Dawson City, Yukon: Strange Things Done

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Welcome to Dawson City, Yukon — home to gold rush history, Klondike tales, bright buildings and colourful characters.

 In This Yukon Article You Will Discover:

  • The Truth Behind the Sourtoe Cocktail
  • Hidden Gold in Downtown Dawson
  • Oddball Hockey History
  • And More!

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun, by the men who moil for gold…” So begins The Cremation of Sam McGee, written by the Bard of The North, Robert Service. And it’s as true today as it was in 1907 when Service penned the famous verse. Maybe, in fact, the Klondike is even stranger now.

I adore Dawson City. I returned from my second visit last month, having spent a couple of days roaming the muddy streets and inspecting the vibrant Gold Rush era buildings. Unlike my first trip — a quick stopover before heading up the Dempster Highway — this time I really delved into Dawson. And I learned a lot about these “strange things done.” Care to hear more?

The Caveman of Dawson City

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Dawson’s own “Caveman Bill.”

It takes a unique personality to live year-round in Dawson City — to be a real “Sourdough.” (Someone who stays through ice-over and break-up.) But what about living North of 60 in a cave? That’s Caveman Bill, a woodworker who moved to Dawson City in 1996. He loved the lifestyle, but found rent a little pricey.

So he moved across the Klondike River and into a cave, where he made his home.

He still lives there today, all-year-long — apparently it’s quite nice inside, if a little rustic. (No, he doesn’t have running water or electricity.) He’s a friendly fellow, always up for a chat — and known to ride around Dawson on his bicycle, collecting sundry for his subterranean hobbit-hole. Only in Dawson…

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Gold Bottom Mine’s “wheel,” with a couple of thousand dollars worth of gold in it.

Hitting Paydirt

First Nations were, of course, the first to flock to the shores of the Klondike River, where Dawson City would spring up in the 1800s. Salmon was what they sought; fish that migrate through this region every fall. Fur traders were the next to arrive, but nothing could compare to the Klondike Gold Rush, when more than 50,000 prospectors risked their lives and livelihoods in the search for riches. Some made their fortune, most spent everything they had at gambling halls, and others perished in the Yukon winter.

But if you thought the Gold Rush was over, you’re mistaken.

According to Justin Millar, tour guide (and miner) at Gold Bottom Tours, more than 100,000 claims were staked in 2012, and during the summer the town is overrun with gold buyers. So how do you “stake a claim?” Easy — got 10 bucks? That’s all it takes to stake a claim; then just go to the land office and find an un-staked area — though you need to do $200 worth of “work” annually to keep the claim. (Work defined as “moving earth.”) People are still getting rich up there, though mostly it’s a lifestyle choice — like farming. However, anything you find, you keep — from gold, to copper, to mammoth ivory, itself sold for $80 per ounce. (While at the Drunken Goat Taverna, I met Mike Braintree, owner of 87 contiguous claims in the area — and one of the richest gold miners in Canada.) Perhaps most interesting of all, a claim actually cost $15 in 1896 — five bucks more than today — and that was 1890s dollars!

The Sourtoe Cocktail

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Inside a historic saloon, learning of the Sourtoe Cocktail.

One of Dawson City’s most famous attractions is the Sourtoe Cocktail.

Yes, this is a drink with an actual human toe in it.

The rules are such: “You can drink it fast, or you can drink it slow, but your lips have got to touch the toe.” Served nightly at the Downtown Hotel, an appointed Toe Captain plops a mummified toe in your drink, usually Yukon Jack Whiskey, then recites through a brief ritual before you shoot it back. I became the 52,329th member of the club this September. WTF, right? Where did this tradition come from?

Well, back in the 1970s, after Dawson City had been officially designated a National Historic Site of Canada and tourism was poised to become a major local industry, locals were looking for new “draws.” At the same time, a longtime Dawson City local, Captain Dick “River Rat,” had acquired a new backwoods cabin. As he rummaged through the cabin, he found a bottle of booze with a toe floating in it. Thinking it odd, even for Dawson, he pondered the find until he got an idea: since tourists who visited for a week or two in summer would likely never become actual “Sourdoughs” (remember, that’s someone who lives up North all winter long), they surely could become “Sourtoes.” And the idea was put into motion — soon becoming a Bucket List accomplishment for iron-stomached travellers the world-round. People from all over the globe donate toes to the cause — whether posthumously or following an accident.

