As we waited to board the ferry into Dawson City, Hector met the owner of Klondike River Distillery. He distills vodka off the grid, the only such distillery in North America according to him, and infuses each bottle with a bit of gold.
But what was serendipitous was that Dorian’s “day” job is as a ranger at Tombstone National Park, our next destination! So he gave Hector an update on the fall colors. We had been concerned about driving up the Dempster Highway only to find that we were too early but he encouraged us to go and told Hector that the colors were definitely beginning.
This was a great start to our stay in this interesting town. We chose to stay in a Yukon Government Campground just outside of town. We love the Yukon Government Campgrounds, they cost 12CAD, are located in lovely natural settings and offer free firewood.
It is always a bit of a shock to our system to come out of a really natural and wild setting to a town (even a tiny one) full of people, and so staying at this peaceful forested campground just outside of town helped to keep us in balance.
We kicked off our visit by going to the Farmers Market, which was really mostly an arts and crafts market as coincidentally it was the weekend of the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival. We did buy one amazing head of lettuce though.
Dawson is a very artsy town. In addition to the arts festival, it has the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture, the Dawson City Arts Society, the Dawson City Music Festival and the Yukon School of Visual Arts.
As with all of these northern towns, from the tiniest to the largest, flowers are planted everywhere and maintained beautifully until the very last moment that they can possibly survive. Really the flowers are just spectacular.
There are great views of the Yukon River from town. Nearby, the Klondike River empties into the Yukon. Dawson City is at the center of the Klondike Goldfields, whose name was a mispronunciation of the word Tr’ondek, from the name of the local First Nation people, the Tr’ondek Hwech’n. whose name means people of the Klondike River.
There are lots of National Historic Sites in town, and the National Parks Service schedules guides in period costume at several of these for certain periods each day. It is a good way to see these places on your own while learning more than just what you can read about on the different displays without having to join a structured tour or pay more.
In 1897, an article in a Seattle paper about the discovery of “a ton of gold” in the previous year in the Klondike set off a rush of prospectors to the area that swelled to about 100,000 people.
But to get to Dawson City, they had to carry their goods including hundreds of pounds of food over icy Chilkoot Pass, 33 miles. The 30,000 that made it each made about 40 trips to haul their goods over the pass, then had to build a boat using local trees to continue down the Yukon River.
Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondek Hwech’n foresaw the negative impact that the white man would bring. He relocated his people about three miles down river. And to protect their traditional culture he entrusted songs and dances to First Nations in Mansfield Alaska for safekeeping. As the game they hunted was driven away, their lives were forever changed. The Danoja Zho Cultural Centre tells this and other stories, and was my favorite museum in Dawson.
In two years, Dawson City became the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. There are many interesting old photos of this trek and of the town at its peak, but the photo that most impacted me is the one of a line of people going up the pass. One of the 40 trips they each needed to make.
But most arrived to find that claims had already been staked. For some, it became about the journey. Some fell in love with the Klondike and remained there. Others made a fortune and squandered it.
She was the smallest of the British Yukon Navigation Company’s fleet. Because of her size, she was the first that could make it to Dawson to bring supplies in the spring and the last to depart before winter. Today, a replica of the old riverboats tours the Yukon River.
Then we walked around some of the shops. There are lots of jewelry shops, many featuring items made from local gold. One of those had a cool display with little dishes with placer gold from each of the many different creeks of the Klondike Goldfields.
And we made our own discovery: the gold rush is still going. We found claims for sale on a bulletin board. And read that close to 100 family run placer mines still currently operate in the Klondike Region.
Mine tailings are absolutely everywhere. Evidence of the extensive efforts to scrape the valuable metal from the earth.
Continuing our exploration of the town, we toured the Commissioner’s House. This was the house of the Commissioner of Yukon, George Black, and his wife Martha starting in 1916, when Dawson City was the capital of Yukon (Whitehorse is the current capital).
The tour guides told many interesting stories about the family. In one room, there is a silhouette of the couple on the wall. Displaying photos of yourself was considered conceited, so this was their way of breaking that “rule”. Other stories describe Martha as a rugged outdoorswoman, yet also well versed in the high society expectations of women.
The house sat empty for many years and was used by the Sisters of St. Anne as a residence and senior citizens’ home. Today, the first floor has been restored using some of the Black’s original furniture along with other period furniture.
Parks Canada does such a great job.
By 1899, individual mining by hand was no longer as fruitful as it had been previously. So people consolidated their claims into larger blocks and began using machinery to mine the land. Our next tour was of Dredge No. 4, the largest gold digging machine in North America.
This monster of a machine scooped up rocks and earth in massive quantities, filtered out gold, and spat out the gravel as it completed the decimation of the landscape. Every creek in this area is covered in the tailings left by one of these dredges. Impressive.
We had two fabulous sandwiches on homemade bread and found a copy of a Miami Herald article about the restaurant on its wall. What a total surprise to find an article about the Yukon in the paper all the way from Miami. Coincidentally where Hector and I first met.
The Dawson City Museum, located in another restored old building has displays of some of the individuals that have settled down in the town after the gold rush, as well as various aspects of the city’s history, and a locomotive shed with three of the Klondike Mines Railway locomotives.
As we have seen several times in other museums, they had a display of an early thermometer which miners improvised from common supplies. Each one with a different freezing point. The temperatures are chill inducing.
The rains caught up with us in Dawson City. The town streets, almost all dirt, became mud. But they have continued the old practice of using boardwalks around town, particularly around some of the restored sights. Clever.
We stayed around Dawson City waiting for the rains to subside, since our next destination required Island Girl to travel for over 40 miles on gravel road.
Our most “touristy” outing was to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, a saloon and Canada’s oldest gambling hall. A $12 pass gives you unlimited access to the casino and the shows for the entire season.
The dancing was fine, very Rockette-like but not quite as sharp, and the costumes were cute, very can-can.
Yes friends, this is a drink with an actual pickled toe. Why, say you? Because this is the land of the north, where strange things happen. If this idea completely grosses you out, skip the next two paragraphs.
The original toe, preserved in a jar of alcohol, was discovered by Captain Dick Stevenson while he was cleaning a cabin in 1973. It apparently belonged to miner and rum runner, Louie Liken, who, 50 years earlier had frostbite and had it amputated. Captain Stevenson discussed the idea of a sourtoe cocktail with friends, and began to serve it at the Eldorado Hotel Bar. The rest, as they say, is history.
The idea is that the toe has to touch your lips. The original toe is long gone, swallowed by an overzealous patron. It has since been replaced by several generations of new toes, each “donated” to the cause in ways no one will discuss. There is a $2500 fee if you swallow the toe!
No, we did not have a Sourtoe Cocktail, tempting as that may sound. Apparently over 62,000 have had one and received a certificate to prove it. We had a couple of normal drinks and returned to the casino.
The late show was not a can-can show but rather a show where the same lead singers sing contemporary music tunes and “the dancing girls”, now in leotards dance to that music. Again, the dancing was ok – described as more “risqué” – but really just more wiggling. We were disappointed that it was not a can-can show.
But we are glad to know that the proceeds go towards further restoration of the town.