governance is like that of a grifter running a shell game or a card con. He is annoying us so much with how he is doing things that we are being distracted from what he is doing.

Certainly he is making a farce out of the very notions of transparent and accountable government. Omnibus bills, as Harper himself once said when he was in the Opposition benches, make a mockery of the democratic process. They derail the whole apparatus of checks and balances that our system is supposed to enable.

The Finance Minister may chide the Opposition for “not doing their homework” over the summer by not reading every small print page of the federal budget, but omnibus bills like these two, tied as the Minister and the PM claim, to the federal budget, mean that Conservative Party members don’t even have to read them.

Budget bills, omnibus or otherwise, are no-brainers for members of the governing party. Your leader and his cabinet hand it to you and you vote in favour of it, whether it’s good for your riding or not, because if you don’t, you get shown the door. And if you sometimes feel like a mushroom on the backbenches, imagine how it will be when you’re a banished independent.

I wonder if Mr. Harper isn’t using omnibus bills at least partly because he’s not sure of his caucus. After the strange voting patterns in that free vote on the definition of a human being last month, when he made it clear how everyone should be voting and even some cabinet members went their own way, perhaps he sees omnibus budget bills as a way to keep everyone in line.



Uffish Thoughts: Tourism Cuts Reconsidered in Nova Scotia November 25, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: Tourism Cuts Reconsidered in Nova Scotia

By Dan Davidson

September 17, 2012

– 726 words –

(Lower Cornwall, N.S.) After the tenth or eleventh “I don’t suppose you’re coming home this year” from my octogenarian aunts and uncles, we decided we had better check out our Aeroplan points and see what we could do. So here I am, writing from Nova Scotia, where it seems that it’s not only the federal government that can make really stupid policy decisions when it comes to promoting tourism.

I’ve written here before of the Ship Hector, a magnificent reconstruction of the 18th century vessel that brought 189 displaced Highlanders to a spot near present day Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1773. In the 1980s and 90s a replica of the Hector was constructed and established on the Pictou Waterfront, which is quite pleasant when the effluent from the pulp mill across the bay isn’t blowing that way. There’s a commemorative museum, the Hector Heritage Quay, which is as good a site as anything comparable that I’ve seen, and a tourist store to go with it.

We’ve visited the site several times and were shocked, two years ago, to discover that people could no longer tour the actual ship. The Town of Pictou, faced with a hard choice of building a sewage treatment plant, had cut its funding as the quickest means to meeting its other obligations.

It’s open again now. After a year of this, a local non-profit group purchased the site from the town for $9 and took over the running of it. They are heavily in debt and running mostly on volunteer labour, but they are determined that the town’s main tourist attraction should not have a padlock on its gangplank.

Ironically, the town still advertises the Hector in a major way on its own website (http://www.townofpictou.ca/hector_heritage_quay.html) and attempts to bask in its reflected glory, but the real credit goes to the Hector Quay Society (www. shiphector.com) for taking the project out of the hands of people who lacked vision.

I’m not suggesting that a similar plan might salvage the damage done to tourism in Whitehorse, Haines Junction and Dawson City by the cuts to Parks Canada operations in all three communities, but it does inspire one to seek solutions outside the box.

Leaving Pictou we motored to Yarmouth, where a motel just north of town bore the following sign: “No ferry. No visitors. No business. 50 wasted years.”

The short version of this story is that the ferry from Yarmouth to the USA was cancelled by the current government (NDP) in 2009 and tourism from the USA has fallen off quite dramatically since then. Apparently the traditional route was to land at Yarmouth, drive around the Maritimes, and then head home by road via New Brunswick – or the other way around. Either way there was a loop.

An older, aging ferry was replaced by one that really wasn’t suited to the route. The passenger load dropped and instead of addressing the problem the province cancelled the subsidy that kept it running and the ferry service shut down.

Now someone seems to have realized that this was a mistake and there is talk of getting the service running again. A feasibility study, which should probably have been done three years ago before the service was scrapped, has concluded that with a revamped business model and a ship better suited to the type of traffic it needs to haul, the service could be successful.

