Discovering the riches of Dawson City
Story by Bruce Sach
DAWSON CITY, YUKON TERRITORY — By the end of my second evening in Dawson City, I was acclimatized to the midnight sun.
After all, the sun never retires for the night, so why would I? And since many of the residents spend a cold, dark, sunless winter here, they have every reason to stay up in the summer.
Dawson City sits at a latitude of 64 degrees north, just 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. In the summer, the resident population more than doubles and up to 60,000 visitors pop in, lured by the sensational attributes of the Canadian north: abundant natural beauty, wildlife adventures and an escape from the hassles of urban life. Though the population booms in the summer, it never feels as crowded as it did in the good old days of the 19th century, when Dawson City was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. This is still a frontier town, 118 years after the height of the Klondike gold rush.
People come here to start over and today, they sometimes come to live off the grid. That means going into the woods, crossing the Yukon River by ferry to rent a cabin on some land, and surviving without electricity and most modern conveniences. There’s even a man who has lived in a cave here for more than 15 years.
When I arrived in town, everyone’s vehicle was covered in the same mud after a rain. I found it hard to imagine how impossible the trip would have been back in the late 1890s. Of course, the promise of gold and instant wealth brought people from across North America and the world over the Chilkoot Trail and to this area.
Today, people arrive in the warmer months in trucks, semis, motorbikes and bicycles, but also on foot and quite frequently by canoe or raft. Even if you take the plane to Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, and then drive the six hours north to Dawson City, there is a shared feeling of having toughed it out. So why come all this way to wander about in the mud on streets that have never been paved?
I was there on a busy weekend and for a major draw, the Dawson City Music Festival. More than 1,200 visitors were expected, yet Dawson City is not the kind of tourist town that has gentrified itself for the modern traveller.
A great example is the Westminster Hotel, also known as the “Pit.” Despite that nickname, it is a must visit. The ambience is the same at midnight as it is at 8 in the morning — raucous talk, vile language and wall murals that have to be seen to be believed. (Parental guidance is recommended.)
The arts are fully supported here, with residency programs encouraging writers and visual artists. There are cheechakos (which means “newcomers” in the language of the Chinook people). These are visitors who, like me, plan to spend only a short summer visit, and then there are sourdoughs — residents who have survived one or more winter here.
When you visit in the summer, you quickly acclimatize to the days that never end. The music festival helps. Many concerts began well after midnight and all were well attended. The Discovery Days every August is wildly popular and there’s even a well-attended St. Jean Baptiste Day — best known as a Quebec holiday — every June 24.
Where to Eat in Dawson City
I found the Pan of Gold to be the best of the pizza places in town. Owner Socrates Gerovaggelis can be seen around the streets all hours of the day and night – and he also delivers his pizza.
More elegant dining is in another Greek place, the Drunken Goat Taverna, that makes a mean pizza as well.
You will likely make it to the third pizza spot, the restaurant in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, the oldest casino in Canada. This famed spot features three cancan dance routines every night, the last one starting at midnight.
Don’t worry — you’ll have no trouble staying up that late. Heck afterwards, or before, go down to the Downtown Hotel, where tourists and Yukoners go to drink a concoction mixed with a real human toe. So if you can’t tough out a full winter and become a sourdough, you can drink the toe-infested drink and become a “Sour toe.” And if you do drink the Sour Toe Cocktail, you get a certificate, just like being screeched-in in Newfoundland.
The Alchemy Café is the spot that visitors and locals alike patron. It’s a funky place for breakfast and brunches. While that’s a relatively new establishment, this is a town that celebrates its past. I can’t think of too many places with a population of less than 2,000 that publish a 16-page booklet on its cemeteries. Don’t miss the Jewish and mounted police ones.
Also, take the Dawson City Now and Then walking tour ($5.80 per adult) offered by Parks Canada. This is the best way to get inside the old Post Office, the Red Feather Saloon and the restored Bank of North America. When the latter first opened, a suitcase served as the vault!
Learning that factoid was one of the few times I found myself thinking, “How times have changed.” In Dawson City, the past seems forever in your midst.