The population of Yukon was higher in 1898 than it is now. Dawson City alone reached a population of over 30,000 at the height of the Klondike gold Rush.
The following publication-ready feature story, "Dawson City: Land of Midnight Fun", was written for Tourism Yukon by writer Margo Pfieff. You are welcome to publish the piece free of charge and images to accompany the article are available by contacting our media relations department at the email address below. If you do print the story we would appreciate receiving a copy of the published piece. Tourism Yukon wholly owns the rights to "Dawson City: Land of Midnight Fun".
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by Margo Pfieff
A toe is staring back at me from the bottom of my glass at the Sourdough Saloon, magnified by a good measure of high-octane alcohol. I take a deep breath and drink quickly, making certain the pickled human digit touches my lips, however briefly, to qualify for membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. The tradition started years ago as a rite to initiate someone who became a “Sourdough”, a true northerner who has survived at least one brutal Yukon winter. “We’ve gone through quite a few toes over the years,” says Downtown Hotel bar manager, Matt van Norstrand, “some are swallowed, one was chewed up and several were hijacked by military cadets from Ontario.” Luckily, there is no shortage of careless lawnmower operators and toes bequeathed to the bar in wills across North America. “We keep an extra one in the freezer,” he adds, “for just such emergencies.”
Normally I steer clear of goofy local rituals, but after a few days in Dawson City I found I couldn’t resist. There is an infectiously giddy feel about this little town at the edge of the wilderness that burst into life as the epi-center of the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Within months of the outside world learning that gold had been found in the Yukon, a First Nations fish camp and moose pasture on the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers swelled with 30,000 dreamers. Almost overnight it became the biggest city in Canada west of Winnipeg and north of San Francisco and close on the heels of the neophyte miners were the entrepreneurs – both and female - who relieved them of their bulging pokes. As gold poured into this “Paris of the North” on mules’ backs it was slapped onto bar and restaurant tables for $30 glasses of champagne, fresh oysters at $8 a piece or on kid gloves from London. One fellow bought a dance hall queen for her weight in gold. It was the true Wild West.
These days Dawson still looks and still feels the part. The tiny town is a collection of 1890’s historic buildings, log cabins and Victorian houses decorated with rusty picks and shovels from nearby gold fields or with dredge buckets retired as flowerpots. Unpaved town roads are either muddy or dusty depending on the weather and sidewalks are raised wooden boardwalks. You feel like you’re in a Western movie, right down to the swinging bat-wing doors. Small wonder the permanent population of 1,800 locals refers to this town as “Dodge”.
Back in its heyday Dawson had Calamity Jane and Swiftwater Bill; these days there’s a piano player named Barnacle Bob. You’re likely to run into Trapper Dave at an art show or Caveman Bill – aka Bill Donaldson - at a sushi party. Someone bet Bill he couldn’t live in a cave once used for cold storage across the river for six weeks. He did and has now resided there for years raising chickens and using an exercise bike to run the lights and his CD player.
In any case, before long you get into the swing of things and find yourself with a hankering for a jaunt on a Yukon River paddle wheeler or trying your luck with a gold pan. I developed cravings for sourdough pancakes with maple syrup at Klondike Kate’s – named after a real-life red-haired dance hall girl from Kansas – and martinis at the former brothel, Bombay Peggy’s. Heck, I even dressed up in knickers, fish net stockings, a bustier and had myself photographed in sepia tones brandishing a six-shooter.
But Dawson City is also one of those rare gems, a themed tourist Mecca with a genuine soul and character. Partly that’s due to gold still being at the heart of the community. Its presence can be felt in the mountains of pebbles that snake across the landscape like the burrowings of mammoth gophers, century old tailings left by riverbed gold dredges, and in the London p.m. fix gold price posted daily in the Eldorado Hotel lobby. Some folks around town make a living from gold and hundreds regularly come north each summer with a pan and sluice box. Leslie Chapman sees them in her Fortymile Gold Workshop & Studio. “There are about 150 professional miners in the Klondike and they show up with moose hide pokes, peanut butter jars or zip lock bags full of gold,” she says pointing out rows of tiny dishes filled with flakes and nuggets of all sizes and shapes alongside a display of contemporary jewelry entitled “Not your Mama’s nuggets”.
