Miss Part 1 of our adventures through the Klondike? Click the link to read about our encounter with bull moose and hiking adventure in “The Patagonia of the North”, Tombstone Provincial Park !
If you read about our adventures in Tombstone Provincial Park in the Yukon, you already know that I’m fascinated by some weird shit, and I think my fascination with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 falls into that category. To satisfy my inner history nerd, part two of our road trip through the Yukon and Alaska took us right to where it all began: Dawson City.
Okay, so that’s not exactly true. Technically the Gold Rush began at what’s now known as Discovery Claim, 15 km down the Bonanza Creek Highway, a stretch of road dotted with active gold mining equipment and the occasional trailer. I was getting really excited as we passed the active mines, and El and I kept our eyes peeled for the Discovery Claim National Historic Site where gold was first discovered. I was expecting some sort of museum, so it was a bit of a let down to see that the site only consisted of a plaque, an educational trail, and a sign that explained the origins of the gold rush. Womp womp.
For those of you who aren’t total nerds like the author here, there are a bunch of different stories as to who discovered what first, but the most accepted version (and the one imprinted on the plaque) is that Robert Henderson was the first to recognize the gold-bearing potential of the Klondike but never ended up hitting it big. He shared his hunch with his buddy, First Nations tribe member, Skookum Jim, who was the first to actually strike gold and stake the first claim with his buddies Tagish Charlie and George Carmack. Within days, the rest of Bonanza Creek had already been staked, and by the time the news hit the press, all the good claims had already been staked. Unfortunately for the thousands of people who left their homes to head north after reading about gold in the papers, their dreams of riches were over for them before they even arrived.
You can pan for gold for free at Claim #6, but you need to bring your own pan. Since we left our best gold pan at home (i.e. we don’t have a freaking gold pan), I just stood in the river and got my picture taken instead. Again, I thought there was going to be a museum with some sort of “rental pans” there, so I came woefully unprepared. I think it’s safe to assume that I wouldn’t have survived a day on the actual Gold Rush trail.
After failing to strike it rich, we drove the short distance to Dawson City, a city whose population currently sits around 1,000 but had swelled to over 40,000 between the years 1896-1898. Since we were south of the starkly beautiful Tombstone Provincial Park, we may not have struck gold but we had a lot more golden trees decorating the side of the highway. I’d say that’s fair compensation. Driving into Dawson City itself, set on the raging Yukon River, was like taking a Delorean back into the Old West. The streets were all gravel and dirt, and there were wooden boardwalks in place of concrete sidewalks. The buildings were all colorful and built in the same style that was popular during the Gold Rush era. It. Was. DELIGHTFUL.
The Yukon River is actually the third longest in North America (it goes all the way to the Bering Sea) and was named by Hudson’s Bay Company trader, John Bell, who thought “Youcon” was the Gwich’in word for “great river” (it’s actually dyukun-ah so nice try, buddy). People traveling up the Yukon to Dawson would know they reached their destination when they saw the bare spot on the mountainside, “Moosehide Slide”, where a First Nations legend says a rockslide stopped invading cannibals from hurting their people. The Moosehide Slide story is just one example of how the Klondike area is so steeped in the traditions and stories of the First Nations people, and it’s worth it for anyone visiting the area to learn more about the land they’re guests in.
We checked into the Downtown Hotel, home of the world famous Sourtoe Cocktail (more on that to come), which was located…. right downtown. We were so sweaty and grimy from that morning’s hike that our shower felt more like a resurrection, and soon we were walking around the few blocks that made up the downtown area. Although it was only mid-September, most of the businesses in the “downtown” area were already shuttered for the season, but there were a few trading posts and funky souvenir shops that we were able to check out. Jack London had taken part in the rush up north and used his experiences as inspiration for The Call of the Wild and White Fang, so I felt inclined to buy that combo book from a small bookstore. I get a Hemingway book every time I go to Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, so this was my North American version of that tradition.
