Dawson City

 Welcome to the Town of the City of Dawson

sign at the entrance to Dawson City (allegedly)

The quirkiness that lies at the heart of the Yukon’s many charms can be summed up best by the sign that was alleged to have greeted visitors until recently. The somewhat convoluted nomenclature exists because, despite its name, Dawson City isn’t a city anymore. Officially known as the Town of the City of Dawson, the title is a courtesy extended to it as recognition of its role in the development of the Yukon region and its qualification as a city back in 1902.

Dawson City was, at its height, easily the biggest town in the entire Yukon region. Dwarfing Whitehorse, the city that is today’s capital of northwest Canada’s Yukon territory, it was home to 40,000 men, women and children during the height of the Klondike gold rush in 1896. More than 100,000 had set out for Dawson, but two-thirds of those didn’t make it, either dead or too beaten down and disheartened to continue.

Those that did make it could make a good living, because the gold that still lies at the heart of the town was (and still is) plentiful. And yet, despite this, its population had fallen to 8,000 within just three years.

Now, it’s home to fewer than 2,000, a figure that doubles in the summer season when seasonal workers flock to the town to help service the growing tourist trade. This still makes it the Yukon’s second biggest town, although it is now dwarfed by Whitehorse’s population of  25,000. In total, the population  of the Yukon territory is  just 36,000, which means there is an awful lot of land and not a lot of people with which to fill it.

1.

Here to drive the infamous Dempster Highway, I had a couple of days to kill in Dawson City first, and I’d heard that something called Dredge #4 was said to be worth visiting.

Jesse, a local guide and the owner of the Klondike Experience, offered to take me. Slim and bearded, his enthusiasm for his town and its history was infectious and his self-deprecating humour masked liberal intelligence that seemed to be a common thread running through the community.

And yet, Dawson is a town whose corners have only been mildly rounded; beneath the glitz, it’s a place whose roots remain rooted in the boom-and-bust madness that is gold mining. And nowhere illustrates this madness better than Dredge #4.

Left to rot in the 1960s, it doesn’t lie abandoned in any old creek; it lies in Bonanza Creek, the very creek that started the Yukon gold rush back in 1896. And nothing I saw or heard better illustrates the wealth that was available to those talented and lucky enough to be able to extract it.

Dredge #4, which was designed by the Marion Steam Shovel Company and built for the Canadian Klondike Mining Company, is two-thirds of a football pitch in length and eight stories high, impressive statistics that made it the largest wooden-hulled bucket dredge in North America.

Powered by electricity generated using a hydro-electric generator many miles distant, the dredge’s equipment includes a huge resistor in the winch operator’s cabin that stepped down the 2,000+ volts that came into the dredge to around 400v; this was acheived using something that looks like, and indeed effectively is, an old-style electric bar heater. The resistor provided the only heating on the entire vessel – and that was only a fortuitous byproduct of its primary purpose.

  • Dredge #4's bucket excavator as seen from the winchman's perspective

  • The trommel screen, through which the gold fell

  • The sluice, which captured the gold

  • The tailings stacker

  • The resistor, upon which the oiler cooked the men's meals

It started working the creek in 1913, slowly inching its way along in a 16-feet deep pond of its own making. Capable of scooping up 22 full buckets every minute – or one full rotation of its 72-bucket excavator arm every three minutes – it could unearth 23kgs of gold per day despite moving less than one kilometre in an entire season – and that was working non-stop, twenty-four hours a day, during which time more than 14,000m3 of material would have been processed.

While a hundred men worked with water cannons, axes, shovels and saws to clear the ground ahead of the dredge of its top soil, trees and large rocks, just four men worked each shift onboard: a winch operator, who stood at the front and operated the bucket excavator, swinging it slowly from side to side and lowering it a couple of feet after each sweep had been completed; an oiler, who oiled and greased the machinery in addition to a number of other jobs, including cooking food on the dredge’s electrical resistor; a bow decker who cleared the bucket excavator’s scoops of debris that might jam the machinery inside the dredge; and a stern decker who did a similar job at the back of the dredge where the tailings were expelled. While the former two positions were highly skilled, well-remunerated jobs, the latter two were essentially unskilled and poorly paid.

While some jobs might have been more prestigious than others, all the men worked in what were hideously noisy conditions; no oil or grease could be used to lubricate the buckets or their pivot points for fear of polluting the water used to wash the gravel. Any oil pollution, not matter how minor, may have introduced enough surface tension in the water to float the gold on the surface, preventing its recovery. As a result, parts wore out fast and the noise of scraping, screeching metal-on-metal was said to be loud enough to deafen a man within three years.

