Story and photos by Bruce Northam
After I declined a shot of whiskey, a scruffy saloon man cracked, “You’ve come a long way to behave yourself.” While fond of mischief, I’m still an amateur in Dawson City, a Yukon River-side port in the midst of the Yukon Territory’s pure vastness—a flash in the gold pan, defined. In its 1897-98 heyday, this gold-rush mining settlement, flanked by mountains, was the largest city north of Seattle and west of Winnipeg. At least 100,000 gold seekers set out for its riches, but only 40,000 made it.
Since then, it seems most people drawn to the Yukon Territory are searching for something. I also discovered a long-awaited treasure here—my inner grown-up. Although getting to Dawson is no longer brutal, settling down certainly was for me.
Today, a checkerboard of dirt roads unites a gritty Canadian West living history museum with boardwalk sidewalks, bearded brew-sippers, sassy female bartenders sporting armpit hair, and at-home First Nations artists mingling in wooden establishments. Still a sleepy small town despite seasonal crowding, Dawson also attracts at-ease ski bum types in a region without ski-lifts. They all have a story and share it with Canada’s trademark sentence-ending uptone, which makes their declarations resemble inquiries.
One exchange involved self-appointed Klondike Kaye. I happened upon this quintessential mountain woman outside the Snake Pit tavern. She was a vision with muscular arms jolting out of a cutoff plaid shirt and sporting muddy hiking boots. An over-served logger I was chatting with turned and asked her “Are you left-wing or right-wing?” Smoking and illuminated by a golden rush of sun, she stepped off the boardwalk onto the road and mused, “The whole bird.” Then she walked away with that Arctic cowgirl strut. She made the New York women I see every day putting makeup on in the subway seem uncharacteristically fragile.
The evolving me didn’t accost Klondike Kaye. Various landmarks inspire men to come of age—finding or losing jobs, turning 30, becoming a parent, experiencing a health scare or loss. I had difficulty locating my fun off-switch and extended the shenanigans into my mid-40s. I began accepting adult scheduling when I simply tired of hollow sex, late nights, boozy babbling, and bedbugs. Moreover, having a daughter turns womanizers into girl guards. Sometimes getting away from it all—the Yukon certainly fits that bill—sends everything you’re fleeing right back to you.
Everything evolves. With an eclectic mix of restaurants—Greek, French Canadian, gourmet moose burgers joints—it’s not hard to imagine this river valley town having the potential to become another Aspen in 20 years. It does already sport Hawaii prices, minus the beach and salted with harmless outlaws. Meandering between bars, I watch a strolling cop nod toward a cougar wearing a CANADA: It’s better on top t-shirt and smirk, “This is a drinking town with a sightseeing problem.” I peer at my watch, and it’s still happy hour. I talk to the cop instead of the cougar. What have I become?
A Few People Among the Moose
Together, Canada’s 10 provinces and three Arctic-hugging territories form the world’s second largest country. Declared territories because they’re only loosely tied to the constitution that governs the provinces and the rules that concern most people—you can still stake land there. The Idaho-shaped Yukon Territory is home to 14 indigenous tribes and eight different linguistic groups. Bordering Alaska and the Arctic Sea, it is home to 35,000 people and encompasses the same land mass as California, which hosts 38 million souls. Flanneled locals who refer to “outside” as the rest of the world simply call it, “The Yukon.” Our northern neighbors, way northern, puzzle over why we live on top of each other. The human population of the Yukon was higher in 1898 than it is now. Even today, moose outnumber Yukoners by two to one.
Dawson City was known as the Paris of the North because with so much gold it could afford all the luxuries that money could buy. But it wasn’t a fine wine time for many. The oft delusional hordes that didn’t perish en route were fleeced of their riches by Dawson-based conmen or prostitutes, and left broke. And then the town was basically abandoned. Repopulated, this is not the sort of place that identifies with city slickers bumbling blindly down the road ogling their smartphones. Gnarly tavern patrons lowering an eyebrow at anyone speed-thumbing their gadgets buoyed validation for my adaptation of an iPhone—an 8×11-inch piece of paper folded in eighths and a pen. Without screaming I’m ignoring you or I’m not really here, my inconspicuous reporting mode allowed me to blend in, sort of. I’d just shaved and was on beer number two, not eight.
This resuscitated prospector outpost still attracts modern fortune hunters, and I don’t mean internet tycoons. At present, pioneers still stake land—a version of homesteading—as new gold finds continue to be discovered. It lures people in search of alternatives, whether it be gold, avoiding pop reality, or a different take on life…
“We’re real miners, not Discovery Channel miners.” —overheard in Snake Pit about visiting television crew.
Next stop northbound: arctic tundra. Next stop for me: a jog instead of a joint.
Winters are dark and cold, but I was there in t-shirt weather when it stays light until 2am after six-hour-long idyllic sunsets. The wooden sidewalks creak just like they did in the late 1800s. Blink and you’re back in this century. Canada’s Wild West movie set is not just on the way to Alaska. Storming Dawson seems to be a Canadian rite of passage, akin to Americans reaching Key West. On a college spring break, I managed to never stall the flow of beer even while hitchhiking from Virginia to Key West and back. The next afternoon, immersing myself in Dawson’s multiple personalities, I danced to live bluegrass with locals, miners, and showgirls. Later, I told them about that hitch. My amateur status temporarily gave way to semi-pro.
Dawson now attracts live music prospectors. Bands drew me to this far-flung escape. Every July, the place that inspired many of Jack London’s masterpieces hosts an international music festival. It’s their Mardi Gras without the parades. The primary performance area is an in-community field with a tented main stage adjoined to an outdoor beer garden. Venues include a church with an indoor wood-burning stove and wood pile, a Victorian theatre, and a riverfront gazebo.
Truly an international event, the eclectic 2011 lineup featured a nomadic Nigerian band chanting along with a traditional First Nations drum ensemble, which inspired a communal conga-style friendship dance. Other acts included throat singers, bluegrass ensembles, blues artists (Yukon roots music maverick, Ryan McNally), classic Canadian rockers, and Whitey Houston generating computer-free drum-and-bass. Dawson’s intimacy makes it easy to mingle with the musicians. After his festival-closing show, Ryan McNally invited me to an all-night musicians’ bash that promised to see the sun rise. The guy—me, who once flew to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and didn’t leave for two months—reached down, clicked the on switch off, and went to bed.
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