―Nils R. Olson was Nils A. Olson’s (my) father. He spent summers as a commercial fisherman from 1955 in Alaska’s Bristol Bay at villages and towns such as Egegik, Ugashik, Naknek, Dillingham and King Salmon. In the summer of 1971 my mother flew to Ugashik to meet him and travel back to Tacoma WA. On their way back they spent a couple nights in Whitehorse, Yukon where this story took place. My dad passed away a year and nine months later after a battle with leukemia.
THERE’S THE LAND ― HAVE YOU SEEN IT? by Nils R. Olson
Quotes from Robert Service “Bard of the Yukon” mean more to you after you have seen the land. I’m speaking of Whitehorse and the Yukon.
Service said, “Some say God was tired when He made it.” I will always maintain that God knew exactly what He was doing. In fact, He just might have saved this part for a privileged few that appreciate it more than any place on earth. Scenery abounds.
Whitehorse is a city of more than ten thousand and that is at least one fourth of the population of the entire Yukon Territory. The only word that I can describe Whitehorse with is “bustling.” When I saw it in June and again in August 1971, everything was humming. Of course, it is an important stop on the Alaska Highway both going and coming.
My wife and I experienced Whitehorse in August from Anchorage by way of the Haines Highway, the Alaska Ferry to Skagway, and the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. The railroad runs up and over the White Pass, route of gold seekers of 1898, past Lake Bennett where boats were built for the hazardous trip down the Yukon to the rich creeks of the Klondike. You have to vision the hardships of these adventurers with the lust for gold in order to fully enjoy the trip. That is a story in itself.
The train was late when we arrived at Whitehorse in the evening and after unloading our pickup truck from the train we grabbed a bite to eat and then went to check into the Whitehorse Inn. We checked our watches and sure enough, we had gained an hour somehow. We would have time to see the “Follies.” Gathering what baggage we could from the back of the truck in the parking lot we noticed a couple of Follies actors taking some air on the second story fire escape overlooking the parking lot. We asked them if we could take a shortcut up the fire escape to our room so we wouldn’t miss the show. They were gracious enough to help us up the stairs and those actors were something right out of the pages of Robert Service.
We dumped our baggage in our room and hurried to the Ballroom where the program had barely started. The stage was made up to look like the stampede days with the Gold Nuggets (Can Can girls) and some grizzly old miners fresh from the creeks.
We were treated to the portrayal of the “Ice Worm Cocktail” with Jim Murdoch as the “wrathful Mayor Brown.” There was a honky tonk piano, Barbershop Harmony, nostalgic singalong, the Singing Miner and his Guitar, Captain MacDougall’s Travelling Band, Poetry of Robert Service, Original and Authentic Compositions and Ballads, and finally the presentation of the Yukon Order of the Garter. Musical director was Doug Clarke who was a master of vocabulary and wit. Star of the show was the gracious Gillian Campbell who had performed in Great Britain and all across Canada. Her charm, fun, and facial expressions made you love her from the beginning.
Others in the troupe were: Bob Greenwood with a natural musician’s talent, Lyall Murdoch, the “Honest Abe” of Whitehorse, and Peter McKeefe, a newcomer to the “Follies” with a unique style of ragtime guitar. The entire troupe’s rendition of the “Cremation of Sam McGee” was something to behold. It was beautifully portrayed and was very realistic especially the furnace fire scene.
The highlight of the entire show was the presentation, in the crowd of some 300 patrons, the Ancient Order of the Garter. The episode begins with appropriate music and Can Can Girl Debbie Murdoch swinging rather hippily through the audience. After much swinging and pondering she stops in front of a man in the last fhair on one end of the back row. The man is stout, fiftyish, with a growth of summer whiskers, a commercial fisherman on his way home from the red salmon season on Bristol Bay. You guessed it ― me! Sixteen summers in the far north and nothing like this had ever happened to me.
I didn’t have time to fall off my chair or even be surprised. I was being dragged to the stage, and I was petrified. On stage I somehow mumbled the appropriate words with Captain MacDougall’s help and then came the supreme test. I had to remove the pink and purple garter from the leg of a real live Can Can Girl, Debbie Murdoch, who was known as Lipstick Lou. It was a shame to remove the garter. It looked much more attractive and at home there than on my arm. Anyhow I trembled through it and the job was done and I got a big red kiss from Lipstick Lou and a certificate suitable for framing. It reads: Grand Exalted Yukon Order of The Garter presented in person by Lipstick Lou to Nils Olson, the Best Darn Garter Watcher in the Yukon at the Frantic Follies, Whitehorse, Yukon, 1971. The entire trip could have ended right there I was that excited in my own quiet way.
The next day was spent checking the souvenir shops where at Murdochs’ Gem Shop we met Gillian Campbell in checked shirt and jeans and had some laughs with her. What friendly, beautiful people in the Yukon.
I had been privileged to join one of the oldest Orders of the Yukon and after reading so much of Robert Service and Jack London and many stories of the almost fabled Land of the Midnight Sun, I was proud to be a small part of it for such a short time.
If you are ever in Whitehorse or Dawson City in the Yukon, be sure to go see the “Follies.” You, too, may be honored by the Grand Exalted Yukon Order of the Garter, if you watch closely.