The gravel and rock that lay ahead of the dredge was scooped up and fed into a 15-metre long rotating drum or trommel screen. Water washed through the trommel screen, and the graduated holes within it – holes that varied in size from half-an-inch at the end closest to the scoops all the way to one-and-a-half-inches in diameter near the exit – allowed the gold and smaller pieces of gravel and sand to fall through into a distributor box.

This material then flowed into sluice tables which were washed with a constant stream of water. About 75 percent  of the gold – which is eighteen times heavier than water – was caught in the first 1.2m section of coconut matting and steel riffles. A further 20 percent was caught in a smaller distributor and everything else was thrown out of the back of the dredge, along with any gold nuggets that were too big to pass through the trommel screen’s mesh.

Despite the inevitable loss of those gold nuggets, it is estimated that it recovered more than nine tons of gold worth more than $8.6m in its 46-year working life – and this at a time when the price of gold was regulated to only $35 an ounce, well below the true market price. (It’s currently trading at $1,300 an ounce, a price that has made previously unfeasible creeks and areas viable once more.)

Abandoned in 1959, Parks Canada started work to free and restore Dredge #4 in 1990/91 with the help of the Canadian Army. Now designated a National Historic Site, it couldn’t economically recover the very smallest particles of gold, either. These particles, effectively dust, passed through the dredge, being expelled in the tailing piles of waste gravel. This gravel is now used to mend the roads in Dawson, none of which are tarmacked or otherwise paved.

Which means that the streets of Dawson are truly paved with gold.

2.

Paved with wood, too. One of Dawson’s most endearing features is its network of creaking wooden boardwalks, which are meticulously cleared of snow daily by hand and snow blower. Dawson is a town that seems at home with its wild history and clement weather: while winter temperatures drop as low as -50°C, summer temperatures can rise to 30°C and more, an eighty-degree swing that proves a challenge to both man and infrastructure.

The houses, for example, are built on pilings that have been sunk deep into the permafrost. This means that when the ground shifts – and it will – they can be jacked up to even them up again. The need for this arrangement wasn’t immediately obvious to the early settlers and some of Dawson’s original buildings are distinctly wonky as a result of being built directly on the ground.

Nor is it just the frost that concerned the earliest residents. Dawson City is built on a flood plain, and some wooden houses used to regularly float away during periods of flooding. The owners would simply wait for them to settle and then haul them back to their original location by horse and cart.

But it is the cold, and the subsequent permafrost that frustrates even the simplest of jobs – and the very nature of permafrost means that it’s a year-round problem.

For example, before they could dig, miners had to build a fire several metres wide and then let it burn for 24 hours or more before digging out the soil that had thawed beneath it. And, lest you think that this doesn’t sound too much of a problem, you need to know that each fire might only thaw a few centimetres at a time, and the gold sometimes lay 25 metres or more beneath the surface.

It wasn’t only digging for gold that proved problematic. Death by hypothermia was common, and burying the dead took much longer than it would have in more clement climes.

Take this excerpt from Ten Thousand Miles With a Dog Sled by Hudson Stuck:

We found the coffin unmade and the grave undug, and set men vigorously to work at both. The frozen body had been found fallen forward on hands and feet, and since to straighten it would be impossible without several days’ thawing in a cabin, the coffin had to be of the size and shape of a packing-case; of course the ground for the grave had to be thawed down, for so are all graves dug in Alaska, and that is a slow business. A fire is kindled on the ground, and when it has burned out, as much ground as it has thawed is dug, and then another fire is kindled.

3.

Given the back-breaking nature of the work, along with the constant risk of death by accident or exposure, we can perhaps understand that the miners wanted to let their hair down a little and relax when they returned to Dawson City to sell the gold they’d mined. This need to let off some steam, alongside their newly-found wealth, made Dawson City something of a party town, back-in-the-day. As Robert Service put it in The Parson’s Son:

“Oh, those Dawson days, and the sin and the blaze, and the town all open wide!
(If God made me in His likeness, sure He let the devil inside.)
But we all were mad, both the good and the bad, and as for the women, well —
No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.”

Prostitution was rife, as was heavy drinking in the town’s bars and hotels, all of whom were keen to extract as much as they could during the brief periods that the miners left their claims untended to spend time – and money – in the bright lights of Dawson.

The Downtown Hotel might be Dawson’s most famous hotel. Red-fronted, it occupies the corner of Second Avenue and Queen Street, where it can trace its lineage straight back to those gold rush days. The rooms are as simple as the food, but I enjoyed my stay in what still felt like a family-run hotel. Mary, having learned that I also write for The Scotsman, winked as she told me that she’d given me the best room in the place on account of her half-Scottish heritage.