We stopped at a bar called the Bonanza Lounge and got a Yukon Brewing beer, a craft brewery whose motto is “Beer worth freezing for”; indeed it was. A lot of people came in and bought beers to go, so we surmised that there wasn’t a liquor store in town, which isn’t unusual for smaller towns. While at the bar we overheard the bartender recommending dinner at the Aurora Inn to another patron, so we made that our next stop. Definitely recommend because the portions were hearty, the food was good, and the service great. After dinner, we decided that we HAD to go the local casino, Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall, because how could we stay away with a name like that?!? It was only 7:30 when we got there, so the place was D-E-A-D. When we bought our “season pass” to the casino (unfortunately the season was ending in two days, and we were only there for the night so there’s that), the girl at the window informed us that the can-can shows were at 8:30, 10pm, and midnight and that the shows get more risqué the later it gets. Explained why it was dead when we got there.
Gertie’s was everything we’d hoped for and probably everything you’re picturing in your head. There was a bar decorated with mammoth tusks, three felt tables for card games, slot machines lining the walls, and a big open space in the middle of the room that had chairs and tables set up to face the stage for the night’s can-can entertainment. We started our Gertie’s adventure together at the bar, where the bartender recommended we take a side trip to Keno, a town with 8 people, and we were the only ones sitting there who didn’t just finish a shift in the mines. Everyone around us was eating their burgers with hands stained black from their work, further evidence that active mining is still a big industry in the Yukon.
El tried his hand at the $3 minimum, $20 maximum bet blackjack table where he sat next to a couple British guys who were in town to film the show Gold Rush, and I played slots and chatted with this friendly old guy waiter who kept coming over to talk to me and even gave me a free beer. El and I regrouped when we saw two piano players dressed in old-timey clothing take their seats at the piano and grabbed seats to watch the show. Gertie “herself” came out and sang a few songs and interacted with the crowd before the four girl can-can girl show kicked off. Literally kicked off because there were plenty of high leg kicks, showing off of the undies, and whooping. It was a super entertaining show, and the dancers were insanely talented. We got a picture with the group after the show before high-kicking ourselves over to the Downtown Hotel to be initiated into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.
Drinking the Sourtoe Cocktail is something of a right of passage for visitors to Dawson City, and as “when in Rome” travellers we were naturally drawn to the experience. What the hell is it, you ask? It’s quite literally a (whisky) sour cocktail… with a mummified human toe in it. CBC’s history of the tradition is probably the best one out there, so I’ll just quote their article (linked):
“In the 1920s, the rum-running Linken brothers — Louie and Otto — got caught in a blizzard. Louie put his foot through a patch of ice and soaked his foot. When the brothers got back to their cabin, Louie’s right foot was frozen solid. To prevent gangrene, Otto used his axe to chop off Louie’s toe. He placed the toe in a jar of alcohol to commemorate the event. In 1973, legend has it that Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar (and the toe) in a remote cabin. He came up with the idea of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club — an exclusive club, with one membership requirement.”
That “membership requirement” is to drink your cocktail and have your lips actually touch the toe. This particular toe was from a British guy who lost it to frostbite and mailed it to the Downtown Hotel. The staff were super excited when they got it because it was a big toe, which is apparently a rare get for them. So rare that if you swallow it, it’s a $2,500 fine, although I’m not exactly sure why someone would do that. The whole, I guess, “ceremony” is only done each night from 9pm-11pm and costs $8. We waited in line, and I was the first between us to get initiated. An old guy wearing sea captain’s gear, and looking like he was straight out of the past, sat me down and had me read the rules (don’t eat the toe) before starting the ceremony. He grabbed the mummified toe off of a literal silver platter and recited a rhyme while waving the toe an inch away from my face. He plopped the toe into my drink and signalled that I could now drink it. I finished my drink in one big gulp and the Captain said, “Alright, you’re good” when the toe hit my tightly pursed lips. He shook my hand, gave me a certificate, and took a picture with me in front of a sign advertising the ~ 9,200 people have done the ceremony. El was up next and also took down his drink like a champ, and these two Torontonians were now officially members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. The whole experience was a perfect nightcap and an even better resumé add.
From the quirky (mummified toe drinks) to the historic (Discovery Claim) to the rugged (the whole town) to the campy (the can-can show), Dawson City was exactly how I had imagined and hoped it to be. As we took a ferry across the Yukon River the next morning to start the next leg of our trip on the Top of the World Highway, I took one last look at the town that both raised and crushed the dreams and fortunes of countless people during its heyday. So cheers to you, Dawson City; we’re glad we were able to drink you all in, but even more glad that we didn’t swallow the toe…
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