Recently, a gentlemen known only as “Josh from New Orleans” swallowed the toe, leaving the Downtown Motel with only one remaining digit — which will get overused and soon deteriorate. However, rumour has it that a new batch of toes is being rounded up from donors, so the tradition will likely live on for years to come. And just in case you think this story is BS — here is a video of me shooting the Sourtoe:

…Never before have I felt such an even mix of pride and shame from a single accomplishment…

Paved With Gold?

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Are Dawson City’s streets really paved with gold?

There’s a local joke: “The streets of Dawson aren’t paved with gold — they aren’t paved at all!” Thanks to the ever-shifting permafrost, it’s true that all but one street in Dawson is dirt, but the first part of the joke isn’t exactly accurate.

Around the turn of the last century, when Dawson City was considered the “Paris of the North” due to its gold-fueled affluence (they had electricity in 1899, all the way up in the Yukon!), locals paid for everything from beer to fine fashions with gold dust. One would simply carry a bag of dust and a balance-scale to weigh-out payments. As you can imagine, over time, gold dust spilled out all over the place.

When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, people remembered the days of gold dust and began to actually rip up the wooden boardwalks to pan for gold lost all those decades ago. And it worked like gangbusters.

In fact, one story tells of a construction company that refurbished the floor of the Bank of North America in the ‘30s — and found $1,000 worth of gold dust beneath the floorboards. Shrewdly, they had written the rights to any found gold into their contract. With the permafrost preventing the gold dust from sinking too far into the Earth, it’s safe to say the streets of Dawson hold 1890s-era gold dust to this day.

Hockey Woes

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Our Parks Canada tour guide tells us the ill-fated tale of the Dawson Nuggets.

In 1905, the Dawson Nuggets were the best hockey team in the North. Some wondered how they’d fare against an NHL team. You see, back then the NHL was a different league. Effectively all games were Stanley Cup playoffs — essentially, after a team won the Stanley Cup, other teams would “challenge” them to a three-game tournament. Whoever won that series would take the Cup, and hold it until they were beaten in a similar fashion. The only catch was: challenging teams had to travel to play the current champs. And in the early 1900s, travel was tough.

So — the Nuggets devised a dastardly plan. Backed by gold money, they would make the month-long journey to Ottawa to challenge the current champs, the Ottawa Hockey Club (a.k.a “The Silver Seven”). Then, after winning, they’d take the Cup back to Dawson City where they were certain no team would ever make the arduous, dangerous trek to challenge them again. If they could just beat Ottawa, they were all-but-guaranteed years of Stanley Cup supremacy. So, by dogsled, boat and train, they travelled for 30 days to reach Ottawa. (The “Silver Seven” didn’t even give them a day to recover when they arrived.) And it was all for naught. Despite scoring first, the Nuggets were crushed — losing 9-3 then a staggering 22-4.

The series ended up setting a couple of NHL records that still stand today: the youngest professional goalie (for the Nuggets), as well as “Most Goals Scored In 10 Minutes (14)” and “Biggest Loss.”

The latter two the Nuggets would have surely liked to forgo. Ah well, it was a good plan in theory…

Clandestine Mines

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The author hanging around Dawson’s Downtown Motel.

For more than 100 years, folks have been hitting paydirt — literally a layer of soil above the bedrock that contains loose gold — in the areas around Dawson. However, the town itself has long had a law preventing any mining within city limits. But many wonder: if the areas around Dawson hold gold, wouldn’t the areas within it?

Some years ago, a few, um, “industrious” men took this idea further and began to build a secret mine shaft inside a local pub. They got down 50 feet before they were busted. Today, they celebrate that history with the pub’s name: The Snake Pit, or locally dubbed, “The Pit.” However, as all Dawsonites know — the mine within The Pit was simply the only one to be discovered. It stands to reason there are other secret shafts that remained so.

In fact, maybe, even today, some sneaky locals are mining a fortune right from within their basements… I’d bet they are.

And that’s just a taste of the Strange Things Done in Dawson City. Keep posted for more stories in Part Two. (Teaser: one has to do with the most successful marketing campaign of the 20th Century.)

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

1 comment… add one

  • Katharine Fletcher Sep 5, 2014

    Your recollections of Dawson City and its characters take me right back, Dave. Just visited this summer, and I, like you, am a proud member of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club… couldn’t resist “Kissing the Toe” in a finger of scotch. :D

    Ah yes, “There are [still] strange things done in the midnight sun” as Bard of the North, Robert Service wrote…!

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