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17 Things to Know Before You Go Live in a Cave in the Yukon

This piece is part of our Know Before You Go series, where we share tips for visiting places like Myanmar, Sicily, and South Africa – but this installment comes with a Yukon survivalist touch.

For the past 18 years, “Caveman Bill” Donaldson has lived in a cave above the Yukon River in Canada’s far north. The cave—equipped with battery-powered lights, a woodstove, cooking facilities, and a bed—is located across the river from Dawson City, which was once the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush.

“When I first got to Dawson City, I was looking at a bunch of different options,” Bill says. “I was living in a tent when a buddy of mine suggested some caves across the river. So I came over, checked ‘em out. Once the river broke, I paddled over and moved on in.”

Bill meets me at Bombay Peggy’s pub wearing dusty jeans, a t-shirt, and a fedora hat. His hair is neatly tucked into a ponytail, and he has laser-focused eyes. He strokes his shaggy beard and smiles as we chat; his teeth, amazingly for a caveman, are pearly white, just one part of Bill’s overall normalcy. He doesn’t preach a “cave dwelling lifestyle” or reject the modern world. He enjoys watching Dexter on his laptop, has 492 Facebook friends, and bikes into town to visit his buddies. He’s well-known around town as a skilled handyman and wood-worker, as well as a celebrated tourist attraction. He chose a troglodyte lifestyle for a fairly simple reason: “It was either a tent or a cave.”

Here’s how Bill pulls it off:

1. First, adjust to the Yukon rhythms. Locals shrug off the nine-to-five work ethic and live by the environment’s agenda. Nature will do things when she’s damn good and ready. This means having to wait until the river freezes over completely before you can use it as a road to town. When the berries and mushrooms ripen, pick them. When the river breaks and the ice melts, you commute by boat. Living the Dawson lifestyle means starting the day at two in the afternoon, and ending it around five in the morning. The midnight sun brings light-filled days and nights, igniting the celebratory spirit of local “Sourdoughs” (the nickname for locals, stemming from the bread prospectors kept in the cabins) who have been hibernating all winter. In the Yukon it’s daylight in the summer pretty much 24/7, so after a long winter of hibernation people tend to party all night long and sleep in. An endless stream of people flood Dawson City for the annual music festival and to relive the Gold Rush with gambling, booze, and a naughty can-can performance at Diamond Tooth Gerties.

2. Caves are a viable alternative to Tent City. Every summer, this makeshift campground near Dawson City overflows with a torrent of tourists and transient workers. But sleep becomes a far off fantasy with endless daylight and all-night carousing. It’s all too much, like living in a half-baked zoo with wild animals. When a friend talked about caves across from the Yukon River, Bill thought a troglodyte lifestyle seemed like a good option.

3. Ignore naysayers who dismiss cave dwelling as unrealistic. People have resided in cave homes throughout history, and continue to do so today across cultures and continents. There are troglodytes in Jordan, Spain, France, and China. To each their own. There’s freedom in the wilderness. Growing up, you built forts, relishing in the independence of carving out your own space in the world. Getting away from “civilized” society is exciting, not frightening (at least according to Bill). Once the river breaks, paddle across the river and check out the neighbourhood.

4. Remember, as with all real estate, it’s location, location, location. Look for functional and aesthetic value in a cave. Be a bit choosy, because success as a cave dweller in the Yukon depends on your surroundings. Rivers flood, freeze, breakup; avalanches happen; and snowfall can reach ten inches in January. The Yukon can—and will—take you out if you let it. An opening carved into a cliff is a good bet. Rumour has it that prospectors dug out what would later become Bill’s cavern a century before he found it, hoping to hit the jackpot but walking away with nothing but Fool’s Gold. The space is small, cut 20 feet deep into the rock and perched 30 feet above the Yukon River. Inside, the rocks naturally chill the cavern, making a perfect sleeping den in the summer. The cave is secluded enough with the river acting as a moat; but it’s also a one-minute commute from Dawson. You can boat into town, or in the frosty months, strap on skis and zip across the ice. The lakefront setting has panoramic views of Dawson City and the Moosehide Slide, worth their weight in gold (no pun intended).

