In August 1896, prospectors George Carmack, Skookum Jim Mason, and Dawson Charlie struck gold on a tributary of the Yukon’s Klondike River, and the rush was on. Within three years, Dawson was the largest city west of Winnipeg. Today, the town’s population tops out at about 2,200 in the summer months, but it’s anything but sleepy. Here are seven ideas for your sojourn under the midnight sun.
Get your bearings
For the full picture of local life in Dawson from 1898 to today, join a Klondike National Historic Sites Walking Tour. Led by Parks Canada guides in period costume, the tour leaves daily from the Visitor Information Centre and stops in at lovingly preserved Klondike-era buildings, including the Red Feather Saloon, the Westminster Hotel and the Post Office. Along the way, expect to encounter characters such as Faith Fenton (real name Alice Freeman), Canada’s first female newspaper columnist, who will regale you with tales of the Gold Rush days.
Sip on a Sourtoe
If for some reason you haven’t heard of the Sourtoe Cocktail at the Downtown Hotel’s Sourdough Saloon, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Legend has it that during prohibition, a pair of rum-running brothers got caught in a blizzard and one of them ended up with a badly frostbitten foot. In order to prevent gangrene, his brother chopped the big toe off and placed it in a jar of alcohol. Supposedly, a local riverboat captain found the jar in a cabin in 1973 and came up with the idea for the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Since then, more than 80,000 people (I was number 82,889) have completed this strange initiation, which involves sucking back a shot of whiskey (or other liquor of your choice) garnished with a real, mummified human toe that must touch your lips.
Cruise the Yukon River
The Klondike Spirit is the only paddlewheeler still operating in the Yukon. Over the course of 90 picturesque minutes, you’ll learn all about how the paddlewheeler was a vital part of Dawson City’s growth, transporting supplies and equipment on the river until 1952 when a road was paved connecting Dawson to Whitehorse. You’ll also pass by notable sites such as the Paddlewheel Graveyard, a collection of wooden paddlewheelers abandoned on the riverbank, and the home of local celebrity “Caveman Bill,” who lives in an honest-to-goodness cave across the river from Dawson.
Go for Greek
Dawson is about as far from the Med as it’s possible to get, but this cozy couzina offers surprisingly authentic and delicious Greek dishes in portions designed for sharing. A word of warning to those who might be tempted by the bell that hangs over the bar: if you ring it, be prepared to buy a round. That’s the rule at any Dawson watering hole.
Gamble with Diamond Tooth Gertie
Newly-flush prospectors needed a place to let loose, and Diamond Tooth Gerties was the hottest ticket in town. Today, visitors can try their luck at the tables and slots (all proceeds are reinvested in the community) and take in three nightly can-can-inspired shows that become more risqué as the night goes on. During the summer months, Gertie herself hosts the festivities alongside her ‘Gold Rush Girls.’
Feel a Gold Rush
Once you’ve learned about the history of the Gold Rush, visit Claim 33 and learn how to pan for gold nuggets yourself. No luck is required — once you’ve mastered the technique, finding gold is guaranteed! Explore the yard filled with antique mining equipment and be sure to visit the gift shop to purchase a unique keepsake: a sterling silver locket filled with your findings.
Located an hour and a half drive from Dawson on the Dempster Highway — the only highway in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle — is the breathtaking Tombstone Territorial Park, so named because of Tombstone Mountain’s resemblance to a grave marker. Situated entirely within the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, the park offers opportunities for hiking and backcountry camping. For a unique experience of Tombstone, consider booking a trail ride on horseback. Several local outfitters offer tours ranging in length from a few hours to a few days so you can let your four-legged friend do the work while you enjoy the views.