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(2022 - Fall/Winter Issue)


On the bank of Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory, two red Parks Canada Muskoka chairs appear, marking the legendary locale that sparked the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. It’s eerily quiet here—the surge of fevered prospectors long since ebbed away.

Nearby sits Dredge No. 4, a floating barge used for gold mining that was considered an engineering marvel back in the day. Both these historic sites are close to Dawson City, now a town of about 2,000 residents living in Canada’s far north. During the gold rush heyday, however, the city swelled to 30,000 residents.

It’s humbling to think of those who trekked 55 kilometres over the Chilkoot Pass into the wilds of the Yukon to try and stake a claim. By all accounts, if it hadn’t been for the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, whose name Tr’ondëk was mistaken for “Klondike,” many of the fortune hunters would have starved, explains guide George McConkey on a City and Goldfields tour with The Klondike Experience, a local tour operator.

The town’s hardscrabble past is fascinating, but after a few days in the land of the midnight sun, I come to understand that while its history shapes Dawson City, the town is so much more than a frontier outpost gripped by gold fever.

History Galore

For one thing, more than prospectors lived in Dawson City. There were ladies of the night, burlesque dancers, Wild West showmen, bankers and whisky slingers who came to “mine” the miners.

Stroll down these dirt roads and wooden boardwalks and you’ll pass the Dawson Daily News, Canada’s first CIBC bank (where poet Robert W. Service worked as a teller), and more than one house of ill repute. In fact, I stayed at Bombay Peggy’s, a converted brothel and bootlegging haven that’s now a guesthouse, steeped in vintage furnishings. There’s also the impressive Palace Grand Theatre, built from discarded paddlewheel boards. I’m told the original owner Arizona Charlie Meadows dreamed of floating his theatre down the Yukon River.

Then there’s the oldest gambling hall in Canada, Diamond Tooth Gerties, where spirited, leg-kicking cancan dancers still perform all summer long. For more cultured sightseeing, walk by the old homes and cabins of Canada’s famed writers including Robert W. Service, Pierre Burton and Jack London.

A Rich Culture

Before the region was inundated with settlers, it was part of the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. First peoples used and migrated through the area for at least 8,000 years, hunting moose and caribou, trapping, fishing, and harvesting traditional plants and berries.

Visit the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre to learn about the history and culture of Dawson’s original inhabitants through stories, artifacts, and other cultural objects such as canoes and beaded clothing. The centre is open Wednesday through Friday in summer and by appointment in winter.

In late spring through the summer, join the Parks Canada interpretive program, Red Serge, Red Tape, and step inside the opulent Commissioner’s Residence. An interpreter helps participants challenge their notion of a romanticized gold rush by telling the Indigenous side of the story. I learn how Chief Isaac moved his people downriver to Moosehide to shield them from the drinking, gambling and general rabble-rousing that had overcome Dawson.

Get Back to Nature

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in traditional territory includes Tombstone Territorial Park, a spectacular protected area about 100 kilometres northeast of Dawson City. Its name in the Hän language means “Ragged Mountain Land.”

I hike between Talus Lake and Divide Lake in Tombstone’s subarctic heart, and see the vertical rock walls that rise up 350 metres and are the park’s namesake (they look like grave markers). The valley floor is punctuated by thaw lakes created by melting permafrost, and a carpet of dwarf birch that turns a brilliant red in autumn, which arrives early this far north. The park is accessible in winter for snowshoeing with The Klondike Experience.

Eat From the Land, Drink Someone’s Toe

Though Dawson’s original miners relied on sourdough for surviving the epic winters, modern tastes have evolved beyond bread. My stand-out meal is from BonTon & Company, considered one of Canada’s best new restaurants.

BonTon serves locally sourced produce and meats. I think our group orders almost everything on the menu, from the charcuterie board with house-made salami and Klondike Valley Creamery Cheese, to small plates of honey-glazed carrots and buttermilk-drizzled fried eggplant nestled on a bed of tabbouleh.

Like the old gold rush days where the bar was the social hangout, you’ll find there is still no lack of watering holes. The most famous is the Sourdough Saloon inside The Downtown Hotel. Home of the Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of 80-proof (or stronger) alcohol is served with a preserved human toe sunk at the glass bottom. Strangely, it’s now this odd libation that draws people north, rather than gold.

Never one to shy away from locally authentic encounters during my travels, I down that infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, contemplating the entire time on how Dawson City really has it all: history, culture, natural beauty, great food, and the world’s most famous drink. Cheers to that!

Dawson City’s Winter Wonderland

To get away from it all, see the Northern Lights and truly embrace the cold. Journeying to the frozen north during the darkest days is like reaching the end of the road, literally—the Top of the World Highway that connects the Yukon to Alaska closes in mid-October. But not to worry, pack plenty of layers and let Dawson’s downy mantle of snow cocoon you in its pristine beauty.

Go dog sledding with local mushers, or snowmobile through the woods by day. By night, watch the dazzling aurora borealis light up the sky with streaks of green and yellow from the comfort of a cosy yurt. The Klondike Experience organizes winter excursions.

Travel Planner

Fly to Dawson City from Whitehorse on Air North, or drive the 500 kilometres between Whitehorse and Dawson City on Hwy. 2.

Explore more trip ideas dawsoncity.ca and travelyukon.com

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