5. There are three basic things you need to set up your cave home. First, build a sturdy wall with a door over the opening. Wildlife and wind love caves, and neither are welcome. Second, scavenge like a vulture. Scrounge and salvage for cast-offs from seasonal residents. Upcycle those discarded oven doors into double-paned glass windows, insulating the heck out of this place. Certain woods are scarce in the Yukon, so reclaim discarded boards and beams for building supplies. Lastly, install a reliable heat source if you want to cave-dwell year round. Yukon winters are brutally cold, plummeting to as low as -56 degrees Celsius (-69 Fahrenheit). A woodstove keeps the cavern toasty, but funnel the pipes outside to ventilate smoke.

6. Turning a cave into a home is all about D.I.Y. In the bedroom, throw down a thin mattress on a slab of wood, add bookshelves, and run LED lighting through the ceiling. Install a kitchenette, hang up cabinets and a spice rack, and hook up your laptop to a solar panel. There’s nothing from IKEA here. In the yard, create a crude outhouse, complete with a piss bucket, and a coop for chickens. It won’t be long before two shaggy pups hibernate under the bed, eyes gleaming like headlights. The finishing touch? A Canadian flag flapping from a tree, signalling “I’m home!” to the river traffic.

Not too shabby! Caveman Bill inside his cave home. Photo: Lisa Jackson

7. Even cave dwellers need to get a job. To earn your bread and butter, pick up odd jobs, pan for gold, tend bar, or wash dishes at the Eldorado Hotel. Mushrooms picked by your hands land on plates in North American restaurants, sold through a local buyer. In Dawson City, goods and services are scarce. Townspeople are always looking for a mechanic, a roofer, a plumber, a carpenter. You quickly become that go-to, fix-it guy, taking a day of work here and there. There’s decent money in learning a trade. Set up a carpentry shed in the yard and sell beautiful handicrafts from salvaged wood. Chisel swirls onto the lids of hope chests, and twist twigs into chairs. There’s plenty of instruction and inspiration in Canadian Woodworking and Popular Woodworking magazines.

8. You must join the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. It’s a Dawson tradition to place a mummified human toe in a glass of whiskey, and people must drink the whiskey guided by this single rule: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow—but your lips must touch the toe.” Since Captain Dick Stevenson began this initiation ritual in 1973, more than 52,000 people have joined the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. But whatever you do, don’t swallow the toe. Over the past 40 years, eight Sour Toes have been accidentally swallowed, stolen, or gone missing from the bar. Don’t be the ninth: swallowing the toe has a hefty fine of $1,500 or a hell of a lot of dishwashing.

Drink it fast, drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe! Photo: Lisa Jackson

9. You must agree on payment before accepting work. Caveman Bill learned the hard way, when the ex-wife of Captain Dick’s hired him. This lady had a reputation for being a little nuts, but it was winter in Dawson City and the work was welcome. One of her horses was chased by dogs at 50 below (that’s -58 Fahrenheit) and died. Wielding a chainsaw and wearing a Jason Voorhees mask, he cut that ice block of horse into chunks. Afterwards, an unexpected surprise: Instead of money, that crazy lady sucker-punched him with an unorthodox form of payment: half of a frozen, dead horse.

10. When in the Yukon, take a lesson from Rumpelstiltskin and spin straw into gold. Cave dwellers must learn to be resourceful to survive. That horse sells for dog food, and feeds your pooches for the winter. The grocery aisle starts in the bush. Moose meat costs a meagre $2.00—the price of a bullet—and you can forage for mushrooms in the bush. Along the shore, reel in fish and learn to smoke salmon with birch syrup. For breakfast, whip up a plate of eggs, fresh from the chicken coop; and on special occasions, a roast chicken dinner. Successful cave dwellers work with what they have.

