Off Grid And On Top Of The World

Categories: Life Stories

It’s not until the mercury hits -30 that residents start dressing in down parkas, fur hats and beaver mittens in West Dawson and Sunnydale, two communities located between Alaska and the Yukon River in Yukon. They’re able to withstand extreme, bone-chilling temperatures because their off-the-grid lifestyles demand it, says Vancouver-based photographer Rafal Gerszak, who spent several months in these communities in 2014, as fall rolled into winter.

For much of the year, these communities connect to Dawson City, Yukon by ferry and Chicken, Alaska by the Top of the World Highway but for a few weeks in the fall, as they wait for the river to freeze and then again in the spring, when they wait for the ice to breakup, they’re almost completely isolated from the outside world. The only way in or out is by helicopter or airplane.

Residents keep their heart rates up by chopping wood and lugging it back to their homes. They chop holes into the ice at Sweet Creek, fill multiple 30-litre jugs with water and then haul those jugs to their trucks and then into their houses. Mr. Gerszak accompanied one woman on a water-fetching mission that took six hours because her truck got stuck in the snow. The water is generally used for drinking, cooking and brewing tea; melted snow suffices for washing dishes or bathing.

Residents usually stock up on two to six weeks’ worth of gas and food, even though the freeze only lasted three weeks this fall. A local farmer had potatoes, carrots, kale and Brussels sprouts stored in a root cellar and could usually scrounge up a few eggs from his chicken coop upon request. Hunting season had just ended, so residents had enough moose meat to last the winter. The temperature was so consistently frigid that most people unplugged and hauled their freezers outside, saving electricity and letting the cold air preserve their meat.

Mr. Gerszak was surprised to see the absence of police and paramedics hadn’t given way to a state of chaos or lawlessness in the region – quite the opposite.

“It’s the most peaceful and calm community I’ve ever been in. A lot of things we put in our society here seem to be unnecessary there,” he said. “The community just stops and helps people and that’s just the way it goes. You’ll never be stranded on the side of the road.”

A helicopter transporting residents from Dawson City lands in West Dawson. (Rafal Gerszak)

Rosely Richter returns to West Dawson with her baby after giving birth in Whitehorse. (Rafal Gerszak) 

A vehicle travels over an ice road across the Yukon River leaving West Dawson. The ice road construction was started by locals and continues by government crews but officially it remains closed. (Rafal Gerszak)

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