Dawson City, in Canada's wild Yukon province, is undoubtedly one of the weirdest, wackiest spots on the planet – and a magnet for adventurous travellers.
The former gold rush city, a Wild West legend at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, closes down for much of the year, buried under metres of snow and deserted by all but the hardiest of its residents. During the winter months most hotels and restaurants are boarded up; locals travel by skidoo, dog sled or on skis and tourism is virtually non-existent.
Then the sun starts to shine and this tough but fascinating town is reborn and visitors are once again invited to take a step back in time to enjoy panning for gold, sleeping in a former brothel or exploring the remains of once-majestic Yukon River paddle-steamers in a spooky ship graveyard.
The west doesn’t get much wilder despite the friendly vibe – and there’s only one tarred road; the Top of the World Highway, in and out of town. Next stop, Alaska. As the locals like to joke: “This isn’t the end of the world; but you can see it from here.”
Dawson City has enjoyed booms and busts. In the late 1890s gold was discovered and it was known as “the Paris of the North” becoming the second city in North America to get electricity after Chicago.
In 1898 it had a population of over 45,000 and was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. There was so much money in town that locals used to send off to London and Paris for Champagne and silk shirts; and women from around the globe descended to “mine the miners”.
Four years later the gold rush was over, although locals say there are still nuggets out there and hopefuls still hit the rivers hoping to strike it lucky. They can pan for free at Claim #6 on Bonanza Creek, a fast-running stream off the Klondike – and keep any gold that they discover.
Bonanza Road, just outside town, is still dotted with gold claims and some craggy, wild-looking characters inhabit these parts.
Despite the brutal winters, when temperatures plummet to -40 degrees Celsius, much of Dawson’s City’s original architecture has survived; leaving the city a living, breathing history museum. Many of the old buildings are unused but have been maintained in the way they would have looked 100 years earlier, complete with wooden boardwalks, colourful storefronts and believable fake facades (it’s surprisingly easy to try to walk into a business that closed over a century ago).
The township today has a permanent population of fewer than 2,000 people and replicates pretty what it was like to live in a sub-Arctic region a century ago. It comes alive, however, with a bawdy atmosphere during the summer season (April-September) with Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall, a wild west-style casino, at the centre of the action.
While the larger, more cosmopolitan (all things being relative) Whitehorse is the capital and commercial centre of the Yukon, Dawson City has a heartbeat all its own. It has all modern conveniences, including the casino with dancing girls three times a night – but walk 20 minutes out of town and you are in pristine wilderness with moose as your neighbours.
This is the halfway stage each year for the toughest dog sled race in the world, the international 1000-mile Yukon Quest, which is held each February between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska, or vice versa.
Dawson City comes out of its winter slumber with the Thaw de Gras spring festival that features events including chainsaw tossing and tea boiling (did I mention that the locals are endearingly eccentric?). The longest annual canoe and kayak race in the world (740 kilometres from Whitehorse) ends here each July.
Many visitors come for the canoeing, hiking and fishing, or hoping to spot black bears in the wilderness of the Tombstone Territorial Park.
In summer, when it is light for 18 or more hours a day, modern-day Dawson City is known as “the land of the Midnight fun” because of the party atmosphere at rough-and-ready but friendly pubs like the Westminster, Downtown, Bombay Peggy's and Triple J.
I managed to avoid imbibing the revolting-sounding “Sour-toe cocktails” – Downtown Hotel specialities that are garnished with real human toes that have been dehydrated and preserved in salt. I made my excuses and left, as the British tabloids say. My reason was that these “drinks” are actually a 1970s invention - no matter how tough the locals say drinking one proves you are.
Far more appealing are a cruise on the mighty 3520-kilometre long Yukon River on board the
paddle-wheeler Klondike Spirit, a downtown tour with a costumed guide taking in the SS Keno (an old river ship pictured below), or maybe a drive to the top of the Midnight Dome, which offers panoramic views of the township, the Klondike and Yukon Rivers and underlines what a tiny speck on the map Dawson City is.
Dawson City lies within the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwech’in First Nations band, and visitors can discover about their traditional way of life at the fascinating Danoja Zho Cultural Centre. Although many of them choose not to, you’ll learn how the First Nations people are still capable of living off the land with their incredible knowledge of local plants and herbs and their hunting traditions.
Other "must dos" include the Jack London Museum (which celebrates the life of the famous author) and a ferry ride across the Yukon River to West Dawson to explore the rotting remains of some of the once mighty paddle-streamers that have been left to rot on the riverbank.
Air Canada flies daily non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver using Boeing 777 long-range aircraft with personal in-flight entertainment systems and offers connections to Whitehorse and 58 other Canadian destinations. See www.aircanada.com. Air North flies between Whitehorse and Dawson City, Old Crow, Inuvik and Fairbanks, Alaska. See www.flyairnorth.com.
The Aurora Inn (below) offers comfortable, affordable accommodation and is open year-round. It has an on-site restaurant, La Table on 5th, that features some of the best food in town (the seafood chowder is excellent). Phone: 867 993 6860. Rates vary from $129-$209 per night. www.aurorainn.ca
For more details see www.dawsoncity.ca
# The writer was a guest of the Canadian Travel Commission and was assisted by Air Canada.