The Doc Project

This 86-year-old Yukoner bakes with a sourdough starter that's older than she is

Ione Christensen has been eating and making sourdough her whole life. But Ione's sourdough predates her. The sticky, gooey starter arrived in the Yukon in true Yukon style: with her great-grandfather, during the Gold Rush.

It travelled over the Chilkoot Pass during the gold rush, carried by her great-grandfather

Ione Christensen, 2005.

This program first aired on November 27, 2017.

Ione Christensen's fingers are long and weathered. They grip a steel mixing bowl. In the bowl is a sticky, bubbly mass of sourdough starter.

"It's your pet, it's a living thing. You see this thing?" Ione tilts the bowl toward me and laughs. "It is a living thing and it does change, you know."

Ione making sourdough waffles, a Sunday morning tradition. (Meagan Deuling)

I'm at Ione and Art Christensen's house, and Ione is cooking me sourdough waffles for breakfast.

All the ingredients are lined up on the counter in the kitchen, like a cooking show. Flour, sugar, oil, cornmeal, eggs, and of course, her sourdough starter.

Ione sits on her walker on one side of the counter, I sit on a stool on the other. She instructs while she works, "The first thing you want to do is make sure you take out some of the sourdough starter from the bowl, and save it for next time."

As she talks, Ione scoops starter from the metal bowl and puts it back in its little plastic container. On the lid of the container is a crusted label: "100-year-old Yukon sourdough. PLEASE DO NOT THROW OUT."

The sourdough's actually a good deal older than that — Ione estimates the label itself is around 20 years old.

Ione Christensen's precious sourdough starter. (Meagan Deuling)

Ione moves in practiced patterns, cleaning up eggshells and putting the baking soda back in the cupboard as she goes. Her spice containers are hand labeled.

She puts the little container back in the fridge, until Saturday evening, when she'll take the starter out, feed it flour, sugar and water, and let it work overnight for Sunday morning waffles.

She tells me about her family's sourdough as she mixes ingredients.

Sourdough waffles, made "Yukon style" with cranberries. (Meagan Deuling)

Her great-grandfather and his three brothers brought it with them, over the Chilkoot Pass. They traveled across Canada from New Brunswick to the Klondike gold fields, in the Yukon, their eyes glinting with gold fever.

It was 1897 and Ione says newspapers around the world had headlines that said that a tonne of gold had been found in the Klondike.

Hordes of people, mostly men, flooded into Dyea, Alaska, on ships from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.

The port of Dyea was the start of the trail. The shortest route to the Klondike gold fields was the steepest: Over the Chilkoot Pass.

Ione Christensen on a hike, 1984.

Dyea is where Ione figures her great-grandfather picked up the sourdough that sits on her counter today.

Over the years, the different environments the sourdough's been in have changed it, altering its taste and making it what it is today. "It's a wild yeast, is what sourdough is," says Ione, explaining that it picks up spores wherever it goes.

The origins of Ione's sourdough starter are the stuff of epic adventure. And Ione herself has lived a life filled with risk and daring too — as a mother, hiker, Whitehorse's first-ever female mayor and then, Yukon senator. Even an Order of Canada, in 1994. 

And her sourdough's been with her through it all.

As for what will happen to the sourdough once Ione's gone? Ione has two sons, and says it will go to whoever ends up cleaning out her fridge.

Preserved for posterity

After we first published the story of Ione Christensen and her sourdough in 2017, someone from the Belgian sourdough library heard the documentary. Librarian Karl De Smedt decided to make the long trip to Whitehorse to collect a sample of her sourdough. Ione made him waffles, of course.

They analyzed her sourdough's DNA, to try and find the origin of the starter, and are keeping the sample in the library's fridges. 

While they couldn't say where Christensen's starter actually started, the yeast found in her sourdough is from the same genus of yeast found in many San Francisco sourdoughs, though more tests are needed to confirm the yeasts have the same DNA. 

Ione Christensen's life in pictures: 

Art and Ione Christensen with dog, 1998.

Ione Christensen at her mayor's desk in 1977. Ione was elected the first female mayor of Whitehorse in 1975.
Ione and her father in Selkirk, 1936.
Cousin Bob, Granddad and Ione - Dawson, 1934.

About the producer: 
Meagan Deuling

Meagan Deuling is an award-winning journalist who currently lives in Toronto. She has reported for CBC North in the Yukon and Nunavut. She was raised up on skiing and fresh fruit in Lumby, British Columbia. She learned to embrace and love radio in Halifax. To get in touch with her, email meagan.deuling@cbc.ca.



 

 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now