Story by Michelle Hopkins
DAWSON CITY, YUKON TERRITORY — Travel writers like to use words such as epic, spectacular and breathtaking to describe landscapes. However, these words seem almost banal when trying to paint a picture of Yukon. The northern territory, where Prince William and Princess Kate will visit in September, is blessed with massive mountain ranges, crystal-clear lakes, wild rivers — including four Canadian Heritage ones — and the world’s largest non-polar ice fields. Yukon’s spell is as much about its famous Klondike gold rush days as its scenery — a hypnotic combination of untamed frontier and colourful ghost towns.
It’s also home to quirky larger-than-life characters — human and animal. We are minutes into our drive from the airport in Whitehorse when I ask our Tourism Yukon guide, Jim Kemshead, to stop the car. Crossing the street before us is my first wildlife sighting of my eight-day trip. Okay, maybe “wild” is stretching it, but when was the last time you saw a massive pig on a leash? Three-year-old Ernest is quite a celebrity in these parts and he has the attitude to go along with his stardom.
Dawson City offers an irresistible pull that takes over you. This little town at the edge of the wilderness was the forefront of the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. It made people do extreme things back then and still does.
Case in point: The decades-long tradition of heading to the Downtown Hotel to the Sourdough Saloon, a crowded tavern with faded wallpaper and tired furnishings that gives it character, where a wizened “captain” explains how to get inducted into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Paying for a shot of alcohol with a severed toe in it — one that must touch your lips — seems like something an intelligent person would snub her nose at. I lost my sanity for a moment but I’m proud to say I’m a card-carrying member of this wild and crazy club.
Discover More: “The Riches of Dawson City”
As soon as you turn the corner on the Klondike Highway leading you into Dawson City (a six-hour drive from the capital of Whitehorse), you feel like you are entering a theme park, complete with unpaved dirt roads, and century-old buildings. This town is a photographer’s dream. The Dawson City’s Kissing Buildings alone get a lot of interest. Years ago permafrost got under the foundations of all three buildings and caused them to lean into each other. Dating to 1901, one was a hotel, another a photography studio and the other a hardware store.
The best way to learn about the historic buildings as well as the city’s wild west beginnings is during a Parks Canada walking tour.
The town was founded in 1896 by former prospector-turned-outfitter Joe Ladue, who anticipated a building boom and capitalized on it. It triggered a construction boom that saw 500 new buildings — everything from homes, stores, hotels, restaurants, raucous saloons and yes, dens of inequity — within six months. In its heyday, more fortunes were reputedly won and lost in the gambling halls of Dawson than in the gold fields.
It was also reputed Dawson was a bawdy frontier settlement in which brothels, such as the Bombay Peggy’s, thrived. (Today, Bombay Peggy’s has reinvented itself as a beautifully restored nine-room inn and pub, where you can sip from its “sassy” martini list — bloomer remover, brazen hussy or the signature chastity belt.)
Early one sunny afternoon, I headed down to the Yukon River to hop aboard the only paddlewheeler in the city — the Klondike Spirit. This two-wheeler lazily ploughed through the water, churning and coughing out the waters as the ship’s horn thundered, proudly announcing our departure. The narrated tour took us on a journey of discovery, through small communities and metamorphic rock carved from glaciers. Along the water’s edge we see several ships, a burial ground of nautical wrecks.
One of the best ways to appreciate the wonders of the glaciers is in a Helio H295 plane. We headed out with Icefield Discovery Tours for a two-hour glacier flight over Kluane National Park near the village of Haines Junction. Our pilot, Tom Bradley, doubled as our guide and provided interesting insight into the geology and history of the region.
Kluane National Park is immense and much of it is inaccessible by car or foot because it lacks roads and because the gigantic ice fields pose an imposing obstacle. (We did spot a few experienced hikers and climbers.) There were many interesting tidbits I came away with, including that Mount Logan is the highest peak in Canada and has its own weather system; the glaciers can be as high as a 10-storey building; the St. Elias ice fields, as well as the Kaskawulsh and Lowell Glaciers, can only be seen from the air; and the mountain range has 17 of North America’s 20 tallest peaks, and they are largely covered in snow and ice year-round.
For me, Yukon delivered on everything it promised and more.
MORE ABOUT VISITING YUKON
Getting There: Air North (www.flyairnorth.com; telephone: 1-800-764-0407) has regular flights from Vancouver to Whitehorse and also serves Dawson City. Bonus? You don’t pay luggage fees and the meals are free.
Additional Attractions: For those who love horseback riding, the Sky High Wilderness Ranch offers several packages. Located 30 minutes by car from downtown Whitehorse, the lodge provides access to beautiful wilderness adventures. We headed on a three-hour tour up a mountain ridge overlooking the Fish Lake Valley and Bonneville Lakes.
Where to Dine: For a listing of restaurants, visit What’s Up Yukon’s website.
More Info: Visit Tourism Yukon’s website or by phone (1-800-789-8566) when planning your trip. The Klondike Visitors Association (www.Dawsoncity.ca; telephone: 1-867-993-5575) provides information specifically on Dawson City.