Tuesday, July 21, 2015

North to Alaska: Part 4: Dawson City

We loved our visit to the Yukon! What a unique place Dawson City is!

Situated at the confluence of the Klondike (dark water) and Yukon Rivers (lighter water), Dawson was the centre of the Gold Rush of 1898 and today it looks like it has been frozen in time. All the buildings are either original or built/rebuilt to that historical time period. Only the main street is paved. All others are dirt and there are no sidewalks, only wooden boardwalks. In addition, there is a dike alongside the Yukon River to help prevent flooding damage. With a walkway on top, it's an excellent way to see the city.

Main building of our hotel

In 1896, when the Gold Rush started, people - prospectors and those enterprising souls who soon followed them to provide places for them to spend their profits - arrived in droves. By 1898 there were 40,000 people living in Dawson. The local population of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, who had lived in this place for centuries, hardly knew what hit them.  Of course, there were no mod cons. Whew! Use your imagination!

Here's what it looked like:

Gold rush tents, Dawson City

By 1899, the rush had ended and only 8000 people remained. Current population sits at around 1000, but of course, it swells every summer when seasonal workers arrive (to say nothing of the busloads of tourists arriving each day) 

Klondike Kate was a Gold Rush entertainer of note.

Diamond Tooth Gerties is Canada's oldest gambling hall and site of three nightly shows by Gertie and her Gertie Girls. The show we saw was well done - songs, dancing girls and a kick-line to be proud of. 


Afterwards especially brave tipplers could visit The Sourdough Saloon for a Sourtoe Cocktail, one of the more interesting things we learned about Dawson City, though we did not avail ourselves. Apparently you can't call yourself a true *Sourdough until you join the Sourtoe Club. Here's what it's all about:

Established in 1973, the Sourtoe Cocktail has become a time-honoured tradition in Dawson City.  To date, the club has over 100,000 members, hailing from every corner of the world.

How Do I Become a Member?
Step 1 – Come down to the Sourdough Saloon and ask for Captain River Rat
Step 2 – Purchase a shot (most club members prefer Yukon Jack)
Step 3 – Pledge the ‘Sourtoe Oath’
Step 4 – Watch as a (genuine) dehydrated toe is dropped in your drink
Step 5 – Drink your Sourtoe Cocktail
Be sure to remember the most important rule: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe”

Sourtoe Cocktail Recipe:
  • 1 ounce (minimum) of alcohol
  • 1 dehydrated toe
  • garnish with courage
The legend of the first “sourtoe” dates back to the 1920’s and features a feisty rum-runner named Louie Linken and his brother Otto.  During one of their cross-border deliveries, they ran into an awful blizzard.  In an effort to help direct his dog team, Louie stepped off the sled and into some icy overflow—soaking his foot thoroughly.

Fearing that the police were on their trail, they continued on their journey. Unfortunately, the prolonged exposure to the cold caused Louie’s big toe to be frozen solid.  To prevent gangrene, the faithful Otto performed the amputation using a woodcutting axe (and some overproof rum for anesthesia).  To commemorate this moment, the brothers preserved the toe in a jar of alcohol.

Years later, while cleaning out an abandoned cabin, the toe was discovered by Captain Dick Stevenson.  After conferring with friends, the Sourtoe Cocktail Club was established and the rules developed.  Since its inception, the club has acquired (by donation) over 10 toes.

Some people have willed their toes to the Sourdough Saloon for cocktail purposes. Why, you ask, do they need more than one toe? Apparently some people, whether accidentally (?!) or on purpose (!!!!) have swallowed the toe. The fine for doing so is now set at $2500.

I was going to post a photo here of a sourtoe cocktail but I deemed it too gross. If you're curious, just google it.

*Note: The true definition of a sourdough: a person who has spent the winter north of the 60th parallel. The opposite of a sourdough is a cheechako, a newcomer to North of 60. 

Above is our hotel. Our room was in the blue building on the right. Below is a shot of the other side of the street, still part of the hotel - it was very large and spread out. 

The hallways of the hotel were hung with numerous historical photos which were really interesting.

Dawson City Female Fashions 1908-1910

Dawson City is full of Klondike and Gold Rush history. Every tour leader we had referred to this time period. To get the native perspective we visited the Native Centre.


There we learned about the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and Moosehide Slide.

The town's scenery is dominated by Moosehide Slide, the remains of an ancient landslide. I wasn't able to find its age, just that it's prehistoric. Surprisingly, part of it is still moving.

Here's a short video outlining the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in legend of Moosehide Slide. Bizarrely, it's narrated by a man with an Australian accent. 

