Dawson City, Yukon

The city of Townsville! The Town of the City of Dawson! Dawson City may no longer be an actual city, with well under 2000 people remaining, but in 1898, it may as well have been the centre of the world. In just a few walkable city blocks, 40,000 prospectors from around the world crowded into what was once a First Nations settlement, transforming it with newfound riches into a place to see and be seen.

It’s not hard to imagine. Strip out the cars from the dirt roads. Un-collapse a few buildings falling apart from being built directly on the permafrost. Slightly straighten the walls of some hundred-year-old buildings. Picture everyone dressed like a costumed Parks Canada employee, and multiply the population by a few hundred to account for the covid visitor numbers. To make those sepia photos all over town come to life, I don’t even need to close my eyes to do it.

The endless stories associated with this place are the stuff of legends. The crazy thing is that Dawson continues to thrive and continues to be stranger than fiction.

For urban softies like me, re-tracing the steps of those who came a hundred years before us is sheer novelty. I lasted maybe twenty minutes panning for gold at Discovery Claim, site of where Skookum Jim, Dawson Charlie, Jim’s sister Kate and her husband George Carmack found gold on the banks of Bonanza Creek in the summer of 1896. (Though we had to pry Devin away after Daniele, Yumi, and I got bored and hungry!) Granted, the easy stuff has all been mined out — panned out from the hysteria of the gold rush, dredged out by early machinery as the rush faded, and even excavated out now, but still — patience is not my virtue here.

Downtown Dawson feels like a real step back in time, with century-old structures continuing to be used, wooden boardwalks above the permafrost, and a dusty frontier feel. It’s also built on a flood plain where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers meet, the latter of which the local Hän people call Tr’ondëk — mispronounced enough to get to the name we commonly know it as now. Unlike the prospectors, the Hän were wise not to build by the water: fortunately missing from our experience was the constant flooding, sewage in the streets, hordes of mosquitoes, and the resulting outbreaks of dysentery and malaria that plagued the early days.

Skookum Jim and his group registered their claims at the town of Forty Mile, down the Yukon River towards the border. It’s still accessible by boat or by a side road from the Top of the World highway to Alaska, but it’s a completely overgrown ghost town now, becoming so virtually overnight as news of gold on the Klondike spread and everyone left to stake their claims on the river. It’s now a beautiful, serene location, but without any remaining life to it except for nature, it’s hard to imagine it as bustling as Dawson in its own heyday.

Of course, the rest is history, the way people risked life and limb to get here as fast as they could. People who learned of the news quick tried to make it on the Yukon River by dogsled in winter, and many weren’t experienced and either died or dragged themselves dying into Dawson. When newly-rich people left Dawson by boat the next summer in 1897, showering cities in America with their riches, an estimated 100,000 people dropped everything and tried to make it up here, carrying a year’s supply of food on their backs, walking up and down mountain passes, or spending untold thousands of dollars on an all-ocean route that was faster and more comfortable but occasionally blocked. All for the 1898 version of FOMO — and yet by then, most of the gold had already been claimed or mined.

In Dawson, I can imagine the people getting off the steamboats in the summer, just where the SS Keno lies now. I can also imagine the food and supply shortages this place probably went through when those boats couldn’t make it, perhaps stuck in ice or capsized in a rapid. On one hand, you’ve got the rich living it up like high society, paying any price for whatever they wanted: food, maybe some drinks at the Red Feather Saloon, see a terribly tacky show at the Palace Grand Theatre just to be seen, a few nights of gambling, perhaps a little extra time with the dancers, or even a night at the brothel.

On the other hand, you’ve got the hapless, perhaps the latecomers, and those who take advantage of it. Take the carpenter-turned-mortician who would approach new arrivals, perhaps those looking a little green or unprepared, innocently asking to take their measurements before digging their graves in the summer in anticipation of a hard winter. Or the barman, who’d take payment in gold but hide the flaky change with his fingernails running through his gelled hair, and sweep up at the end of the night looking for fallen gold flakes on the floor. The rich would literally have heavy flakes of gold fall out of their pockets while walking down the streets, and it wasn’t unheard of for people to pan the dirt off the street.

It’s pretty incredible just how much was set up in a short time to accommodate for the influx of people, and also how hilariously unprepped those responsible were. Bankers had to carry safes full of money from the south (along with their years’ supply of food) and run from tents before actual banks were constructed. The post office was constructed without any regard to how cold it was in the north, requiring more wood to heat it each year than wood to build the thing. Buildings went up and burnt down so often, the whole town’s been rebuilt three times over.

But as quickly as people left Forty Mile for Dawson, did people leave Dawson for Nome, Alaska — the next gold rush.

It’s over one hundred years later now, and gold mining still occurs in the area, albeit a shadow of its former self. Yet this town continues to attract people from all over Canada and the world. It takes a certain character to drop everything and move here — whether in search of the outdoors, in pursuit of art, for the love of history, for the good vibes, or a small community of outsiders in a place that feels like the ends of the earth — any of that, and a hardy spirit able to endure those dark, endless -40°C days in the winter. A common story we heard over and over were of those who came from afar just for a visit, or just for a summer, and ended up staying indefinitely, becoming part of the town fabric. Like attracts like, and what appears now is a surprisingly progressive and diverse population of all races, nationalities, and ages, perhaps all with a bit of a quixotic streak, if not a hippie one.

I mean, there’s a friendly resident who lives all year in a literal cave across the river. You’ll see him biking around town, catching up with friends in the day before rowing back home. And then there’s Captain Terry, keeper of pickled human toes and prepper of the infamous sour toe cocktail — Frostbite? Lawn mower accident? Where are these toes from and why are there multiple?! This cocktail, a tradition from who-knows-why, comes with instructions: you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe. And yet Dawson City has multiple people – residents and visitors – who swallowed a toe on purpose, one who called it “legal cannibalism”. Yes, a shrivelled toe with attached toenail and protruding bone. And somehow replacements are found or donated. Who are these people?!

That’s barely even scratching the surface. I feel like there’s a little magic here — the people being like characters out of a storybook being one factor. Rainbows appeared every day we were there, ending not with a pot of gold, but on streets practically paved with them. The old buildings, the cemeteries, the dredge tailings, the abandoned mining equipment… they all suggest countless stories untold.

You can see it all from up above, on the Midnight Dome just overlooking the town. Then when night falls, if you still don’t feel the magic yet… the sky will spell it out for you.

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