And if the food and rooms are indicative of the sort of hotel you’ll find throughout The Yukon, the Sourdough Saloon, (the hotel’s bar) draws people for something that is anything but commonplace.

Taking its name from the nickname given to those who’d managed to brave a Yukon winter and still keep their sourdough starter active throughout (many kept it next to their skins, even sleeping with it in order to maintain the yeast growth that was so important to the cooking of sourdough bread), its signature cocktail is the Sourtoe Cocktail.

The  spirit in the Sourtoe Cocktail can be anything you choose because no matter what you choose to drink it with, having a mummified human toe touch your lips is every bit as horrible as you imagine. Still, you only have to do it once to get your certificate, and $10 seems like a small price to pay to be able to claim infamy for the rest of your days.

4.

Lest you should think that Dawson’s long history of exploiting visitors is representative of the people who live there (during the heyday of the gold rush entrepreneurs sold tomatoes for $5 a pound, and milk  for $30 a gallon. And even those prices pale into insignificance when you learn that one prospector was so keen to read the news that he paid $59 in gold dust for just one out-of-date newspaper…) you should know that the residents of Dawson City are by far the friendliest folk I’ve ever met.

Within a day of arriving I’d arranged to meet one chap for a beer, and had another asking me to join him for a swift one at lunchtime after we’d shared beers and tall stories in the bar of the Westminster Hotel the previous evening. The Westminster is the oldest hotel in town and one whose bar is colloquially known, even in its website address, as The Pit… Not for nothing does it boast the strapline: The Romance Capital Of The Yukon – Cheap Rooms, Cheap Beer, Stellar Entertainment.

Strangers stopped me in the street to ask me if I was having a nice time, drivers stopped their vehicles metres from the junction I was walking towards and waited for me to catch up and cross in front of them, and getting to bed at a sensible time was a constant struggle given the gregarious nature of my fellow drinkers. And the wonderful thing is that this sort of stuff happened all the time. The hotel maid, learning that I enjoyed the real coffee that was provided in every bedroom, gave me a handful to take back home with me.

It was ever thus. Arthur Christian Newton Treadgold, an Oxford tutor who, like so many then and now, abandoned the real world for the serenity and wilderness of Dawson City, wrote this during the Klondike Gold Rush:

 “The main street is nearly always crowded with men trying to find one another for… it is a hard matter to find a man in Dawson and much time is wasted thereby. When you find your man the two of you sit on the edge of the sidewalk (raised a foot above the road for cleanliness) and talk.”

5.

On my return from the Dempster Highway, I found myself in a melancholic mood. Driving for hours and seeing only wildcats and moose and the endless white wilderness suited my nature. And yet I discovered that returning to Dawson City for hot showers, great food, and the company of strangers suited my nature too. I discovered a companionable side to me that had thus remained unknown, even to me. It felt like coming home.

Perhaps it’s because all the people I spoke to all had a story to tell. Or, perhaps it’s because they so clearly loved their town that they went out of their way to welcome me. Or, perhaps it’s because everyone I met had rejected the wider world and a conventional job to scratch out a living doing something that enabled them to live here, surrounded by mountains and water and hundreds of square miles of one of the last remaining wilderness areas.

Almost exclusively well-educated, rugged and self-reliant they had the typical Canadian’s liberal wisdom: never afraid to express an opinion, they were careful to acknowledge that theirs was not the only opinion I should consider – and most went on to tell me that they might even be wrong, and that the other guy might be right.

It’s an incredibly endearing trait.

Or, perhaps it’s a pragmatic one. Survival out here in the wild north depends on co-operation, a sense of fair play, looking out for the other guy. Because, when you strip away the Gore-Tex, and the down filling, and the fancy synthetic insulation, the challenges posed by the landscape and the weather are exactly the same now as they’ve ever been. They are constants that link us with the 100,000-or-so men and women who set out for Dawson more than a century ago.

Set me down hundred miles outside Dawson City in the middle of winter and the struggles I’d face would be identical to those encountered by the miners and mail delivery men of 1896. And that lies at the heart of the Yukon Quest; as Hugh Neff, the legendary musher and multiple Yukon Quest and Iditarod competitor, had told me over a late-night beer in The Pit, “what we do is nothing compared to what those guys went through back then .”

