Of sour toes, midnight golf, and birds singing for sex and war

Historic, colourful, quaint and sleep-deprived Dawson City; and up the perilous, muddy Dempster Highway

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Road trip to the Yukon
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“Drunken” houses float on Dawsons permafrost - Photo by Gerry Feeahan
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Upon our return from six weeks exploring Canada’s north, friends enquired, “So what was your favourite place?” And each time, gazing distantly while recalling the amazing scenery, people and places we encountered, I answered: “Haven’t a clue.”

But Dawson City, Yukon, is a good start.

I love Dawson. Unlike cruise-ship destinations on the nearby Alaska coast, Dawson is genuinely quaint. Colourful clapboard buildings line the streets, interspersed with heritage houses leaning drunkenly on a permafrost foundation.

Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is Dawson’s historic casino and dance hall. This landmark saloon was established over a century ago and, while Gertie herself is getting a little long in the tooth, the can-can girls are still high-kicking a vaudeville act each evening at 8:30, 10:30 and midnight. Happy hour at Gertie’s is from midnight to 1 a.m. The manager at our RV park – located a short walk from Gertie’s – winked when she said “the later the show, the more the skin.” I suggested to my wife Florence – purely for journalistic purposes – that we take in the evening’s final performance.

Our June arrival coincided with the midnight sun’s long summer appearance. It may seem frivolous to remark that it doesn’t get dark here in summer, but until you’ve actually experienced this phenomenon, it’s hard to appreciate. Darkness never descends; not tonight nor the next nor the night after that. Daylight is a 24/7 thing for six weeks.

There’s no respite from the light. One’s natural daily rhythm quickly shuts down, confused, as if dragged through perpetual jet lag. Soon you’re eating dinner at 11:45 p.m., hanging out on the dusky streets ’til all hours and sleeping past noon; 4 a.m. is just an overcast day, juxtaposed with the usual night sounds of street-laughter and squealing car tires. Birds sing non-stop.

One night, in this altered circadian state, I found myself and my ukulele busking for cash at 3 a.m. outside the venerable Westminster Hotel with a couple of young Quebecois. And we didn’t do badly – after two hours, I’d donated only 30 bucks.

Summer here is difficult to digest, but a season of endless darkness would be interminable, unimaginable. Only after a full winter hunkered down in the snow and ice of Yukon can one proclaim himself a genuine “sourdough.” A somewhat easier feat is attaining “sour toe” certification, awarded to all those who slurp up a $5 shot of Yukon Jack whiskey containing a pickled human toe – which your lips must touch. (I am now a proud member of the Sour Toe Club. Fortunately, I was nearly as pickled as the toe when the deed was consummated.)

Although the Klondike gold rush ended more than a century ago, Dawson retains its frontier spirit. The streets are full of entrepreneurs and oddballs. Young drifters seek adventure, mingling with cagy old-timers. Secretive men and women still comb nearby creeks, moiling for gold. Astute shopkeepers mine tourist’s pockets. Individuals all, Dawson folk march to the beat of no one’s drum but their own.

Every person I’ve met who’s been to Yukon (don’t say the Yukon, that’s a dead giveaway you’re a newcomer, a cheechako, from the “outside”) returns home gushing about the Klondike story, an epic period in Canadian history. I too am now a convert.

On our last night in town, just shy of midnight, we drove to an overlook offering a panoramic view of Dawson far below. We chatted with a lovely young aboriginal woman picking wild herbs from the steep cliff-face. “I make tea with spruce tips, labrador, cranberry bush leaves … and sage,” she said, reaching for a sprig over the precarious edge. “The caribou pass through here in October. They love sage. Come look.”

The caribou may not suffer from vertigo but I wasn’t going near that precipice. Nearby, another woman watched, quietly slurping beer – the same precocious gal who had inducted me into the sour toe hall of fame the night before. Dawson is not a big place.

Properly schooled in the art of brewing tea from local ingredients, we departed for a late-night game of golf. We arrived at the Top of the World golf course after midnight, so I thought it fitting to ask the proprietress for the twilight rate. She looked at me blankly, shielding her gaze from the sun’s glare. I decided not to quibble over the green fees, paid the full fare of $24 and off we teed into the grassy tundra. On the sixth hole, sunset and sunrise collided, shared only by our twosome – and competing packs of wolves baying at the spectacle.

In the morning, seeking even more vitamin D, we headed further into the perpetual sunlight, north up the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean. Our tour up this narrow gravel road began with a stop at Tombstone Territorial Park, where we chanced upon a weekend gathering of birders.

Have you ever met a birder? At the risk of mixing metaphors, I must say these odd ducks are strange cats. They make Trekkies look undedicated. Anyone who gets up early to tromp through muskeg in search of a lesser scaup or hooded merganser needs to have their head examined.

It’s uncomfortable watching a birder identify the elusive ruddy duck. Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way.

But this obsession with things winged is surprisingly contagious. We attended an evening lecture at the Tombstone amphitheatre where a bright young woman spoke on Why Birds Sing. It’s about sex and war. Male birds make song to attract mates and to fend off territorial rivals; no need for physical confrontation.

Have the birdbrains out-evolved man? Could we send our best tenors out to resolve border disputes? Think of the savings on anti-personnel weaponry.

After two days with our feathered friends, we elected to fly the coop and continue our slow, muddy journey up the Dempster. Our goal was the Arctic Circle but the owner of Eagle Plains Motel (the only accommodation and gas stop for hundreds of kilometres in either direction) told us that we should carry on a little further, over the Yukon border and into the Northwest Territories to see real tundra landscape.

So we did. But the weather was miserable, the visibility poor and the shoulderless road hazardous. Our plan to bicycle across the Arctic Circle line was cancelled. Our bikes, hanging off the back of the van, looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.

We retraced our path in search of the nearest wand wash. Back in Dawson and $23 in loonies later, the RV began to reappear from its dark, molten lacquer.

There are different ways to experience our great north. You can read Pierre Berton books, which, while informative, are also useful as a sleep-aid – or you can go explore an abandoned Yukon River dredge yourself. And bring a pan – there’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills.

Travel writer Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, Alta.

Travelling in the Yukon, Dawson City


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