11. Nature will provide—unless there’s pillaging. Eighteen years ago in Dawson, you could watch the fishing boats docking, and even trade few beers for a freshly caught King salmon. No one can do that anymore. Over the years, plundering has taken its toll. There’s been no commercial salmon fishing on the Canadian side of the Yukon River for almost a decade. But still, the species’ population gets smaller and less every year, hitting a ten year low – the worst in history. The First Nations – the various indigenous communities in Canada – have called for a complete ban on Yukon River Chinook salmon fishing. For years, Alaska has refused, but faced with the dwindling numbers, this is the first year that the closure has hit both sides of the border.

12. Life is ruled by the river, like a moody spouse. If you’re going to live in a cave in Dawson, monitor the river’s behaviour from freeze-up to break-up like a hawk. It dictates your mode of transportation: boats and canoes in the summer; skis, snowshoes, and Ski-Do in the winter. Some years, high waters flood the cave. The water rises a foot or two a day, transforming your home into an indoor swimming pool. When this happens, evacuate your furnishings and pitch a “high water camp” atop the cliff overlooking the river.

13. Cave ceilings are much lower and harder. One morning, shouting from across the river stirred Bill from slumber. “You’re late for work!” Bleary-eyed, he grabbed his clothes and pulled on his jeans with a little hop—smacking his skull against the jagged rocks in the ceiling. Clutching his noggin, he blacked out and fell into a shelving unit. He slowly regained consciousness under the rubble of wooden planks, paperbacks, batteries, knickknacks—still late for work. Ignoring his throbbing head, Bill sprinted down to the river and got his ass into gear. Fastening his life jacket, he noticed a pen sticking out from the back of his hip.

14. Living in a cave doesn’t make you a hermit. Dawson is a dynamic little town that belongs to the world as much as the residents. The gold rush put Dawson on the map, and because of that, people from all over the world flock to this mythic place. Most probably think a town of 1,300 at the end of the road in the middle of freaking nowhere wouldn’t have a hell of a lot happening. But it does. This pint-sized town is hopping with artists, environmentalists, teachers, dancers, trappers, art galleries, and bars. There’s a writer and a song writer-in-residence. Jack London, Robert Service, and Pierre Berton set up shop here to write. It’s the people who keep life interesting. Ultimately, it’s these same friends who help you rebuild after a fire rips through the cave, destroying most of the living space.

15. Respect nature. Enjoy its offerings in moderation, and humbly marvel at wildlife from afar. That animal may look cute and cuddly, but keep your distance. One year, a moose and two calves were seen swimming across the river into town. Don’t try to herd them back with your boat, like that local guy from town did. It will just be a clusterfuck: one calf ends up ashore on your front lawn, while the other drifts down river. Leave those moose alone; let them figure out where they want to go. But don’t be foolish: take precautions in case nature attacks. A shovel is vital for clearing away snow blocking the cave’s door. Keep a can of bear spray in the shed (flammable!) and the boat (yes, bears can swim). The Yukon has half as many grizzlies and black bears as there are people. You like nature; but just don’t want it to touch you.

16. Word travels far about the caveman in Dawson City. Locals and strangers alike greet you as “Caveman Bill” Donaldson. A survey reveals that you’re a top attraction in Dawson City. Some days, it feels like the TMZ Hollywood Tour: visitors offload on the shore from boats or floatplanes; tourists cruise past in the steamer, snapping photos of your hole in the wall. Reporters show up, taking notes and photographs, but rarely send copies of the articles. You may need to get an agent.

17. Don’t stop dreaming. Living on the Yukon River, you always think about where it’s going, and where it could take you. Sometimes, you dream about building a schooner and perhaps sailing to Iceland. After all, you’ve heard there are plenty of caves there.

Lisa Jackson is a freelance writer and the editor of Eat Drink Travel Magazine. Her work has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Taste & Travel Magazine, Post City Magazines, and Travel + Escape. Lisa is a proud member of the Sour Toe Cocktail Club.
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