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Wild West in the Far North: Dawson City, Yukon

By TIM JOHNSON

The Yukon, and especially Dawson City, looms large in the Canadian imagination—even if few Canadians have actually visited this untamed land. It’s an evocative place, exotic and far-flung despite the fact that it’s wholly within our national borders, simultaneously conjuring up visions of the Wild West, the stereotypical Canadian far North, miles and miles of wilderness and the Klondike Gold Rush era’s crusty, well-worn prospectors, rushing rivers, player pianos and dancing cancan girls.

For the most part, these images still accurately define this fascinating town and the massive Yukon Territory—a 480,000-square-mile region that’s home to just 35,000 people—making a visit here, true to the territory’s official marketing line, a larger-than-life experience.

Explore Dawson City in photos »

Gold Rush History

Dawson City still feels like a gold rush town, in part because the entire town is a national historic site. A boom town sprung up almost overnight here in 1896 when three Yukon “sourdoughs” struck gold on Rabbit Creek, opening the floodgates for as many as 50,000 hopeful prospectors to sweep into this flat spot at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. While certainly smaller and more restrained now, Dawson maintains a frontier feel, complete with unpaved streets, wooden boardwalks and colourful, wooden, false-front buildings.

Start with a stop at the Parks Canada visitor centre at the corner of Front and King Streets—a museum and a great jumping-off point for your adventures, which can include a Strange Things Done in the Midnight Sun walking tour (named after a line in a Robert Service poem), led daily by costumed interpreters, as well as visits to the S. S. Keno, Dredge No. 4 (the largest wooden hulled, bucket line gold dredge in North America), the Commissioner’s Residence, and the beautifully restored Palace Grand Theatre.

Modern-Day Prospecting

Just a short drive out of town, along Bonanza Creek (the former Rabbit Creek, renamed after gold was found there), you can learn the proper technique for panning gold at Claim No. 33, which keeps a healthy supply of pans on hand and seeds the little pools outside with actual gold. Afterward, pay a little extra to hang onto your pan for the day and try your luck down at Claim No. 6, a free claim along the creek that’s open to the public.

Literary Dawson

Jack London, Robert Service and Pierre Berton all contributed to the almost mystical allure of the North through their writings. The former homes of all three of these literary giants are preserved and sit within a block of one another in Dawson. While the Jack London Museum and the Robert Service Cabin (8th Avenue and Hanson Street) are open for tours, the Berton House is private, hosting a rotating schedule of writers-in-residence and can only be viewed from the outside.

See It From the Sky

The best way to get a perspective on the vastness and beauty of the North is from above. Take a tour with Trinity Helicopters, which operates a chopper from the town’s airport, to sweep over the Dawson town site, the surrounding rivers and goldfields, and the majesty of the nearby Tombstone Mountains.

Diamond Tooth Gerties

Canada’s oldest gambling hall, Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall has loose slots, blackjack dealers in period costume and plenty of old-timey fun, with a thrice-nightly cancan dance show, a busy bar and a  mix of locals and visitors.

The Sourtoe Club

No visit to Dawson would be complete without a visit to the Downtown Hotel to join the town’s most famous club. All that’s required is five dollars and a bit of bravery. A long-time tradition similar to Newfoundland’s “screeching-in” ceremonies, here a petrified human toe is dropped into a glass of Yukon Jack whisky, and induction into the club is dependent upon the toe itself touching your lips as you down your Jack.

Where to Eat

The Drunken Goat Taverna (950 Second Ave.; 867-993-5868) serves up mouth-watering moussaka and a wide range of other authentic Greek delicacies—a surprise in the far North, perhaps, but great Mediterranean fare from a restaurant owned and staffed by Greeks is always welcome. Even more surprising may be La Table on 5th, which serves up fine continental cuisine—think duck confit as well as great pastas and steaks—at the Aurora Inn, one of Dawson’s best hotels.

Where to Stay

The Eldorado Hotel evokes the past with its broad front porch and wooden construction, and offers clean, comfortable accommodations in a prime location—just a couple blocks from Diamond Tooth Gerties, and on the same street as “The Pit” bar at the Westminster Hotel, probably the most famous bar in Dawson.

Explore Dawson City in photos »

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