Wiry trapper Vic Sokalski poured sourdough batter from an old robin’s egg blue bucket onto a sizzling griddle. The 73-year-old had left the pristine wilderness of his trapline in the Yukon to labor in a crowded basement kitchen for the weekend. Like early harbingers of spring, Sokalski and fellow Knights were busily preparing hot and savory fare for the annual Sourdough Pancake Breakfast in Whitehorse, Yukon, Feb. 22-23, 2014.
For 43 years, Bishop Coudert Council 6232 in Whitehorse has been feeding sourdough pancakes to hundreds of people during the February festival called the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Rendezvous revels in the history and costumes of the Yukon capital’s Klondike Gold Rush era, featuring events and competitions that have drawn thousands of visitors in recent years. Many, however, consider the pancake breakfast the main event.
“We got this breakfast going in 1971,” Sokalski explained. “Our instigator pinched his wife’s blue kitchen bucket for us to mix the first batter. We use it to this day. I tell the guys, ‘This is a talisman — we can’t lose it.’”
The batter is a secret recipe that has to be started 10 days before the pancakes are made. Then each day a Knight has to stir the batter. The tangy golden pancakes created from this recipe are a prospect northerners travel from miles around to savor.
“Are you going to the Knights’ pancake breakfast this year?” they ask each other as they come out from winter hibernation. “Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” comes the frequent reply.
Hosted in the large basement hall of Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Whitehorse, the two-day Sourdough Pancake Breakfast feeds more than 1,000 hungry people each year. In addition, afternoon shifts are devoted to serving free meals to the homeless and needy.
A HISTORIC COMMUNITY MEAL
During this year’s Rendezvous weekend, it was -36 degrees Celsius (-33 Fahrenheit) with the arctic breeze. Before the doors opened at 8 a.m. on Saturday, people were already waiting in their idling vehicles, eager to get a seat inside. Although the sun had not yet risen, they began to form a line, which snaked up the stairs and out onto the street.
Yukoners were donned in their winter finest. Some wore fur-trimmed parkas and beaded moose hide gloves. Others were buried beneath snow pants, heavy coats, scarves and toques. Children peeled off snowsuits and mittens to show their snowflake-patterned wool sweaters.
John Robbins was the first Knight to greet the multitudes. For the past 16 years, he’s been selling tickets.
“I really enjoy meeting the people at the door as they come in. Everyone is hungry, in a good mood and eager to chat,” he said.
Robbins wore a traditional Rendezvous costume: a top hat and garter on his arm. He noted that tickets are usually $7 per person, but the price isn’t set in stone. “I might round down the price for a family in need,” he said. “If someone just can’t afford it, then the price is free.”
Damien Burns arrived with his family, all bundled in heavy winter clothing. He attended both the Saturday and Sunday breakfast.
“This is a historic community meal,” he raved. Burns attended the pancake breakfast as a child and now brings his own children. “I run into people I know but haven’t seen in a while,” he added. “We’re already texting other young families to see who is coming.”
Burns’ wife, Betty, agreed: “It’s our tradition to go to Mass before coming down here,” she said. “We smell the aroma of the pancakes during Mass and really anticipate it. We like this because we’re in the hall where we have church and community events. This place belongs to everybody.”
And that’s exactly who was there — everybody. A record number of people attended the pancake breakfast this year, perhaps because it was the 50th anniversary of the Rendezvous.
It has always been recognized that Yukoners have cabin fever by February and need to get out to meet and greet each other. The annual winter get-together in Whitehorse actually began in the mid-1940s, but under a different name: Yukon Carnival Week. The events were much like the ones enjoyed today, but back then they were held on the frozen Yukon River. There was the axe throw, log toss and one-dog pull to see whose dog could pull the heaviest sacks of flour. This year’s contests included snow carving, can-can dancing with snowshoes, chainsaw chucking and the “freezing hair” contest, among others.
Carnival Week foundered in the 1950s but was reborn on Main Street in 1964 as the Sourdough Rendezvous. In the last decade, it has grown so popular that it moved to Shipyards Park, where the paddle-wheelers were once built to send supplies and people down the Yukon River to the Klondike goldfields. Last year, close to 6,000 visitors attended; this year that number doubled.
While cheerfully handing change to a man in a beaver-fur hat, Robbins filled in further details. “I understand that from the very beginning our pancake breakfast became a Rendezvous tradition,” he said. “Now many people either start their Rendezvous participation with the pancake breakfast or use the breakfast as a meeting place. The fact that it’s kid-friendly is very attractive as well.”
FRATERNITY AND CHARITY IN ACTION
Fiddlers played old-time tunes in the background while Rudy Couture moved about greeting people and bussing tables. A Knight for more than four decades, Couture noted that the event is getting more popular every year.
“At the moment we are the only pancake makers,” he said, “so we get all the community. My favorite part is the brotherhood of getting all our brothers together in action. We need action.”
These sentiments were echoed by Grand Knight Cannaan Khoza, who was rapidly flipping pancakes off the grill and onto paper plates.
“This is the one annual event where all of us Knights are together,” he said amid the kitchen clatter.
According to Khoza, the profits from the breakfast are returned to the community.
“We run the soup kitchen right here one day a week, and we give to the Food Bank and to other people who come looking for help,” Khoza added. “After reviewing what they want to see if it is in order with our Catholic faith, we then try to help out.”
State Deputy Edward J. Sawchuk, who oversees K of C units in British Columbia and the Yukon, was piling sausages onto pancake-laden plates. He was working nonstop, supporting his brother Knights for the 50th year of the Rendezvous.
“The beauty of the Knights is we really enjoy feeding people,” he said. “In this case, we feed the community, but the local council has donated three moose and a caribou to the local soup kitchen as well.”
While he spoke, requests for “More sausages!” “More ham!” and “More pancakes!” rang out across the hectic kitchen.
With a smile, Sawchuk added, “We try to fund as many charities as we can in the community.”
The breakfast continued until 1 p.m. Then the Knights sat down for a bite to eat of their own. Ten minutes later, they were up and preparing to feed poor members of the community for free for a couple more hours.
At the end of the day, they had put in 12 hours of work. Five years ago, the two-day weekend event raised $6,000. This year, the Knights netted close to $10,000, which will be given back to the community.
The Whitehorse Knights didn’t see any of the Rendezvous events that weekend. They didn’t see the sunlight that everyone was raving about. They missed out seeing Canada win gold in hockey at the Sochi Olympics.
But they didn’t mind. They were pursuing golden opportunities of their own by putting fraternity and charity into action.
By the time the sun set shortly after 6 p.m. on Sunday, the sourdough pancake breakfast filled the tummies of more than 1,500 people, rich and poor alike. But more importantly it had filled souls starved for community connection amid a long, dark Yukon winter.
ROXANNE LIVINGSTONE is a freelance journalist who lives in Whitehorse, Canada.