North of 60 – Dawson City

Dawson City

May 31, 2015

17:30:  We have driven 331 km today and  have reached Dawson City.

The paved highway ends at the townsite. You are immediately transported to the “Klondike” . As we came into town we slowed right down to take in this wide street, unpaved, giving it this impression of a dusty frontier town. The buildings are wooden structures, and the sidewalks are wooden planks. Some buildings are barely standing, weathered and leaning over with the heaving of the permafrost. Others have been restored, are brightly painted, and finding a second life as a pizza joint, a hardware store, an art gallery.

We were looking for the RV park which was located right in Dawson.   We found it easily, were assigned a parking spot and the capogita deftly backed the RV into it. The RV park is really a large gravelly parking lot but it had interesting landscaping. Mining equipment that looked a little like small backhoe shovels had been painted a lively blue color and held nasturtiums and petunias protecting them from the frosty nights.

This was our first attempt at plugging in the vehicle and at first we could not find which compartment held the electrical cord.  Finally we found it in the compartment marked propane and all was good.  Then we filled the water tank and that went well too.  Then off to the showers where you had to put a token in to run the water but it was nice and hot.

We decided to go out to eat tonight. The person in the seat next to us on the flight from Vancouver to Whitehorse was the director of the Boys and Girls Club in Whitehorse. He was quite proud of his work there and the programs his organization was able to offer to the parents and children of Whitehorse. He also very enthusiastically offered us suggestions of must – see places in the area and also suggested a couple of restaurants. So we headed off to one of the places he had suggested in Dawson. It took us awhile to get there because there was so much to take in, from walking on wooden sidewalks, to reading the stories posted on buildings, to enjoying the bright sunny evening.

A lot of the buildings are like living museums. While they have another purpose today, their original story is told in window displays. One building used to be a ladies fashion store owned by a husband and wife originally from Quebec. They found some gold and then started the clothing business. The window has a women’s dress, accessories and sewing materials from the turn of the century. Another window shows a menu and the prices of meals during the gold rush years.

We ate dinner at a Greek Taverna – The Drunken Goat.  All the tables were actually taken and we had to wait outside for a table to free up inside. We enjoyed a really tasty meal of perfectly grilled lamb chops, tender back ribs, shrimp, rice, salad and grilled chicken with a bottle of Greek wine. The room was painted with a mural of a Greek island,  bright and at the same time warm. The woman serving our table that night was, like many people working in Dawson, there for the season. She was from British Columbia, had taken a leave of absence from her job there and again like many others was working two jobs in Dawson. The long daylight hours giving her the extra energy to work 16 hour days.

Then we continued our walk about and headed to the river-front. There is a path along a raised dike that was built to keep the river from flooding the town every spring. There is an impressive cultural centre – one part is a stylized teepee and the second part is a wood clad building with a glass front that faces the river.

There are a lot of interpretive panels all along the river explaining everything from the effects of the permafrost, to how the ice break up in the spring causes massive flooding, to placer mining.   We watched as the ferry travelled back and forth across the river looking very tiny against the background of the surrounding hills. The sun bathed the colorful buildings in a warm golden glow, and while there were other people walking around, there was this lovely laid back calmness and stillness and we did not want to stop walking around. But it was getting near to 11 o’clock and we headed back to the RV.

Unfortunately in our rambling walk we missed seeing Jack London’s cabin and Robert Service’s cabin that are now museums.

I love this positive spin on the population statistics found on the Yukon Community Profiles website.

In Dawson City, there are 1,319 (2011 Census) friendly, unique and adventure-minded individuals; the second highest population in the Yukon next to Whitehorse. What a lyrical way to state the facts about the size of the population. And to state that Dawson is the second largest city at 1,319 people when Whitehorse has 29,000 people and all of the Yukon about 34,000 people I think tells you that those 1,319 people are proud to be there.

The population of the Yukon itself is growing; a population growth of 11.6% between the 2006 and 2011 census years was the highest in Canada. An 11.6% increase means that about 3500 new people arrived to live in the Yukon!

The people of Dawson City are adaptable, creative, entrepreneurial and innovative. Yukon has one of the highest university degree per capita ratios in Canada and a high rate of high school completion. All this makes for a skookum labour force (skookum: used locally to mean impressive, exceptional and genuinely cool).

The facts are the facts but with a sunny optimism seldom seen in population statistics.

As we approached Dawson we saw these long curving piles of stones along side the road. Some kind of construction I thought to myself. Then I realized no – these are the vestiges of placer mining. The term “placer” is a Spanish word, meaning “a place where gold can be recovered from gravel.” As this suggests, placer mining is the technique of recovering gold from gravel. Placer deposits occur in several areas in Yukon, though historically, most of the mining has taken place near Dawson City. This area is particularly favourable for placer deposits because it is in the unglaciated part of Yukon. Placer gold deposits occur when gravel that holds minerals is washed many times by the flow of creek water. Gold, one of the heaviest minerals, tends to drop down during the washing process, until it can go no further. It gradually finds its way to some impermeable layer, like bedrock or thick clay. This is the classic picture that we have of the Klondike – panning for gold. Today machinery does the digging and moving of the gravel and the result is these piles of gravel.  Gold mining is still an ongoing activity and an integral part of the landscape.

The Klondike Gold Rush was touched off by the August 16, 1896 discovery of placer gold on Rabbit (later Bonanza) Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. There are many stories and controversies around who really made the first big discovery of gold. One story goes that George Carmacks, an American from California, along with his wife Kate, and his brother-in-law known as Skookum Jim were salmon fishing and “discovered” the gold while washing out the dinner dishes. Another First Nations story says that a spirit told George that he would discover the gold.   Miners already in the area then staked every creek in the Klondike River and Indian River watersheds.

Dawson City, is located where the Yukon and Klondike Rivers meet. Where once there was moose pasture and for many generations a fish camp for the First Nations Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, a city sprung up. It became the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush. The townsite was named in January 1897 after Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887. Dawson grew slowly throughout the winter of 1897, but once the Yukon River thawed in May of 1898, boats arrived in the hundreds and pulled to shore at all hours of the day and night.

By 1898 it was a thriving city of 40,000 the largest and most cosmopolitan Canadian city west of Winnipeg. On sale in Dawson’s streets were French champagnes, oysters, the latest Paris fashions, porcelain, parasols, lacquer work and imported delicacies.

It all ended as quickly as it began. In the summer of 1899, gold was discovered on the sandy beaches of Nome, Alaska. Many of the stampeders who had arrived too late to stake claims in the Klondike left immediately for the new land of gold. The gold rush had ended for Dawson and the town’s population plummeted as all but 8,000 people left.

I liked everything about Dawson;  it is nestled under the pine covered hills along the Yukon River, the wooden buildings are living remnants and tributes to the adventurous people who endured incredible hardships to follow their dreams of finding gold,  and in the process carved this town out of the immense wilderness, and today the people living there carry on in this spirit  keeping this town vital and alive.    My feelings were helped along I am sure by the fact that we arrived on a splendidly sunny day and with the midnight sun! Today May 31st the sunset at 00:13 and the sunrise was at 4:17 with a golden red twilight in between.


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