Of course, even if it isn’t, it could be the sort of loss leader that actually creates hundreds or thousands of other economic opportunities from Yarmouth down to Pictou and beyond as a result of its existence.

The math is interesting. The province has saved $6 million a year since the ferry service ended, but it’s going to cost them an investment of at least $21 million to get it underway again, not to mention the cost of the study. In the end, was there an actual saving? It doesn’t seem so.

Like so many cost cutting initiatives, by so many levels of government, these ones seem to have been ill considered, less effective than intended, and freighted with lots of apparently unforeseen collateral damage.





* Hector Quay – The Hector Heritage Quay and the Hector are the centerpiece of Pictou’s waterfront.




Uffish Thoughts: Parks Canada Needs Your Help November 25, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: Parks Canada Needs Your Help

By Dan Davidson

September 4, 2012

– 930 words –

The news that Parks Canada is concerned about the lack of visitors to Aulavik Park on Banks Island (70 in the last five years) and that they intend to do something to correct this terrible situation, to lure more tourists 1,800 km north of Yellowknife for a two week river trip that can cost $10,000 per person, strikes me as way beyond ironic given the recent round of cuts to the Parks system right across the nation.

One of the actions Parks intends to take, according to spokesperson Diane Wilson, is to perhaps cache canoes in the park so that people who arrive there by plane (the only way they can) won’t have to lug their own craft along, thus decreasing the cost of the plane trip to get there.

Gee –maybe they’ll double those numbers to 140 in the next five years.

I have nothing against promoting remote northern parks, but when you’ve just finished gutting the infrastructure that supports the parks the average person can get to without needing a free canoe subsidy, you have to wonder where some people have cached their brains. Clearly they’re not actually using them.

Parks employees who still have their jobs have been muzzled from talking about the situation, and even those who are departing with a payout seem to be on some sort of a leash, but I can tell you that Dawson has been having a series of private farewell dinners for downsized staff all summer and it’s been quite depressing.

When the Parks unit whose leader won a national award (the CEO’s Award of Excellence) for its stellar work on the Revival of the Discovery Claim attraction last summer (2011) is completely shut down and the employees released less than a year later, something is wrong.

When curatorial staff, historians, and maintenance personnel all across the country are let go and only the front of house staff that meet the public and sell the product remain at strength, something is wrong.

Parks has several themes in its mandate and providing a satisfactory visitor experience is only one of them. Preservation, conservation and interpretation are among the others.

Klondike National Historic Sites has about a quarter million artifacts and, thanks to decisions taken in Ottawa, no longer has the in-house capacity to look after them. That includes the other Parks artifacts in the territory, which were managed from here. Two specialists from Ottawa will be flown out from time to time to look things over.

Parks, it appears, will be concentrating on pleasing those visitors.

Not that they’re actually going to manage to do that, except in a reduced way. They will put their best public face forward on the sites that they are allowed to maintain, but the loss of tours on attractions such as the S.S. Klondike, the S.S. Keno and Dredge No. 4 cannot do anything but damage the overall Parks experience.

On top of budget slashing it turns out that the money to cover the payouts that go with the layoffs also have to come out of the local operating budgets. That’s a double shock to the system.

So Parks management is forced to go cap in hand to other levels of government to find ways to make ends meet, and by this means the public learns some details that we’re probably not supposed to know.

The gentleman whose comments I am summarizing here has a name, but I’m not using it in this article. While these comments were part of the council cable TV broadcast that evening, there’s nothing to be gained by using his name here.

In Dawson Parks is hooked up to a fire monitoring system for its two dozen or so buildings, insuring that the fire department knows if anything goes wrong in these nationally recognized sites. It costs a little over $11,000 annually to use this service. Parks is asking to be forgiven those costs for up to three years.

Parks hires a security firm to make the rounds and insure that no one is breaking into buildings and doing damage. That contract will probably not be renewed when the season runs down.

Parks has been spending about $6,000 a year on landscaping fees to maintain the splendid grounds at the Commissioner’s Residence. Council was informed that this won’t be happening next summer unless somehow the local community steps into the breach and arranges something.

The financial situation at Klondike National Historic Sites was characterized as being “broker than broke” as a combined result of the budget cuts and the cost of payouts. This goes to the extent of management needing to be concerned over whether it has the necessary funds to heat the buildings it is using this winter.

