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Dawson City, Yukon — The Technicolor Time Machine

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Dawson City, Yukon, may just be Canada’s most unique town. (Frankly, I haven’t found one that even compares.)

In This Dawson City Article you Will Discover:

  • Why you Should Visit Dawson
  • What The Sourtoe Cocktail Is
  • And More!

Dusty and dirty, much about Dawson City is unchanged since the Gold Rush spawned this northern hamlet. There are still clay roads, which turn alternately to choking dust storms in the dry weather and greasy grey mud when it rains; along with colourful Klondike-era hotels, saloons, restaurants, a gambling hall and other touches that border on Kitsch (but stay honest) and hearken back to 1898 when the town was incorporated. Today, it’s not a gold miner you see on the streets, but a European RV’er, American motorcyclist or a wandering Canadian who has decided against Mexico or Maui this year, favouring a no-doubt more costly and much colder vacation into our own expansive north.

My face now five-days unshaven and hair greasy and messy as I left Whitehorse without a shower this morning, I stand on the boardwalk looking more like a prospector than half the people in the area.

It seems a fitting way to explore this old Gold Rush ‘burg and Canada’s most unique town — Dawson City.

21st Century Gold Rush

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Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel.

Sitting alongside the Klondike River, in a carved-out section of boreal forest and nestled at the base of a foothill characterized by a massive landslide scar, Dawson immediately reveals its isolated nature. It’s busy enough in the summer, but the expansive wilderness that surrounds the area shows you with certainty there’s no one else around. It is an outpost town, not a city by any stretch of the imagination — no wonder locals dub it simply “Dawson.”

It is far more rustic than I had imagined, and I’m glad to see it. I had pictured a modernized Dawson; spoiled by the 21st century. It’s not the case — there is no Blockbuster Video, no Tim Horton’s, no Safeway. There are 100-year-old wooden buildings; painted brightly and re-painted every few years. There are unpaved roads throughout (with the exception of the Klondike Highway as it enters town); the same surfaces that carried horses, buggies and the bodies of the gold-sick prospectors that died for ore 113 years ago.

There is the midnight sun in summer. And there is the sense that this is still very much the Frontier.

In the northeast corner of town, the Downtown Hotel looms as Dawson’s largest building and perhaps the most quintessentially Klondike structure in the area. It is bright red, accented with snow-white trim along a balcony on which I can practically see the ghosts of Saloon Girls siren-waving to lonely prospectors as they returned, so many years ago. The hotel’s tavern features Old West style double-doors as the entrance. I must later push those open and stand at the entrance with impunity. I’d love it if a piano player stopped short in my presence and everybody spun around on their barstools. (Insert The Good, The Bad & The Ugly theme song here.)

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Dawson City, Yukon, Canada – in the eternal summer sun.

Klondike Kate’s, Gold Rush Campground, Jack London Grill, Sourdough Joe’s… Dawson’s survival depends on milking the Gold Rush and Klondike mystique for everything it’s worth. People have come from around the globe; the tourism marketing campaign appears to work. I listen to the German flowing through the air as I wander the clay streets and wonder why northern Europeans find such fascination with our Klondike. What do they learn in school, or in their culture that intrigues them so? Few Canadians are intrigued by the Klondike in such a manner. The proof is the fact that for every 20 Germans I see, there is perhaps one Canuck tourist. Even Americans outnumber us up here, it seems. Most of the Canadians, I would discover via eavesdropping, are either Whitehorse locals up to work for the summer — the equivalent of heading to Whistler or Lake Louise to do a season on the ski hill — or are eco-nuts, seeking out the remote pleasures of a nature tour over hedonistic pleasures of conventional vacations hotspots.

I look out over the Klondike River and see a raft, 30 feet or so offshore, bound in place by a decaying anchor rope and holding a tent and the scattered belongings of a homeless man.

He is the quintessential drifter — spending the summer floating about on the river at about 65 degrees North.

It makes Vancouver ’s homeless seem spoiled by comparison. Or perhaps it’s the other way around?

Making good on the promise I whispered inside my head, I head to the Downtown Hotel, strut up the stairs and shove open the swinging double-doors that lead into the tavern. I stand at the entrance and, as I hoped I would, attract the attention of everyone seated inside. Although since only four people and one bartender occupy the saloon, it’s not hard. There is a piano, but it is already silent. I’m — disappointed.

This tavern is internationally famous for one disgusting, disturbing and almost unbelievable item on the menu: the Sourtoe Cocktail. “You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow, but the lips have got to touch the toe.”

The Sourtoe Cocktail is a drink — a drink of your choice — that has an actual human toe placed in it.

No, the bartender doesn’t take a footbath in your drink, these are dehydrated, preserved toes presumably taken from unlucky prospectors or others who have frozen their feet in the harsh Yukon cold. The toe is placed in your drink, and then, to be a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world simply due to geography and unpleasantness, you must finish your drink and… your lips must touch the toe.

Yes, this is for real. The ritual is done most nights, between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. I’m a tad early, which explains the lack of customers. Prospective Sourtoe Joes are no doubt getting suitably drunk elsewhere before taking on what must be a barely legal and hardly Foodsafe-approved ritual. After all, what could the territorial regulations be regarding the consumption of human flesh? Even the bar owners themselves merely suggest that consuming a toe is, “not recommended.” Kind of the way swimming in the frigid Klondike River is “not recommended.” People, it is suggested, must still actually do it.

Dawson is a living museum, and I find myself wandering aimlessly, collecting mud in my flip-flops and snapping photos ad naseum. Two of the most famous locales are Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall — featuring a real Saloon Girl Dancing Show, twice nightly — and the Palace Grand Theatre, once responsible for Dawson City earning the nickname “ Paris of the North,” as it is modeled after a Bohemian-style Parisian theatre. (There are rarely shows at the Grand anymore, and tonight, there is a private wedding.) Further, Robert Service, Pierre Berton and Jack London all have historical homes in Dawson, but I am endlessly surprised at what a tiny, sleepy town it is. I could practically drive a golf ball clear over the length of the entire townsite and into the woods behind. At the turn of the last century, Dawson’s population topped 40,000. Today, it’s less than 2,000. In summer. (Not counting the 60,000 annual visitors.)

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The SS Keno, a decommissioned paddlewheeler alongside the Klondike River.

I sit near the S.S. Keno, a landlocked paddle wheeler-turned-museum and lick an ice cream cone from Klondyke Cream & Candy. I notice the “y” in the spelling. It turns out, the now-famous moniker “Klondike” had a whole slew of predecessors before it came to describe this western Arctic region: Trondike being my favourite. It was the New York Times that standardized the word “Klondike” for the world to know and use. I wonder how often the New York Times prints stories on Dawson City today? Not bloody often, I’d say. It truly speaks to the hold the Gold Rush had on North America, and how that mystique is so lost today.

If you were to poll most Americans on the origin of the word “Klondike,” most would no doubt discuss the ice cream treat that shares the name.

Behind me, I hear a man and a young girl — I hope he’s her father — talking with a tourist. The girl, perhaps 15 years old, is the last person to have been born in Dawson City. The hospital is now closed, and births are carried out in Whitehorse. Again, I am struck with just how rustic this town is, considering its international fame. It is Canada’s Timbuktu — famous but for history.

Gold Rush Campground

To get a taste of homesteading without the commitment, stay at the Gold Rush Campground. Located right in downtown Dawson, unserviced tent/camper sites and fully serviced RV slots are available. Reservations are highly recommended. www.goldrushcampground.com

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

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