DAWSON CITY, YUKON -- I’m in Dawson City, in Canada’s northern wilderness, walking the route of the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush, when a handsome 19th century dandy with sweeping sideburns and a penchant for poetry extends an invitation almost too good to refuse.
“Would it be terrible to be stranded in Dawson City? We’ll take one of you home each,” offers Fred, our affable Parks Canada host, who’s already tickled the ivories for our entertainment at the historic Commissioner’s Residence and regaled us with stories of “the Bard of the Yukon,” the poet Robert Service.
He’s only half-kidding. I think. And I’m half-tempted.
A day in Dawson City definitely leaves you wanting more.
Once a moose pasture and traditional home of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in — the First Nations “people of the river” — Dawson changed into a bawdy boomtown almost overnight after three Yukon sourdoughs, George Carmack, Dawson Charlie, and Skookum Jim, discovered gold in 1896 just outside of town in Rabbit Creek, now known as Bonanza Creek.
Gold fever lured almost 40,000 people through mountain passes and down the Yukon River to stake their claim in the territory, a pie-shaped wedge squeezed between the Northwest Territories on the east, the state of Alaska on the west, and British Columbia to the south
Many didn’t find fortune, but it didn’t matter. The Klondike held adventure.
Today, walking the wide dirt streets of this national historic site is truly like stepping back in time. Strolling past vintage wood-sided saloons, one can be forgiven for expecting tumbleweeds to blow down the street or gun-slingers to fall pell-mell through swinging doors, so perfectly preserved is this 19th century façade.
Most striking of all is the welcome of the Northerners themselves, so proud of this fierce land.
A wooden boardwalk lines the main street where visitors watch the SS Keno, an old paddle wheeler — a tourist attraction now, but once the only mode of transportation — struggle to dock in the strong current of the Yukon River.
Until the advent of the highway in the 1950s, the steamer for many was the first and last contact with the outside world each season.
“Everything and everybody that came into the town during the gold rush came in by the Yukon River,” says Anna, a lifelong resident, who works as a costumed Parks Canada guide, leading tourists through the streets of her hometown.
“People in Dawson are really good at making their own fun. Dawson has a good sense of community because of that. There’s a real creed of helping others.”
Friendliness is not the only appeal. Gold rush artefacts and history are everywhere. “It’s a living museum,” says Denny Kobayashi, who lived in Dawson nine years.
A town of just 1,800, Dawson welcomes as many as 60,000 visitors each year, drawn by gold’s legend, and the spellbinding words of literary luminaries Robert Service, Pierre Berton, and Jack London, who penned poignant tales of the north that still resonate. Their cabins are within a stone’s throw of each other amid the willows and alders on Eighth Avenue, which is also known as Author’s Avenue, or Writers’ Block.
In the town proper, we walk past the former Bank of Commerce where Service worked as a bank teller in 1908-09. It’s long closed, but fascinating still to stand outside the shell of the building and imagine the life of the writer tramping around these wilds.
Today, tourists can tour his cabin, complete with moose antlers over the door, and hear Parks Canada staff recite his poems, such as Dangerous Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee and other classics.
Tourists come too to meet the “Goodtime Girls” at Diamond Tooth Gerties, where they can gamble and watch costumed characters dance the can-can. They come to pan for gold, and take in many Parks Canada attractions including the Palace Grand Theatre and Dredge #4, a huge gold dredge.
Dawson’s seen boom. And bust. And now boom again.
“We call it the second gold rush,” says Kobayashsi. “The price of gold has gone through the roof.”
With it have come a slew of modern mining companies, working the land.
Over at the Dawson City Museum, we meet Jim Archibald, a champion gold panner and veteran gold miner, who has been working a claim since the 1960s. Between panning demonstrations, he lets visitors hold a little poke — a small bag of gold that fits nicely in the palm of my hand, and rings in at $24,000. “There’s no point in stealing it in this town,” he says. “There’s nowhere to run to.”
For historical perspective, drive to the Midnight Dome, a look-out point atop to the northeast of Dawson, to see where it all began.
The 360-degree vista takes in surrounding mountain ranges, the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon rivers, and Dawson proper below. You see Alaska, and to the left, Bonanza Creek.
“There isn’t one definitive story of how the gold rush started,” Anna says “It involved quite a cast of characters.”
Carmac, working with Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, relatives of his First Nations wife Kate, had been prospecting with Robert Henderson when they apparently had a falling out. The trio parted company with Henderson, and not long after found the gold that started it all.
It’s said that Skookum Jim may have shouted “Bonanza!”