The local superintendent made the pitch that while these resources belong to the federal government they are really part of the community as well, and the community may have to take on some of the burden to keeping them going.

It’s no reflection on him that this is an absolutely pathetic way to try to run Parks Canada. The current federal government is not the first one of any political stripe to download its responsibilities to lower levels of government, but it is perhaps the most shameless.



* The S.S. Keno is just one of the sites on which Parks Canada has spent many millions of dollars, only to close them to public tours at the end of the current season.

Uffish Thoughts: The Current Search for Franklin’s Ships Comes at a Bad Time November 25, 2012

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Uffish Thoughts: The Current Search for Franklin’s Ships Comes at a Bad Time

By Dan Davidson

August 29, 2012

– 750 words –


“Oh for just one time

I would take the Northwest Passage

To find the hand of Franklin

Reaching for the Beaufort Sea …”

– Stan Rogers


Now as much as I love Stan Rogers’ music and enjoy covering some of his songs myself, including the a capella “Northwest Passage” if I can find a couple or three good voices to work the harmonies with me, Stan got it wrong, as do most of the monuments to Franklin around the world.

He did not discover the Northwest Passage. He was a poor example of a Northern Explorer whose results seldom justified the expense lavished on them. He led four expeditions to the North. On the first he was defeated by pack ice and had to turn back. On his second he lost half his 20-man crew and it is probable that some of them staved off starvation by cannibalizing their dead mates.

His third expedition was a river journey on the Mackenzie and seems to have been his most successful.

Before his next he was briefly the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and, while the record seems to say that he was an enlightened fellow there and did good work, the government terminated his appointment after just seven years.

He is remembered primarily for his disastrous fourth Arctic Expedition, in which all hands and his two ships, the Erebus and Terror, were lost. Trapped in the ice in 1846, they never sailed again, and a note that was eventually found indicated that Franklin died the next year. The entire crew perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy.

This was confirmed by a study of some of the bones from the crew in 1997, but Dr. John Rae, exploring on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Co., found out what happened to them in 1854. However, his report included evidence of cannibalism (also confirmed in 1997) and Lady Franklin enlisted the assistance of no less a wordsmith than Charles Dickens to make sure that no one took Rae’s report seriously.

Over the next 40 years no less than 25 expeditions, some of which also came to grief, went in search of Franklin’s missing ships and crew. As mentioned, some remains were discovered on Beechey Island, along with remains of material goods which certainly called the sanity of the crew into question.

Now we’re off looking for Franklin again – well, for the ships at least. Prime Minister Harper referred to them recently as “our greatest undiscovered national historic site.”

I don’t object to searching for these ships. I’m sure there’s a great deal of oceanographic data than can be collected during this attempt, Science, and perhaps even our knowledge of history, will be advanced, no matter what the outcome.

But this year? Now? It is surely fiscal folly to engage in this type of expense in the same year that the federal budget has gutted Parks Canada across the nation, reducing staff, eliminating the capacity for onsite curatorial care across the nation (Dawson’s hundreds of thousands of artifacts will be looked after by two persons from Ottawa), shutting down visitor access to Dredge No.4 and both the SS Keno and the SS Klondike (which are National Historic Sites of which we do know the locations), and terminating skilled workers left, right and center.

Apparently, under the new rules, Parks will retain the ability to tell the stories that make up the history of our nation, but lose the ability to know if they continue to tell the story correctly, or add to it by significant new finds.

Parks Employees who have not yet been terminated have been gagged by order of the Minister, Peter Kent, but when the local superintendent is forced to go to Dawson’s town hall to ask the council to consider forgiving Klondike National Historic Sites the $11,000 bill than it costs them to be part of the town’s fire monitoring system on its two dozen buildings, and further notes that he will probably have to downscale the security contract on KNHS properties when the current season expires, then you have to conclude that something is massively wrong and that Mr. Harper, Mr. Kent, Mr. Leef and Mr. Lang need to give serious thought to their policy on Parks Canada and revise their talking points.

I’ll be happy to lend a hand, pro bono.