Dawson City, Gold Rush Central

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Downtown Dawson City. — PHOTO: WikiCommons

A valley cut by a river creates a large V between mountain ranges; one cut by a glacier is more U-shaped — and much wider.

We’ve seen many river-cut ranges in the Rocky Mountains, but we’d never seen a glacier-cut valley until traveling through Canada’s Yukon Territory. It took our breath away. 

The Yukon shares many topographic features with neighboring Alaska, including massive, glacier-formed landscapes. It looks like a playground carved by giants.

Traveling through the Yukon, we passed a series of crystalline lakes reflecting stunning peaks spread across an expansive horizon. The Yukon is a vast territory, but only 10,000 people live outside the capital city of Whitehorse. The bears easily outnumber them.

We saw black bears ambling through the brush and, in one case, chewing on yarrow by the roadside. It regarded us with curiosity as we peered through the vehicle windows. The sighting began our week in bear country, and our guide gave us some advice in case we came across any ursine residents while hiking.

“If the bear is brown, lie down,” he said. Brown bears, also known as grizzly bears, like their meat fresh. If they think you’re dead, they likely will leave you alone.

“But if the bear is black, fight back,” he added. Black bears come in a variety of colors, including shades of brown and some with blue-tinted fur, called “glacier bears.” Black bears are carrion-eaters, and if they think you’re dead — well, you’re one less carcass they have to kill before consuming.

But if either bear is a sow protecting her cubs, then all bets are off.

Climbers and miners and bears

The Klondike stampeders in search of gold had more to worry about than bears. Those who reached the top of White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail with the ton of gear required to enter Canada still had some 500 miles to travel to the gold fields.

Fortunately, wide, swift rivers lace the southern Yukon, including the Yukon and Klondike rivers. Once the river ice had broken up — a natural event that occurred in May of each year — the stampeders could build a boat, barge or raft and float their gear to Dawson City, which was Gold Rush Central. Fortunately, the Yukon River flows into the gold fields, easing the end of an arduous passage.

By spring of 1898, 7,124 craft of all types had been built and were ready for the spring thaw. When the ice broke up on May 29, the stampeders set sail, and the population of Dawson City exploded to nearly 30,000 residents. What was formerly a tent city at the confluence of the Yukon and the Klondike began to develop permanent roots.

These days the community is anything but a city, with about 1,300 year-around residents and a nearly equal amount of workers during the peak summer tourist months. In keeping with its historic past, the streets of Dawson City are not paved and consist of a hard-packed clay. What sidewalks exist are plank boardwalks maintained for their historic value.

History is what the city is about, and it’s a history that’s lived well beyond the Gold Rush era. The main street bustles with residents and tourists, many of them German. Dawson also has a thriving arts community and hosts its own independent film festival each year. As the one-time capital of the Yukon Territory, which is not a Canadian province because it can’t financially support itself, Dawson has a dramatic and important story to tell.

Finding permanence

As the gold miners prospered, so did Dawson City. It briefly claimed the title of largest city between Winnipeg and Fairbanks. Typical boomtown businesses took root, including saloons, gambling dens and brothels. In fact, several remnants of the city’s Paradise Alley, a brothel that consisted of 70 individual cabins lining the back of Main Street, are a central part of the informative Parks Canada tour.

But other entrepreneurs flourished as well, especially those who made money outfitting miners — and then buying back their goods when newcomers didn’t strike it rich. Profits and prices soared as commercial steamship lines began supplying Dawson with more goods and services than residents of this frontier outpost ever thought they’d see. The community grew.

The Klondike gold rush lasted two years until mid-summer 1899, when word that gold had been found in Nome on Alaska’s west coast emptied Dawson of its treasure seekers. But by then the city had become permanent, with its own opera house, post office and bank. It still prospers today.

Pierre Berton, one of Canada’s most famous writer/historians, and author of multiple editions on the Klondike, grew up in Dawson. His ancestral home has been preserved as a writers’ colony. 

We ended our visit at the cabin of Canadian poet Robert. W. Service, “the Bard of the Yukon,” whose words have come to characterize the beauty and attraction not only of his home country, but of wild places everywhere. 

In fact, Service’s poem, “The Spell of the Yukon,” sums up our feelings about our journey better than we ever could:

There’s a land where the mountains are

   And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

   And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

   There are valleys unpeopled and still;

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and

   And I want to go back—and I will.

And so will we.

If you go…

The Sourtoe Cocktail Club

We ambled the streets of Dawson and soaked up the community's considerable atmosphere. Dawson was where Jack London's The Call of the Wild was set. The Oakland, California, author took up residence there for a number of years. His cabin has been preserved and is open for tours. That's part of the attraction for German visitors, many of whom were required to read the adventure novel in school.

We also visited the cabin of Canadian poet Robert. W. Service, "the Bard of the Yukon," whose words have come to characterize the beauty not only of his home country, but of wild places everywhere. Pierre Berton, one of Canada's most famous writer/historians, also grew up in Dawson, and his ancestral home has been preserved as a writers' colony.

But the city's historic past also manifests in more colorful ways, not the least of which is the Sourtoe Cocktail, the only drink that features human necrotic tissue as a garnish.

According to legend, Dawson resident Capt. Dick Stevenson found a human toe preserved in a jar of alcohol while he was refurbishing a local cabin. The toe was said to have belonged to miner Louie Liken who lost it to frostbite in the 1920s and decided he needed to keep it. Stevenson found it under the cabin's floorboards 50 years later.

After a discussion with friends, Stevenson in 1973 started the Sourtoe Cocktail Club at the Eldorado Hotel bar. Membership in the club was simple: Order a shot of your favorite alcohol in a wide-mouth glass, then drop the toe in the glass. Swallow the drink and let the toe touch your lips as you finish and you've joined the club.

The club has since relocated to the Downtown Hotel bar and operates under the authority of "Captain" Terry Lee. He's caretaker of the franchise and the latest toe — a leathery, blackened digit with an overlong nail rumored to have belonged to a 16-year-old lawnmower-accident victim from Whitehorse — in what has become a long line of amputated appendages.

For the cost of a $5 drink and a $5 participation fee, Lee puts candidates through the initiation right, dropping the toe in the glass and upon successful completion of the task, issuing a signed certificate and wallet card admitting the drinker to the exclusive club.

How exclusive? The roster already contains more than 55,600 members and grows by the hundreds each week.

When we visited, there were many willing participants, including a surprisingly number of middle-aged women. I briefly considered adding our name to the list but, when you're married to nurse, you learn the dangers of becoming intimate with dead tissue. Besides, "lips that touch dead toes will never touch mine," or so I assumed.

We may reconsider the opportunity the next time we're in Dawson. And given the impression Dawson and Yukon made on us, there most definitely will be a next time.​

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