The Whitehorse Festival With a Long Legacy of Warming up the Season
This story originally ran in the Spring 2014 (V8I1) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
Rolf Hougen rhymes off a list of events from 1960s versions of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Festival: dances, a parade, competitions, and a queen contest—festive fundamentals that have withstood the past 50 years.
“Every business employee dressed up; all the banks put in displays; there was total community support,” Hougen says of the Whitehorse affair. “They don’t do a lot of things differently now as we did back then.”
While Rendezvous’ official 50th-anniversary celebration begins this February, the legacy of the winter festival actually stretches back to 1945, when the Yukon Labour Party created Yukon Carnival Week to solicit money and political votes. The party abandoned the winter celebration after its election defeat, but a group of citizens kept the merrymaking going as the Whitehorse Winter Carnival. But in 1950, the festivities were mothballed for a decade, until Hougen and like-minded Yukoners led a revival.
“We talked about attracting more tourism to the Yukon, and we thought this was a vehicle,” he says. “Also, there was a gap from Christmas right through until May when there was nothing going on.”
A committee resuscitated the event in 1962 under a new name—Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Festival. Hougen was named chairperson, and the organization was established as a society in 1964, the date history recognizes as the festival’s inception.
A defining trait of Rendezvous has been its ability to bring the community together, from business owners to families and visitors.
Marj Eschak’s introduction to the festival occurred during a weekend trip from Yellowknife, in 1977. She says the whole experience was infectious.
“I remember standing on the street in front of the Taku bar with a Caesar in my hand, watching the parade go by, and I said out loud, ‘I have to live here. These people are amazing,’” she explains. “Rendezvous is why I moved to the Yukon.”
Once Eschak returned home, she promptly quit her job and made plans to move west. By 1983, she was working in the Rendezvous office as an assistant and has remained committed ever since, currently serving as president on the board of directors.
She remembers subsequent festivals when pilots gathered at the Airport Chalet and then hurried off in teams for the Bed Race, while locals pulled vehicles around the parking lot at the Kopper King pub to practice for the Tug-a-Truck competition.
And Eschak has been onstage just as much as she’s been a bystander or behind the scenes. After meeting committee member Mary Fitton, the duo created what was to be a one-time-only dance act.
“By special request, or even without it,” Eschak bellows with a laugh, “the uniquely daring and highly dangerous Snowshoe Cancan.”
The act evolved into the Snowshoe Shufflers—who are still kicking today—and a nickname stuck: Lake Laberge Marj. Many of Rendezvous’ characters and revelries roll back the clock to the gold-rush era and poke fun at rustic northern life. Rendezvous Queen candidates dress in 1890s garb, sell tickets to raise money, and are tested on their talents and etiquette. Sourdough Sam participants compete in hopes of earning the title as Primo Yukon Male, while crowds flock to competitions like the Axe Throw, Log Toss, and Chainsaw Chuck.
“It was completely foreign to me that we would take chainsaws, chuck them, and that was the whole event,” says Derek Charlton. “I knew that there was something I loved about it and something we could market as well.”
Charlton joined Rendezvous as assistant manager in 1994 and then as executive director from 1995–1999, a time when the organization was in debt. Events were cancelled and the two-week festival was shortened to four days.
“It’s completely different from what the public sees,” Charlton says of the onerous organizational side. “The public sees the festival competitions, but they don’t know what’s going on inside.”
Both Charlton and Eschak say many organizers over the years call each other family. And although Rendezvous is hard work, it’s worth it.
Jon Solberg can relate. In 2010, he was hired as executive director only months before the festival was set to begin. Each year
since has been challenging, but he says the community spirit is what drives him.
“I have a love for the arts and culture of Rendezvous,” Solberg explains. “It’s an opportunity for people to get out in February,
to chase away the winter blues, and get involved. And our programming is so varied, with arts, culture, heritage, sports, and recreation.”
And while much of that programming mirrors the ’60s events, Hougen still struggles with one significant change. Rendezvous
originally happened on Main Street in downtown Whitehorse. But in 2002, the festival moved to Shipyards Park in the north end of the city.
“To me, the whole character of Rendezvous has changed. We were unique in that when people attended it on Main Street they were in and out of the stores, coffee shops, and bars. It’s a whole different feeling now,” Hougen explains. “Everybody has a carnival of some nature, but we had the uniqueness of it being right downtown.”
Charlton was initially against the move, as well, but realized the festival’s size has simply outgrown Main Street. However, this year festivities return there for a one-night street party, which is largely a tribute to Hougen and pay homage to Rendezvous’ history.
“As long as the festival retains that feeling of friends meeting friends and community coming back together, it’ll always be
Rendezvous,” says Charlton.
The street party is just one of the ways this year’s event celebrates five decades. The walk down memory lane also includes a Rendezvous Queen reunion, a gathering of Sourdough Sam alumni, a Snow Castle reminiscent of the former Ice Palace, and the
reappearance of long-lost events, like the Ping Pong Ball Drop and Frozen Turkey Bowling.
This year also brings one other change: after 30 years with Rendezvous, Eschak is stepping down from the board. Although,
along with Charlton and many others, she concedes she’ll always be involved and leaves with more than just good memories of fun with friends.
“One of the biggest things I take away is a feeling of pride in what we did,” she says, reflecting back on three decades of transforming Whitehorse winters. “We have done so much.” Y