Merely surviving a full calendar year in the Yukon used to earn you your Sourdough designation. Sure, before they rolled out the highways and power lines, this made sense. Back then, newcomers to the Yukon—nicknamed Cheechakos—had no choice but to learn how to mush a dog team, build a cabin, hunt for food, and splint their own snapped humerus bones. (Leg hold traps were awkward to handle at forty below.) Now Yukoners have smartphones, search-and-rescue, big-box shopping and drive-thru banking. Any right honourable Sourdough knows not to rely on these technological conveniences and that they’re one grizzly swat away from needing the bush skills of yore. But how, without the motivation of immediate survival, do they acquire these skills today?
Introducing the Sourdough Certificate. We’ve sifted through all the courses and workshops offered by the Yukon’s finest institutions and packaged them up in one tidy program consisting of five core and five elective courses. You will notice the updated curriculum reflects the many societal changes since the days of the crude and lawless gold rush. Where once a Sourdough cooked flavourless gruel, now you can learn the art of preparing wild-harvested gourmet delicacies. Can-can dancing gets the hook so you can master ecstatic Bhangra steps. And instead of settling on land that isn’t yours, you now study how First Nations self-government works under the Umbrella Final Agreement.
Kill with a Conscience
Course: Hunter Education and Ethics Development Course
Skill: Rid yourself of redneck habits
Duration: 12 hours
Campus: Yukon Government’s Department of Environment
The caribou around Whitehorse and Dawson City wouldn’t have been so senselessly decimated by the trigger-happy gold rush stampeders if the HEED course was required for incoming Cheechakos.
Nowadays, if you’re born after 1987, you can’t get your hunting licence unless you take the course. It’s free and quick: with an online component and a half-day classroom session. You’ll learn outdoor ethics, field techniques, wildlife identification, management principles, hunting laws and regulations, outdoor preparedness and firearms safety—everything you need to set out with a gun and a gut-hook knife.
“Hunting is not just about killing animals,” says Mark Callan with Environment Yukon. “It’s about experiencing connection to the natural world.” Ethics are of the highest importance, where waste is not tolerated and respect is shown to all living things. Callan thinks all Yukoners should take the HEED course, no matter their interest in hunting. “I’ve had several vegetarians in the course,” he says. “It’s changed their minds about things—they learn hunters are not all rednecks.”
When in Rome
Course: Yukon First Nations 101
Skill: Taking one step closer to reconciliation
Duration: 6 hours
Campus: Yukon College
No matter where you’re standing in the territory, your feet are planted on the traditional lands of one of 14 Yukon First Nations. “We should all get to know each other better,” says Davida Wood, co-instructor of the course.
After covering sobering topics like the legacy of residential schools and human rights violations, the instructors share the diverse histories and cultures of Yukon First Nations. Plus there’s always lots of games and food.
Any Sourdough should understand the modern land claim and self-government agreements that influence so many economic and land-planning decisions in the Yukon—and, reminds Wood, “That’s what sets us apart from the rest of Canada.”
Course: River Rescue Training
Skill: Saving people in moving water
Duration: 2-3 days
Campus: Tatshenshini Expediting
The Yukon is crisscrossed with a web of fast-flowing rivers. If you’re not living on one (all 15 settlements are built on a river or lake), you’re travelling down one. You might be packing a moose down the McQuesten in a tin boat, rafting the Alsek with your in-laws, canoe-camping the Big Salmon with the kids—or just out for a swim in the eddies of the Whitehorse Rapids. Yet, we are always a split-second from getting snarled in a sweeper, capsizing on a rock or getting pinned underwater. “If you get pinned underwater, it is bad, really bad,” says Bob Daffe, head river rescue instructor and owner-operator of Tatshenshini Expediting. “The only 100 percent success rate we have [at avoiding a deadly hazard] is when we tell students to keep swimming away. Don’t give up, don’t look up, keep swimming away as fast and far as you can.”
The two-and-a-half day course teaches basic rescue skills including self-rescue and swimming techniques, plus use of throw ropes and boat-based rescues. Prepare to enact scenarios in the rapids of the Yukon River in Whitehorse—Daffe will provide the wetsuits and drysuits.
Winter Camping for Dummies
Course: Northern Outdoor Pursuits and Leadership
Skill: Travelling in the wilderness
Duration: 100 hours
Campus: Yukon College
Learn to travel through any wilderness in any weather—whether you’re dog-walking on neighbourhood trails or traversing an ice field in a blizzard. “No matter where you’re going in the Yukon, you had better be prepared to stay overnight,” says Charles Stuart, coordinator and instructor of the NOPL course. “Up here, you have to be self-sufficient.”
In this winter semester course, you’ll learn everything from snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, ice climbing up a real frozen waterfall, dog mushing and even kite-skiing. The course concludes with a three-day winter camping trip in the Haines Pass where you study avalanche safety, build snow shelters and master winter cooking.
“It’s a beginner course, but we push the limits,” says Stuart. Safety issues, planning, logistics and leadership skills are central. “You’re out of cell service, you’re hours away from help,” says Stuart. “You’re dealing with the same survival stuff as the Klondike Cheechakos did.”
