If you think living in Dawson City, Yukon in the middle of January is tough, try doing it in a cave when the temperature outside averages -26 Celsius. Yet that’s exactly what Bill Donaldson has been doing for the past 22 years, earning him the well-deserved nickname ‘Caveman Bill’ amongst the local townspeople. Of course, you can’t help but wonder what would possess someone to become a modern-day caveman, let alone do it in a place as remote as Dawson City?
I didn’t really expect to get the answer to this question, until an unexpected encounter with Caveman Bill himself gave me the opportunity to ask him. Our conversation confirmed what I’ve come to understand about the Yukon: everyone who lives here doesn’t just have a story – everyone who lives here IS a story.
An Unexpected Encounter with Caveman Bill in Dawson
I was on my own one afternoon in Dawson City, having split from my group of fellow travel writers in order to wander the town and take a few photos. I found myself close to the wharf where the Klondike Spirit paddlewheeler takes visitors down the Yukon river on sightseeing tours. Hoping to take a shot of the photogenic boat on its return, I was waiting by the dock when I spotted Caveman Bill riding his bicycle up towards me from the ferry landing, a small homemade wagon in tow behind his bike. Even though I had only been in Dawson City for less than a day, Caveman Bill’s reputation had preceded him, and I recognized him immediately. Seizing the opportunity to talk to this town legend, I waved and called out to him, introducing myself and asking him if he had a few moments to chat.
“Caveman Bill” (whose real name is Bill Donaldson) was only too happy to oblige, flashing a warm smile as he pulled his bike over to where I was. For the next half hour or so, Bill and I had an easy conversation, talking about everything from the current state of the world to Donald Trump to Indigenous rights and even the band playing that night at the local Palace Theatre. It became apparent that Bill was an articulate, well-read guy, who has spent much of his time and energy thinking about the world he lives in. In fact, he probably gives it much more thought than many of us who are caught up in our more conventional rat race.
With all this talk of the world at large and our responsibilities and place within it, I asked if Bill still considers himself first and foremost a Canadian and his reply was yes, but overall he’s more a citizen of the world.
“Would you consider yourself an anarchist, Bill?” I asked him. “Well, yes,” he answered, smiling. “Definitely that, too.”
How Bill Donaldson Became ‘Caveman Bill’
So just how did this informed, intense citizen of the world end up living in a cave in Canada’s north?
Bill’s path to becoming a modern-day caveman turned out to be a much straighter line than you would think: it was 1996 and Bill was doing construction work in Vancouver when a friend who was heading up to the Yukon asked Bill if he wanted to join him. Bill took him up on the offer, split the cost of gas for the trip and arrived in Dawson City, only to learn that rentals were scarce in the small town of 1500. While hoping for something to open up, Bill camped in a makeshift tent city with others in the same situation. Months later, with still no rental options and winter fast approaching, his friend suggested that he move into a cave across the river. Bill figured “Why not?”, and with just a tarp to secure the opening and a wood stove for heat, he hunkered down for a long Yukon winter.
That first winter couldn’t have been easy, (winters here are long, dark and verrry cold!) but Bill toughed it out, learning later that people in town were betting on how long it would be before he went crazy in the cave. Bill laughed as he was telling me this, explaining that “I had a leg up on them because I knew I was already a little crazy to start with!”
Off-Grid and At Home in Dawson
Today Caveman Bill has more than adapted to his unconventional living quarters and off-grid lifestyle. He’s swapped out the tarp for a more wind-and-wildlife-proof wooden doorway, and he has just enough modern conveniences to live comfortably and stay on top of what’s happening in the world. A solar-powered generator provides power for a computer which he uses mostly for watching documentaries and television series that he downloads from the Dawson City community centre’s computer. (“Why pay for Internet when the centre’s computers are free?” he explains very practically.) Bill also makes all his own furniture, being a pretty handy woodworker and these days he is even thinking of building a treadle lathe.
Despite living alone across the Yukon river for more than two decades, Caveman Bill is no hermit and is very much a part of the Dawson City community. He earns money doing odd jobs in the town, putting his experience working in construction to good use, whether it is building foundations or doing woodworking to restore some of the town’s historic buildings. And despite disagreeing with some of the Historical Society’s members on what constitutes ‘authentic’ 19th century architectural details, Caveman Bill seems genuinely happy to call Dawson home.
Dawson locals seem to feel the same affection for their resident caveman: after a fire in his cave destroyed most of Bill’s belongings 8 years ago, the town came to his aid with a fundraiser to help him rebuild what he had lost. Small towns are like that, and the Yukon has more small towns than big ones. In fact, even the Mayor of Dawson gave a shout-out acknowledging ‘Caveman Bill’ at this year’s annual Discovery Days Festival. It’s not every cave-dwelling anarchist that gets that kind of respect and recognition.
It’s ironic that by choosing to live alone in a cave in Canada’s north “Caveman Bill” Donaldson now finds himself a mini-celebrity, not just in Dawson but elsewhere thanks to articles and stories like this. But then again, every good story needs characters to bring it to life, and you couldn’t script a more colourful character than Caveman Bill.
Like the Yukon itself, he’s a little wild, a little surprising, and more than a little off the beaten path.
Special thanks to Travel Yukon for hosting Henk and I on our visit to Dawson City where I met Caveman Bill. And thanks to Bill for being so generous with his time and for sharing his story.