Dawson is also a gutsy, artsy, enterprising collection of community-minded residents. The Yukon has a thriving cultural scene unparalleled in the country; more people make a living from art of all kinds, and more music albums are recorded per capita up here than any other place in Canada. What brought me 2,000 kilometers north of Vancouver was a musical bonanza, the annual Dawson City Music Festival. For one jamming, packed long weekend in late July this Yukon town is overwhelmed with music lovers. They arrive with backpacks or guitar cases strapped to their backs, canoes on the rooftops, in muddy RVs or on mountain bikes. They are tattooed, blue-rinsed, tie-dyed, Tilley-hatted, hiking booted and flip-flopped. Hotels have been booked solid for months and the baseball pitch outside town sprouts a tent city.
The focal point is a red and white striped tent in suburban Minto Park. The celebration spills outside where tunes mingle with the smell of freshly cut lawn and sizzling bar-b-ques in the open-air beer garden. Music at the 27th annual DCMF ran the gamut from Celtic to rap, folk to jazz and rockabilly, but festival organizer Dylan Griffith tries to keep the focus on Northern performers. “In 2005 we had musicians from all three Canadian territories for the first time,” he says, “as well as from Alaska, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.”
The opening act kicks off on a sunny Friday afternoon at an open-air gazebo where the audience sprawls on the grassy banks of the Yukon River. One of the most breathtaking performances is by the Arctic territory of Nunavut’s Tanya Tagaq Gillis, a contemporary Inuit throat singer performing to an electronica beat. Her primal syncopated moaning, panting, grunting and sinuous movements piqued the interest of Icelandic legend Bjork with whom she has toured and recorded. “When Tanya finishes performing,” a fellow beside me jokingly observed, “the audience needs a cigarette.” There was everything from Toronto’s Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir with their dance floor hopping Appalachian rhythms, to the jazzy Whitehorse based Swingin’ Fish Nuggets and Faroe Islander Eivør Palsdottir singing traditional lullabies in Swedish.
The festival is intimate and many performers express a special affection for the DCMF. Musicians are billeted with locals as there aren’t enough hotel rooms to go around and residents volunteer en mass to feed them lavish sushi, Ethiopian and Greek spreads, a far cry from the canteen cuisine they are accustomed to on the folk music festival circuit. Location is another reason. “This place is in the middle of nowhere, expensive to reach and tiny,” says Laurel Parry, the Yukon government’s manager for the arts. “That takes it off the map for industry people and allows performers to be more relaxed and take more risks musically.”
Dawson’s biggest summer event plays out at five venues throughout town including two old churches and Parks Canada’s spectacularly reconstructed Palace Grand, a theatre built in 1899 by Arizona Wild West showman Charlie Meadows. Parks Canada has also restored and rebuilt several dozen gold-rush era buildings including the 1901 post office designed by Thomas Fuller who also worked on the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, a blacksmith shop, mortuary and a saloon. They also keep an eye on the Kissing Buildings as they tilt towards one another, having sunk into permafrost on which the town is built. Other buildings are left to decay for character unless someone wants to take them over.
The music festival is just one part of a cultural tradition that began during the Gold Rush when American author Jack London came north with gold fever and lived in the Yukon where he later set Call of the Wild and White Fang. His cabin still stands in town as does that of “Bard of the Yukon” Robert Service who penned such famous northern lines as “There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun by the men who moil for gold….” Daily readings of Service’s famous poems include The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Dawson City was also the hometown of the prolific Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton who wrote such classics as Arctic Grail, Klondike. His childhood home is now the site of the Dawson City Writer in Residence program.
