And how I got my Dad to drink a shot with someone’s toe in it.
I’m sitting on the balcony of the Triple J Hotel in Dawson City – Yukon Territory Canada, listening to big rumbles of thunder roll over the hills and watching rain splatter the dry dirt streets.
None of the roads are paved in this town because the ground is permanently semi frozen so raised boardwalks carry the numerous tourists that come here in summer past the wooden storehouses and frontier style shopfronts.
Such is its resemblance to a Hollywood western film set I’m half expecting a poncho clad cowboy to pull in from the impending rain and tie his horse to the railing of one of these bars along Front St.
Situated in far North Western Canada 3,000 kilometres north of Vancouver and close to the border with Alaska, Dawson City is etched into world history as the scene of the great Klondike gold rush during the depression years of the late 1890’s.
Stampeders came from everywhere to brave the treacherous Chillkoot Pass and the rapids of Whitewater to seek their fortune and gamble on finding nuggets and dust in the surrounding creeks.
From 1896 to 1898 the population of the little settlement on the banks of the mighty Yukon River went from 300 to 300,000. Summer wildflowers and tall grass now occupies vacant blocks where gambling halls, restaurants, outfitters and dens of iniquity thrived during the boom time.
It’s estimated that approximately 7 billion dollars (in todays terms) worth of gold was extracted from the Klondike goldfields from between 1896 and 1909. In order to extract their fortune prospectors had to endure limb numbing temperatures during the freezing depths of winter where you might be lucky to get a couple of hours of greyish daylight during the big white silence.
Dawson City wasn’t really on my Canadian itinerary until I went to visit my Dad who’d been living in Alberta, Canada for a few years. He was in the process of selling his property with plans to move back to Australia.
In between showing potential buyers through the house and painting fences in the Alberta Spring sunshine I would flip through old magazines that were stacked up in the living room. One such magazine was called ‘Up Here’ and had loads of fascinating articles about the hardy people and remote communities that populate the vast and isolated regions of Canada’s Northern Territories.
That’s where I got the idea to do a road trip to the infamous Dawson City. I thought what a great trip to take with the old man and have it coincide with one of the coolest little music festivals to be found during Canada’s brief but brilliant summer.
Today Dawson Cities permanent population sits at around 1500 and being so close to the arctic circle means that at this time of year – mid summer in July, the sun barely goes down, making it a great place to have a party.
Of course half the fun is getting there and the four day drive from Alberta through Northern British Columbia and into the Yukon consists of endless pine forests dissected by monster rivers and glacial fed lakes, infinite tracts of mountainous wilderness and the occasional rejuvenating hot spring.
Much of the excellent road system is part of the Alaska Highway, a joint Canadian/American venture completed in cold war 1950’s.
Its about a four day drive from Edmonton so our first night in Dawson City called for a celebratory drink. Emboldened by the spirits of the pioneers (or some other types of spirits) we played a few games at Canada’s oldest casino -Diamond Tooth Gerties.
We watched the dancing girls and then strolled up the main street and in through the swinging double doors of Downtown Dawson saloon.
In one corner of the bar there stood a throng of people cheering and clapping and making scrunched up faces at each other. Seated at a table a young man with a captains hat perched on his blond mop was reading out the rules and handing out certificates for patrons prepared to pay $5 for the privilege of drinking a whiskey shot containing some poor souls black, frostbitten, amputated toe.
We stood around and watched the disgusting spectacle for a while before I jokingly elbowed my Dad and said ‘I’ll do it if you do.’
Now if you know my Dad you’d know he’s not one for taking adverse risks while he’s on holiday but he does take a disproportionate amount of pleasure in watching other people get themselves into a pickle if you know what I mean.
Perhaps because this dare didn’t involve heights but did incorporate the consumption of alcohol, he said yes.
Of course I made him go first and yes, the toe is real and the rules state that the toe must touch your lips! One guy we saw actually licked the toe and apparently someone swallowed it once. Hence the $2500 fine for such a scandalous act.
There are much more leisurely activities in Dawson as well like a visit to the local museum, the Native American Danoja Zho centre or just exploring the frontier style buildings like the deteriorating St. Andrews church or Jack Londons reconstructed cabin. The government and citizens of the Yukon have done an excellent job in restoring original buildings and in the construction of new dwellings in the style and period of Dawson’s heyday that reflects the spirit befitting a town of such historical significance.
The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out at the festival site drinking beers with the super friendly locals listening to everything from hard-core rockabilly through to bluegrass, country and jazz. We bounced between venues like Bombay Peggy’s bar and the immaculately restored Grand Palace theatre watching different artists perform and listening to stories that you’re only likely to hear in a town at the end of the road.
Dawson struck me as the sort of place with a strong sense of community, a thriving arts scene and a place where people go to escape the restrictions of big city life and are free to be themselves. Free to connect with like-minded souls who have come a long way to be here.
People who enjoy good tunes, a few brews, a bit of a laugh and a bloody good road trip.
The Dawson City Music festival has been running for over 40 years and usually happens towards the end of July. We parked ‘The General’ at the Goldrush campground which is within crawling distance of most venues.
From Dawson City its possible to take a free ferry across the Yukon River and onto the Top of The World Highway up into Alaska. The border crossing into the United States at Poker Creek is only open from May to September.