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North America

Dawson City: the great white north

Jonathan van Bilsen



July 8, 2018

Dawson City: the great white north

Canada has a great deal to offer tourists and residents alike, and the great white north is no exception. I had the pleasure of travelling into the Yukon, and discovering the wonderful city of Dawson with all its historic significance.

Dawson is not that easy to get to. I drove from Fairbanks, Alaska and after 13 hours behind the wheel, I was glad to be out of the car. I was amazed at how much emptiness exists in Canada. Driving four and five hours without seeing any signs of civilization, makes you appreciate the vast beauty, at the same time, realizing how insignificant we are in comparison to Mother Nature.

I pulled into Dawson and immediately looked for Jack London. The closest I came was a torn copy of Cry of the Wild on a bookshelf in my hotel, the Westmark. The town of just shy of 1,400 residents and is built on permafrost, so the buildings tend to be on a bit of a kilter. Of course, from a tourist perspective, this adds to the uniqueness, however, I’m not sure residents feel the same way.

The history of Dawson and the Yukon Gold rush is amazing. More than 100,000 people set out from Seattle in the late 1800s to find fame and fortune, all because of one woman, while doing her laundry in Bonanza Creek, a small tributary of the Klondike River. People were totally unprepared and ironically, most of the land had already been claimed when the prospectors arrived.

The driving force was a major recession in the US, which caused great unemployment, and gave people a reason to flee north, to the land of milk and honey. Travellers came in light jackets and shoes, with little in the way of provisions and had to cross the Chilkoot Pass, high in the mountains, which makes up the Canada, US border. Of the hundred thousand or so that set out, only 30,000 made it, as the grueling Yukon temperatures were no match for the ill prepared, would be prospectors.

Finally, after an entire winter of devastation, the North West Mounted Police were handed the authority from the government, to lie down and enforce some rules. Anyone wishing to travel the Chilkoot Pass had to have a minimum of one year’s supply of food, weighing a thousand pounds, as well as another thousand pounds of equipment. Many unhappy prospectors were turned back, however, unbeknownst to them at the time, their lives had been spared.

Dawson City has gone through some stabilization issues. When it was first settled, in 1898, the population skyrocketed to 40,000. In 1902 it became incorporated as a city. Just over one hundred years later, the town declared bankruptcy and the Mayor and Council were removed. Today Dawson is under the jurisdiction of the Yukon Government.

In 1978, a discovery was made in the rubble beneath an old hockey rink. More than 500 films, dating back between 1905 and 1921 were found, buried in the permafrost. The films have been restored and were released in 2016 as a documentary entitled, Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Dawson City is a great place to spend a few days (in summer). The short nights make for lots of activities. The city boasts a mixture of First Nations Heritage and Gold Rush History, blended with an active Gold Mining and Tourism Industry, as well as a thriving Arts scene.

During my four days there I found the city was buzzing with activity. I hired a Tour guide, dressed in in gold rush era garb, and he lead me on a very detailed walking tour through downtown Dawson City. I then boarded an elegant paddle wheeler to experience the mighty Yukon River in style. There are even daily shows at Canada’s oldest gambling hall, featuring boisterous dance hall girls. For a quieter activity, the area’s captivating past comes to life at the Dawson City Museum, where you can experience a taste of Yukon culture. 

Another fun activity, which really brought me back to the days of the Gold rush, was a tour to the Klondike Gold Fields where I marveled at the size of Dredge #4, which in its heyday was the largest wooden-hulled dredge in North America. A drive up to the Midnight Dome was a real treat, and offered a top-of-the-world view. There are plenty of nature trails and walks, all of which allow you to get in touch with the beauty of our natural world.

One thing is a definite must, a taste of the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, certainly not for the faint at heart, but the bragging rights were worth it, I think. The Sourtoe Cocktail is a rite of passage in town – it is a shot of whiskey, garnished with a mummified human toe. In order to gain membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, you must drink the shot (supervised by Toe Captain Terry) and follow one rule: "You can drink it fast. You can drink it slow. But your lips must touch that gnarly toe."

In 2013, a man named Joshua Clark swallowed one of Captain Terry's favourite toes, on purpose. He was run out of town. But now he's back, seeking forgiveness from the toe captain himself.

Combining Dawson City with Whitehorse makes for a very memorable trip. You can even fly to Anchorage, which is what I did. Then visit Denali and Fairbanks and make your way to Canada’s Great White North. However you choose to experience Dawson City, the midnight sun ensures there’s plenty of daylight to fit it all in.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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