On top of the Slide there's a scenic lookout called the Top of the Dome where a family-friendly midnight party/picnic is held each year at the summer solstice. We were told that some brave cyclists like to take their bikes straight down the face of that slide. From the top it looks pretty steep. Here's a video by a man who is walking on the slide. In the distance you can see where the Klondike River joins the Yukon River as well as Dawson itself and the ferry boat that crosses the river in the summertime.

By the way I just came across this photo taken on July 3, 2015 looking toward Moosehide Slide, but it is obscured because of smoke drifting in from Alaska.

The Moosehide Slide in Dawson City, Yukon, is obscured Friday by smoke blowing in from wildfires in Alaska.

Luckily we were there before the many forest fires in the west and northwest became such a concern. Of course, the 360 degree views from the Top of the Dome are amazing, especially on a beautiful evening like we had.  

Yukon River, flowing north to the Bering Sea

Before we leave Dawson City, there are a few more historical sites to see:

Pierre Berton's boyhood home
The Robert Service 2-room cabin where he lived from 1909 - 1912

Jack London Cabin

The Jack London cabin is a replica, using half of the original materials of a cabin that was occupied by author Jack London during the 1898 Gold Rush. Originally located 120 miles south of Dawson City, it was dismantled and half was used here in Dawson to build this cabin. The other half of the materials was taken to Oakland, CA, London's hometown and used to build a replica there at Jack London Square. Note the sod roof.

Bear-proof building used to store food

The interior of London's cabin has been recreated using period details.

One of the realities of this part of the world is permafrost. The further north you go, the closer to the surface the permafrost is. No matter how deep it is, though, the people of the north have learned the hard way that it cannot be built on top of. Below is one of the many buildings in Dawson City that were built directly on the ground. When the permafrost warmed up due to the heat of the building above, the ground sank and the building collapsed. The city has left it and some other buildings, including a church, to show visitors the disastrous effect of building on permafrost. 

The modern way is to build on piles.

Permafrost is one of the reasons that most roads in the far north are not paved. Pavement absorbs heat and heat melts permafrost which then causes road collapse. If a road must be paved, the roadbed is insulated. Just another of the inconveniences and extra expenses of living in the north. 

Okay, we're getting near the end of our visit to Dawson City. I've left out a lot, but I wanted to tell you that we enjoyed a side-wheeler cruise on the extremely fast flowing Yukon River.

During the gold rush there were 250 stern- and sidewheelers travelling up and down the Yukon River, carrying goods and people. Only one now, just for tourists and it's a replica.

And I'll end this visit by telling you about the people of Dawson City. We especially appreciated their cheerful natures, their passion for the Yukon and their ability to communicate that to all the visitors. 

Three main categories:
  1. Those who live in or near town year-round and have access to power and water.
  2. Those who live off the grid. We met two different people who were enthusiastic off-the-gridders. They both live on the west side of the Yukon river, the side away from town (note: there is no *bridge). In summer and winter it works pretty well, getting across the river by boat or by car/truck on the ice. The shoulder seasons are tricky and require advance preparation. 
  3. Seasonal workers - there just for the summer/tourist season, but no less passionate about the Yukon.
All the people we met were wonderful: wait staff in dining rooms, staff in the stores, the native folks at the Cultural Centre, bus drivers and the young woman on the Spirit of the Klondike who lives off the grid and is expecting her first baby in November. She'll go to Vancouver for the birth. There are no facilities in Dawson City for child-bearing. Women must go all the way to Whitehorse, approximately 500 km. away for pre-natal care and a hospital delivery. No midwifery services yet in the Yukon.

*Here I'm going to insert some information about the Yukon River. In its almost 2000 mile length, there are only 4 vehicle-carrying bridges, none within reasonable distance of Dawson City. In the summer a car ferry runs regularly across the river at Dawson and in the winter there is an ice bridge over the frozen river which is maintained by the government.

The residents of Dawson City have a tight sense of community and a wonderful sense of humour. They have to, to survive the long winter nights with sanity intact. Not for the faint-hearted! The houses for the most part are cheerfully colourful

and almost every home has a small greenhouse for growing vegetables. Even our hotel had a greenhouse. Plants grow quickly here in spite of the very short growing season - June to August. The long summer days are a big help. In fact we were told that some vegetables - root vegetables and cabbage especially - can grow to astonishing sizes in the midnight sun.

Below is a shot out our bedroom window at 10:30 pm. 

It's hard to imagine what it must be like in the winter when the sun doesn't get over the horizon.

That's it for Dawson City. From there we took a long bus ride to Whitehorse and from there we....well, see the next post.