Maybe not, but it’s a fine way to nod your respect to the men and women of the Yukon who fought their way across some of the wildest terrain on the continent in search of a scarcely believable riches. That some of them misjudged the journey – an easy thing to do for people more used to the warmth and relative civilisation offered by previous gold rush locations like California – and were forced to spend two winters out here is almost inconceivable. As Darwinian proof, the subsequent generations were tough, co-operative, and self-reliant as hell.

Pragmatic, too. While you and I might have been tempted to keep our discovery to ourselves, the old-timers knew that their staked claim was safe, and telling others of the riches they’d found could only be a good thing. It would bring a much-needed infrastructure offering goods, services, and a market for their gold. Safety in numbers, too and workers to help dig their claim.

Which perhaps explains why Dawson City folk are so damned nice. They started out so because they had to be and, as I like to think, stayed that way because they enjoyed it.

6.

The morning of my final day in Dawson City was spent flying high above it in a tiny Cesna  206. Darryl, the pilot, was young and ruddy faced and wore the Carhartt cotton dungarees that experts tell us are exactly the sort of clothing you shouldn’t wear in the wilderness. But the climate here is dry, and the precipitation falls primarily as snow or even ice when it gets too cold to snow. Standing outside the Downtown Hotel one evening, I was captivated to see ice falling all around me as a soft shower of cold made physical.

Darryl took us up and over Dawson, swooping down low at a ground speed of 150mph to give us a better look at grazing moose. We also saw mushers competing in the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dog sledding adventure during which they faced long hours alone and temperatures as low as -60°C.

The race, widely regarded as the toughest dog sled race in the world, is so tough that mushers regularly get lost, despite the path being marked with poles and fluorescent markers. The problem is that they become so exhausted that they fall asleep while standing on their sled, and while the dogs they run are very clever, navigating by poles and fluorescent flags is beyond even their intelligence. (They are, however, adept as spotting ice that is too thin to safely support the sled and most mushers are wise enough to follow their dog’s lead when they suddenly swerve to one side.)

This level of exhaustion arises as a result of two things: the first is the inherently competitive nature of the racers; the time they spend sleeping is time they aren’t moving forward and because most dog sled teams travel at much the same pace, the only way to make up time is to cut down on the rest breaks you take.

And before you think them cruel to run their dogs so hard, I should point out that the dogs get plenty of rest, which brings me to my second point: the mushers that don’t because they are so preoccupied with looking after their dogs that there’s little time for sleep. The dogs need feeding, checking for injuries, bedding down on straw, and even massaging. Sleep comes only after all that’s done and, if they’re lucky, the mushers might be able to snatch a couple of hours’ before rising and doing it all again.

The dogs themselves are, as one musher put it to me “high quality athletes” whose only desire in life is to run and to run for a long time. The ultimate endurance athletes, they will literally run until they drop, which means the musher is the one who must hold them back rather than the one who pushes them on. The musher is the brake, not the accelerator.

And lest you think this is hyperbole, swallowed whole by a giullible and overly sentimental writer, I watched them come into checkpoints after running 500 hundred miles, and they were eager to keep going; not one of them lay down. They stood, snapping at the snow to rehydrate while their mushers posed for photographs and answered inane questions from people like me. And when the questions stopped – or the mushers sensibly decided that they had better things to do with their 36-hour layover – the dogs leapt forward with alacrity.

 7.

Should you want to visit Dawson City (and if you like the outdoors I can’t think why you wouldn’t want to…) then I strongly recommend doing so in the winter. The roads will be covered with snow but Driving Force in Whitehorse will rent you a four-wheel-drive with winter tyres that will keep you mobile no matter how foul the conditions.

And the conditions may well be far more severe than any you’ve encountered before. The temperature dropped to -40°C, albeit briefly , but -39°C was common and at that temperatures strange things happen: the down in your jacket will freeze, making it brittle and crackly; the same thing will happen to the hairs inside your nose; fingers become numb and unusable within half-a-minute or less. Camera batteries die within minutes too, and any facial hair soon becomes thick with frost as the moisture in your breath condenses and freezes.

Yet, it’s worth the pain of having to spend five minutes or more getting ready to go outside, no matter how briefly . Cloudy days will raise the temperature to as much as -15°C, at which point you’ll be wandering around with your coat unbuttoned and telling everyone you meet how warm it is.

But folk like us live for the cloudless days, the days when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and the snow is twinkling. Days when the mountains call. There are plenty of outfits in Dawson that will guide you and only the foolhardy or experienced would venture out into the wilderness alone.

And when the day comes to an end, you would do worse than eat at the local hockey rink. Veal schnitzel, fries, mushroom gravy and a root beer will set you back less than $15, which is bargain given the size and the quality.

It is, in fact, the perfect metaphor for the Yukon.

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno