“An empty bar is a sad place.”
-Nancy Conger, July, 2009

And that is what the newly renovated Capital Bar in downtown Whitehorse is, a sad place. Once a favorite watering hole for Yukon government workers, politicians, miners, trappers, guides, and most other Yukoners, the Capital recently reopened after a long closure and a major renovation. Beers on tap include locally brewed favorites but a mug will cost you more than most bars and the place was entirely too hygienic and sterile with newly painted sheetrock. Without years of stories, laughs, stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer, I would expect only hollow echoes.

Other enshrined bars that have a colorful Whitehorse and Yukon history include the Kopper King. Once much larger, it hosted live bands and bouncers. Now most of the action is playing on the giant television screens.

For nearly a year, I have been joining newfound men friends at the Kopper King late every Thursday afternoon to revel in brotherhood and take advantage of $2.50 pints of beer on “Thirsty Thursday”. We enjoy a beer or two, polish off a platter of honey garlic chicken wings, talk green building practices, politics, exchange jokes,  discuss waxing strategies and combinations of waxes for cross country skiing. They are particularly fond of Sven and Ole jokes, one of the better Midwest exports.

Until last week I had never been to the third historical bar, ‘Hotel 98.’ Indeed this is the most historical of the three. It is also a common destination for the Whitehorse paramedics and ambulance. A close Yukon friend, who until recently worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, claimed that every weekend and many a weeknight they make an ambulance run to pick up a very pickled human being. On the rare occasion they have to deal with leavings of a fist fight or, rarer yet, a knifing.

So on a day where the mercury climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I boldly entered the bar with my wife Nancy, her visiting brother Bill and his wife Cindy.

The bar, once a popular dance hall, claims to have pulled the second liquor license in ALL of Canada well over a century ago. And if you don’t believe it, look on the wall just to the right as you enter the sanctum, and you will see the bar’s framed Yukon Liquor Cocktail License. Right next to it, also trimmed in a nice 8×10 wood frame is the following declaration, “If it has tits, wheels or a propeller, it will give you problems.”

In fact as you enter the darkened and happily smoke-free setting, one is greeted by an oily wave diversity and salt-of-the-earth Yukoners. Against the wall on the left is a row of slightly elevated tables offering the best view of bar doings. Nearly all the tables were taken, by First Nation clientele.

Directly above the wall tables, pegged on the wall, are stretched pelts of wolverine, wolf, and lynx. There are also a pair or two of old native made snowshoes. My eyes paused at a poster looking like an ad printed right out of the 1950s. The caption read “Girls in the Arctic.” At the opposite end of the wall, near the ATM cash machine are framed photos of what I surmised to be hall-of-famers to the ‘98. One of them in particular caused me to stare. I don’t know if it was the two cigarettes in his mouth, or the ones in his nostril or ears that caught my attention or if it was because I recently saw a documentary on the guy at a Yukon Film Society fest.

Between the bar and the elevated seats are scattered tables and chairs. The bar stools were mostly taken by a blend of laughing and chattering First Nation folk and whites. Most of the whites had goodly amounts of facial hair. A sign hanging at the end of the bar read, “Perverts Row”. Opposite the entry, at the far end is an old fireplace and a couple more tables. The gaunt guy sitting there, watching the bar proceedings was sharing his space with a white Cockatoo that was sitting on the railing. He was disgusted because the bird would not eat its treats, only wanted to steal his beer and was shitting on the floor, missing the pieces of paper hand towels that had been placed in line of the parrot’s release-aperture.

My lovely wife Nancy, always the engaging one, got up and walked over to the grizzled, man and bird and asked questions about his feathered companion. While his eyes appeared like a summer Yukon sky, hazy with wildfire smoke, he had an amicable manner.

In the far right corner are the two restrooms labeled “Pointers” and “Setters”. Seems pretty casual here as I watched two men come out of the washroom minutes apart and each was still zipping up his pants.

At a table next to us, a very thin, well-tanned man, in camouflaged pants leaned towards us and asked in his distinct French accent, “Where are you from?” His eyebrows rose dramatically when we told him Minnesota. Soon we were all chatting. We discovered that the 62-year-old man was one of 24 children, yes, that’s an even two dozen, and that he was originally from Montreal. Somehow the discussion slurred all over and soon we learned that by not eating meat we could prevent the cobbling of one’s face with wrinkles. “Moose meat is not so bad. . .no chemicals in the meat.”

There was background music playing and I knew we were someplace special when I heard a sudden loud outburst, “Hey I wrote this song!” I didn’t recognize the guy but he had a happy smile and a raven-haired lady draped to his waist.

Another boisterous bellow behind us, begged for us to turn as he yelled across the room to the bartender, “Hey Mary! How’s your love life?”

She glanced up at him as she simultaneously poured two bottles, one in each hand, impishly smiled and called back, “Much better since you left!”
The mustached inquirer waved her away with his hand and countered, “Yeah, well I’ve had lots of sex lately.” A second or two passed and then he added more quietly, “By myself.”

Bill looked at his watch and realized we had to leave in ten minutes for supper. We had reservations at the Cantina. Supposedly the best Mexican food in town and voted to have the best patio dining in all of Whitehorse. At that moment the waitress showed up at our table and with a toss of her head towards the Cockatoo, said that the guy with the bird wanted to buy the four of us a round.

With the lure of Mexico pulling us from the roots of Canadian history and another cold beer, we expressed our gratitude and thanks but had to decline. With a wave of his fingers and an unlit cigarette, he smiled and said, “Maybe another time.”

The odds are good there will be another time. Besides I want to come back and hear more on the discussion the neighboring table. They were boldly stating that was having about next winter will be the worst in 100 years and that according to the Bible or Koran no one can live past 127 years.

We did not have forty years in the wilderness but we did have forty minutes of wildness.

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