A new art school also has an artist in residence program as well as offering courses in everything from puppetry and tap dancing to caribou-hair tufting and ballet. The ODD gallery, with which it shares space, shows local works and there is even an annual International Short Film Festival. Even the casino gets into the community spirit. One evening I emptied my wallet at the non-profit Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall run by the Klondike Visitors Association complete with Can-Can girls and ragtime played on a stand-up piano. The earnings (my losses) become “donations” invested back into the community.
Dawson’s small grid of streets are plied by pick-ups and RV’s caked in dust and mud from remote routes like the Dempster Highway north to the Arctic Ocean or the Top of the World Highway to Alaska. But the wilderness comes right into town; one day I watched a moose swim across the river and that night stopped for a pair of badgers crossing the road. All the garbage bins in town are bear-proof. Northern supplies of every kind can be found at the Dawson Trading Post, a no-frills outfitter on the main street that smells pleasantly smoky from stacks of hides for sale alongside fur pelts, sluice boxes, dog harnesses and the fossilized remains of woolly mammoths and mastodons. “Miners have to dig further these days for gold, under the permafrost where they run into all this,” said the store’s owner, pointing at three-foot long woolly mammoth tusks that could be 20,000 to 40,000 years old. The ivory is carved by local jewelers and sold at shops like the Klondike Ivory Shop where Uta Reilly told me: “Out at the mines they collect tusks and bones by the ton.” The exquisite carvings are especially popular with Americans as it’s not illegal to bring mammoth ivory into the States as it is with ivory from living creatures like narwhal or elephants.
I set off across the river one afternoon to seek out a little publicized paddle wheeler cemetery on the far side. Years ago when the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse, the territorial capital, was completed the paddlewheel ferries were abandoned on the riverbank. I jumped on the tiny, free, flat-decked car ferry then hiked along the shore for 20 minutes. Sure enough, rising from the brush, were the rotting wooden wheels of four paddle wheelers, heartbreakingly melting into the forest.
When I got back to town it was just in time for the final evening of music and on that warm summer day beneath the giant red and white candy-striped tent a vibrating dance floor was packed with folks gyrating with hoola hoops or with kids hoisted onto their shoulders amid an entourage of break dancing acrobats called Abstrakt Breakin Systemz. As the annual weekend party 240 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle came to a close the master of ceremonies strode onto the main stage. “It’s over. Go home,” said Katrina White. “But drive carefully because I don’t want to see you later on tonight.” She was also the town doctor. Hoola hoops and sleepy children were gathered up and everyone headed outside into the endless northern summer twilight.
Dawson City Guidebook:
All area codes (867) unless otherwise noted. Prices in Canadian dollars.
Air North - www.flyairnorth.com - Tel: 1-800-764-0407 has regular flights from Vancouver, BC to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and also serves Dawson City.
Air Canada - www.aircanada.com - Tel: 1-888-247-2262 has several flights daily from Vancouver to Whitehorse.
Where to Stay:
Hotel rooms are limited in Dawson City, especially during the music festival. Book well in advance.
Bombay Peggy’s - www.bombaypeggys.com - Corner 2nd Ave & Princess Street. Tel: 993-6969. Charming restored Victorian brothel. Boutique hotel with rooms from $99 double occupancy.
Bonanza Gold Motel and RV Park - www.bonanzagold.ca - Tel: 1-888-993-6789 is near the Klondike gold fields just south of Dawson City at the intersection of Klondike Highway and Bonanza Creek Road. Excellent motel accommodation.
Where to Eat:
Riverwest Bistro: Front & King Streets Tel: 993-6339. Excellent healthy soup/panini/wrap café. Very casual. Best coffee in town. Entrees: $3-$7
Klondike Kate’s : Corner of King & 3rd Ave. Tel: 993-6527. Casual and funky, a popular local restaurant with excellent smoked King salmon. Open breakfast, lunch and dinner (entrees $6-15). Patio out back - www.klondikekates.ca
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