Clients can take in a can-can show at Canada’s oldest operating casino. // © 2012 Mark Edward Harris
Where to Stay:
While preserving its frontier atmosphere, Dawson City has all of the modern amenities that the discerning traveler requires. I stayed at the Aurora Inn, an elegant boutique hotel with an excellent restaurant. www.aurorainn.ca
When to Go:
There are adventures in the Yukon for every time of the year. Summer temperatures can be blistering, but there have been years where July was downright chilly and winters can be warmer than expected.
For those who want to follow in the footsteps of Jack London and his fellow stampeders to reach the Yukon, the journey along the Pacific Coast can be done in considerably more comfort. Cruise lines such as Holland America Line offer pre- and post-cruise bus tours through the Yukon. Dawson City can also be accessed by plane on Air North. www.flyairnorth.com; www.hollandamerica.com
One of the most amazing things about days spent in the Yukon is the length of the days themselves. In June, after a 10:30 p.m. can-can show at Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall in Dawson City (Canada’s oldest operating casino), the audience poured onto the streets, flooded with light from the midnight sun and with a temperature around 60 degrees.
In 1897, hearing of the gold strikes in the Klondike and longing for wealth and adventure, writer Jack London boarded a steamer in San Francisco and headed north through Alaska’s Inside Passage to the town of Dyea, Alaska. From there, he struggled over the dreaded Chilkoot Pass to Lake Lindeman, where he and several travel companions built a raft for the final 500 miles down the Yukon River to Dawson City.
When London and his fellow would-be prospectors arrived, they found that the gold rush was transforming a First Nations settlement into a thriving city. Within months, the population of Dawson City grew to a staggering 30,000 people.
While only a handful of the hearty souls who made it to the Klondike during the gold rush became rich, the huge quantities of gold coming through Dawson City encouraged a lavish lifestyle for those who did hit pay dirt. The establishments around Front Street had grand, Parisian-style facades with mirror and plate-glass windows. Dance halls and opera houses were built. Virtually overnight, Dawson City became known as the “Paris of the North.”
However, as quickly as the boom happened the bubble burst. The Klondike Gold Rush ended in 1899, after gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, prompting a mass exodus.
After the gold rush, Dawson City faded from the map. The population shrank. But a conscious effort by the town’s remaining occupants and the territorial and national government has brought the city back to life as a living historical monument that attracts more than 60,000 visitors each year. While Dawson City still has a small gold mining industry, tourism plays an important role in the local economy and many buildings in the center of the town still reflect the style of the era.
Getting out of Dawson City to experience the surrounding wildlife is a must. For those with limited time and a good budget, a Trinity Helicopters’ excursion from Dawson City over the Klondike goldfields to the Tombstone Territorial Park can be awe-inspiring. The park, with its extensive hiking trails, can also be accessed from the Dempster Highway — Canada’s only public road that crosses the Arctic Circle.
A 260-mile drive from Dawson City up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle with an overnight at the comfortable Eagle Plains Hotel features dramatic landscapes and opportunities to photograph the wildlife encountered along the way.
South of Dawson City, 100 miles from Whitehorse on the Alaskan Highway, is Haines Junction, the gateway to Kluane National Park, home to 19,551-foot Mount Logan, Canada’s tallest mountain. A flightseeing tour over the Kaskawulsh Glacier with Whitehorse Air makes for a spectacular one-day excursion from Whitehorse. Kluane combines with neighbors Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in British Columbia and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska to form one of the largest internationally protected area on earth. This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the largest non-polar icefields in the world and two of the finest rafting rivers in North America — the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers — pass through the park’s spectacular scenery.
There’s a different kind of gold that can be mined in the Yukon these days and, perhaps, one that can be considered a more rewarding payoff — the richness of the travel experience.