Spring 2007 CSANews Issue 62  |  Posted date : Jun 06, 2007.Back to list


"...Some say God was tired when he made it;
Some say it's a fine land to shun.
Maybe; but there's some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I'm one".

Robert W. Service wrote those lines in his poem, "The Spell of the Yukon." Last August, I fell under that spell too. I wasn't sure just what I would find in Canada's far North. Oh yes, I knew about the history – the Klondike, the gold rush, the dog sleds. But all that was over 100 years ago. What could be left to see now in the 21st century?

Answer: just about everything. There are still more than 200 operating gold mines in the territory. It gave me an awesome feeling to stand beside the stream where the first gold nugget was picked up by George Carmack in 1896. In those days, it took a long time to get the news out, but when the discovery was made public almost two years later, the greatest gold rush the world has ever known was started, with nearly 100,000 prospectors tramping across the Chilkoot and White passes seeking the riches that the area promised. Of those multitudes, barely a handful achieved instant wealth, while many perished or returned south worse off than when they began their quest.

Dawson City
During the first few years of that golden heyday, Dawson City flourished, growing from a few tented shelters into a community of almost 40,000. Ladies had joined the men too, providing much-needed services such as cooking, sewing, laundering and, yes, entertainment. Today Dawson is no longer a tented place; no longer the capital of the Yukon as it once was. It is, however, the main attraction in Canada's northwest corner. Diamond Tooth Gertie's (named for Gertrude Lovejoy, a dance hall queen of the gold rush era) is a busy bar and casino that presents three different shows nightly during the May-to-September tourist season. "Gertie" sings, a fabulous 22-year-old plays wonderful ragtime piano and cancan girls bring back the excitement of the dance.

Down the street from Gertie's, you can call at the Downtown Hotel. From nine to 11 each evening, the feature is the "SourToe" cocktail. Just order a shot of your favourite libation and proceed to a corner of the barroom, where 'Captain Dick' will place a real human toe into your glass. (The toe was saved and preserved following an amputation.) You must take the drink down in one swig, making sure that the toe touches your lips. It sounds disgusting, I know. But it really isn't that bad and besides, you receive a certificate that you can frame and have bragging rights about your experience!

Another less-fearsome experience just outside of Dawson is a tour of Dredge number four. Now inoperative and beached on Bonanza Creek, the dredge is listed as an historical site. Tour guides tell how the unit was used to process the precious metal from the creek bed, making the old-fashioned system of panning obsolete.

The Dawson City homes of three important writers can be seen. Robert Service's cabin is a must. Johnny "Caribou" Nunan tells the story of the Bard of the North and does a masterful reading of "The Cremation of Sam McGee"; he gets many laughs as he recites "Bessie's Boil."

A short block away is the cabin that Jack London called home when he spent time in the Yukon while writing "The Call of the Wild," "White Fang" and other tales. A London enthusiast and writer in his own right, Dick North has set up an interpretive centre and is on hand most days to tell the Jack London story. Also nearby, but not open for tours, is the cottage in which Pierre Berton was raised.

For a real look at the old Klondike days, we took a walking tour of the streets and lanes of Dawson City. Our group of visitors was guided by employees of the Klondike Visitors Association-turned-actors. Johnny Nunan had now become a 'Mountie'; receptionists had become ladies of the evening in an alley they called Paradise Lane. A banker and a well-to-do society lady told of their days during the gold rush. Dawson City, I should tell you, has retained its 'old look' with 19th-century building facades, boardwalks and unpaved roadways.

Partially paved, but largely gravel-surfaced is the Top of the World Highway, the most interesting way to Beaver Creek and Haines Junction to the south. You drive this road to Alaska, arriving at Chicken. Yes, I said Chicken, year-round population: six. It has three businesses: a café, a gas pump and (what else) a gift shop called the "Goldpanner"! You re-enter Canada at Beaver Creek (year-round population, about 100 or so). Despite its small size, the community has a 174-room Westmark Hotel with a dinner theatre! Served homestyle by waiters and waitresses who will later entertain you, you can dine on hearty lamb stew, roast chicken, salad, dessert, coffee or tea, or all of the above. Had all you can eat? Then settle back for another gold rush-era show with your service personnel augmenting professionals such as Willy Joosen (piano), Lisa Ryan (vocalist/dancer) and Sylvain Demers, who sings and plays several parts during the 90-minute show. His parting verse conveys his true feeling for the Yukon:

"....Once you have been up here, in the wilderness,
it becomes a part of you.....a special part of you."