Boreal Berry Buffet
Course: Berry-licious Desserts
Skill: Making gourmet desserts from your berry harvest
Duration: 3 hours
Campus: City of Whitehorse’s Frank Slim Building
You've got six gallons of wild cranberries in your freezer. Now what? Rather than pack your pantry with boring old jams and jellies, consider a more refined culinary option.
Celebrated Yukon chef and author of the glorious cookbook The Boreal Gourmet, Miche Genest, is offering a three-hour evening workshop this fall, teaching artful and scrumptious ways to whip up wild berry desserts. Using high bush and low bush cranberries plus soapberries and blueberries, she’ll show you how to make pectin-based jelly candies and a meringue “that ends up as a beautiful cranberry mousse,” says Genest. “If you’re going to go out in the woods to pick berries this fall, as you should be, you need to know how to cook them well.”
Falltime Firewood Frenzy
Course: Chainsaw Operation/Maintenance
Skill: Harvesting firewood
Duration: 3 days
Campus: Yukon College
Back in the day, bush dwellers would have traded their firstborn for a motorized chainsaw had they been available. As a majority of Yukoners still burn firewood to heat their homes and wood-cutting permits are readily available, an essential skill is knowing how to safely operate and maintain a chainsaw. Not only will harvesting firewood save you money and fill your woodbox, it may even improve your dating prospects.
The course covers minor repairs and maintenance, plus how to choose the proper saw for your job. There’s also hands-on experience slashing, line-cutting, felling, and bucking. The hardest part? Deciding which faction to join: Stihl or Husqvarna.
Rewriting the Textbook
Course: Hammerstone Tour
Skill: Discovering the real history of the Klondike
Duration: 1 hour
Campus: Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, Dawson City
If you think the history of the Klondike began in 1898, guess again. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in have lived in this area for thousands of years before a gold pan ever sifted any Klondike gravel. “Everyone should learn this,” says Jaden Anderson, a summer student tour guide. “The story starts with us.”
You’ll begin by checking out items like tools, fishnets and hides of the pre-contact era, then explore a birch bark canoe and replica dome hut. Quickly, the story shifts to the impacts of the gold rush. When the potlatch was banned and the Hän language, songs and traditions were declining, visionary Chief Isaac, in 1912, travelled downriver to share and entrust all their songs and dances at Mansfield Village, a Hän-speaking settlement in Alaska. Andersen says, “Now we are going up there and getting our Hän songs back.”
Course: Permaculture for Northern Backyard Gardens
Skill: Growing your own grub
Duration: 1 day
Campus: Lorne Mountain Community Centre, Mount Lorne
Old-time Sourdoughs could have learned a thing or two from gardening guru Agnes Seitz. The potato and cabbage plots they tended were vital sources of nutrition in the days before grocery stores. In her one-day class, you’ll learn how, in just a small plot of land, you can grow an abundance of organic veggies to last the winter by following methods tailored to our climate and soils.
Seitz is a master permaculture gardener. Permaculture is all about using natural patterns to increase biodiversity and resilience in the garden ecosystem. For fertilizers, she advocates making “compost teas” by fermenting a sludge of wild plants. Urine, she says, is a choice liquid fertilizer, if diluted. As for weeding, she says, “Don’t weed! I think I weeded only once last summer.” Instead, she’ll “chop-n-drop” where you scissor-snip down weeds and leave them on the soil to decompose into a nutrient-rich mulch. It may sound unconventional but one look at her nearly two-foot cabbages and you’ll be convinced.
Kick the Can-Can
Course: Bhangra Dance
Skill: Dancing off the frostbite
Duration: 1-hour weekly class from September to December
Campus: Leaping Feats Creative Danceworks
Bhangra dance is the new can-can. It started a few years ago when Gurdeep Pandher, an IT tech with Yukon Government, started sharing his gleeful Punjabi dance at small performances. His infectious joy struck a chord with Yukoners. Now he’s a local star with sold-out shows and in-demand dance classes. He’s also a YouTube sensation after his videos went viral—most notably, one of him teaching Bhangra to Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis.
Every wannabe Sourdough should sign up for his session this fall, if only to stave off the winter blues. With arms outstretched to the sky, you hop and kick and spin. “Bhangra dance is the dance of happiness,” says Pandher. “We are all humans. Sharing the funnest aspects of your culture is the best way to build community and bring diverse groups together.”
Sled Dog Dude Ranch
Course: Rookie Ranch
Skill: Mushing your own dog team
Duration: 7 days
Campus: Muktuk Adventures, Ibex Valley
Do you yearn to glide over snowy mountain expanses pulled by your own team of happy huskies? Enroll in Muktuk Adventures’ dog mushing school, a one-week dude-ranch experience where you can finally sort out your Gees from your Has.
With expert instruction, you’ll have a six-dog team of Alaskan Huskies under your care—and to take you on day-trips along the Takhini River. Though you stay in the comfortable lodge at night, you’ll have to scoop poop in the dog yard and slop fish broth just like any regular musher.