On the Road
We thought about that line, as we arrived at Burwash Landing, established as a trading post by the Southern Tutchone people of the Kluane First Nation. At mile 1093 of the Alaska Highway, you must stop at the Kluane Museum of Natural History. Here you will see displays of the animals and birds which you may or may not see along the highways of the far North. It is a world-class facility. Don't pass it by.

Haines Junction, the Gateway to Kluane National Park, is next on the Yukon circle tour. From here, you can choose to rent a bicycle, go whitewater rafting, hiking, horseback riding, or glacier flight-seeing. Our most pleasant surprise in the village was the Raven, a small inn of just 12 sparkling-clean rooms and a dining room with a gourmet menu. Hans Nelles maintains the property which he built a few years ago. His wife Christine works her magic in the kitchen. I started with cream of roasted red pepper soup followed by wild Alaska Sockeye salmon, a side of broccoli and cauliflower in a Bechamel sauce, and Italian polenta with sun-dried tomatoes. Fresh-baked bread (grain or baguette) came with a choice of herbed butter or sour cream. My wife's smoked salmon was dressed with thin-sliced red onion rings, capers, fresh-ground black pepper and an edible flower. After the homemade ice cream, a steaming cup of Kona coffee completed the meal.

Another interesting meal was prepared by Ann Turner, and included elk sausage, buffalo steak and Arctic char. Dinner followed a most interesting day with Ann's husband Frank, who looks after the family's Muk Tuk Kennels. Located about a dozen kilometres north of Whitehorse, Muk Tuk is home to 110 (yes, 110) Alaskan Huskies. Frank has been raising these wonderful sled dogs for several years and has named every one of them. When he calls a name, that dog comes running to him on the double. From the time they are two days' old, Frank takes care of them and trains them diligently to become the runners that made the breed famous. Turner has raced his dogs in 22 of the 23 Yukon Quests held so far. He holds the record for the fastest time – 10 days, 16 hours and 22 minutes. He gives visitors a talk about his work and shows the equipment used in the Yukon Quest, billed as the toughest race in the world.

As for equipment which tourists use on the roads, we were surprised to note that motor homes, fifth wheels, caravans and other types of recreational vehicles were very common. I would guess that about two out of every three motorists were driving their own, or a rented RV. Some were parked outside of the entrance to the "Frantic Follies" in Whitehorse, yet another stage presentation with much humour and music, and more dancing girls. Other approaches to Canada's true North include add-ons to cruise ship itineraries that sail into Alaskan waters. Probably the most popular would be land tours by coach covering the major Yukon highlights, or a trip on the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route from Skagway, Alaska to Bennett Lake, with bus connections to Whitehorse. This train trip has been named one of the world's 10 most scenic by the Society of American Travel Writers.

The scenery, the history, the legends, the huskies, the people of the North – all of these combined to cast their spell over us. The same spell that compelled Robert W. Service to write:

"There's a land – oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back – and I will."

Fast Facts about the Yukon:
  • Its 482,443 km2 area makes it larger than the state of California, with less than 10 per cent of California's population.
  • The name "Yukon" is derived from the word meaning "great river" in the Athabascan language, Gwich'in
  • Joined Confederation on June 13, 1898.
  • The only Canadian province or territory which consists of a single census division.
  • The capital city, Whitehorse, got its name from the resemblance of the spray from the nearby rapids to a herd of white horses (the rapids are now dammed, but the city retains the name).
  • Whitehorse hosted the Canada Winter Games for the fifth time in 2007.

Related links
Government of Yukon:
Official Tourism website: