Canada: Confessions of a sourdough

By Paul Rush

Dawson City's Klondike Kate. Photo / Paul Rush
Dawson City's Klondike Kate. Photo / Paul Rush

Strange things are seen and done under the midnight sun in the remote Canadian northwest provinces. However, nothing on earth can adequately prepare the traveller for that first awe-inspiring visit to Dawson City, Yukon.

This amazingly authentic gold rush town is like a movie set straight off the Universal Studios back lot. If the Dawson City Mayor was to issue an edict one morning that all automobiles were to be 'gone by lunchtime,' the movie moguls could start filming the remake of Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush that afternoon, with no additions to the set.

I first visited the Yukon as a greenhorn - a 'Cheechako'. But now I proudly carry a signed certificate that bears witness to the fact that I am an honorary 'Sourdough'. The certificate endows me with the privilege of sharing the Sourdough title with all the venerable old-timers that live in the remote settlements of Yukon, Canada.

The title derives from the versatile yeasty starter used in pioneer bread making. It carries with it responsibilities, particularly the need for me to give an accurate account of my sojourn in this land of the midnight sun.

My prior knowledge of the real Yukon was minimal, just a vague imagery of the hardships suffered by the Klondike 'Stampeders' of 1898, who laid their life on the line to wrest bright shining gold from the frigid streams of the north.

Perhaps the most vividly revealing cameo of life in the wilderness came from reading the down to frozen earth pragmatism of Robert Service poems about the "Big, dizzy mountains and deep, deathlike valleys". Here was a true Sourdough who mined the spirit of the Yukon in his poetry.

Dawson redefines the words, "quaint" and "picturesque". The 100-year-old false-front building facades, so pretty in a rainbow of pastel colours, are almost completely original. Long elevated boardwalks take the traveller back in time and also up into a safety zone above the summer dust and grime and winter snow and slush on the unpaved streets. The town is a living legend of the Klondike era and a national historic site. The biggest gold rush the world has ever seen was on Bonanza Creek, just behind the town.

Dawson is only a mouse click away from the 21st Century but it still feels like that earlier world of driven men, with shoulders as broad as the land itself and stalwart women too, all searching for elusive dreams with pick, pan, shovel and a hope born of desperation.

Amidst the dust and clamour, the surreal 23-hour summer sunlight and the subtle smell of decaying timber, I find there are some genuine Sourdoughs here. These are wizened old timers and younger characters who love this remote wilderness with unbridled passion.

Step inside Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall, North America's northernmost casino, and you enter the era of rowdy saloons, can-can girls, high-rollers and painted ladies. The Manager tells me he enjoys the challenges of living just below the Arctic Circle. "This is my 14th casino and by far the most unique and most fun. Dawson folk are very imaginative and tend to look at life differently. I love living here."

I meet the manager of the Downtown Hotel, haunt of the 25,000 strong Sourtoe Cocktail Club. "It's unique in the world," he says. "I've heard of the 'Mexican Worm' tequila, 'Kiss the Cod Lips' in Newfoundland and the 'Bat Brain' shooter in Thailand, but nothing can touch the nauseous feel of that accursed pickled toe against the lips."

Now I would never indulge in madcap shenanigans in a strange land. However, I must have fallen under the spell of the Yukon the night I swallowed my fear and imbibed that famous fiery cocktail. It was a rite of passage that will ensure that a part of my travelling memories will be forever Yukon.

At Bombay Peggy's bar, a local lady tells me she loves living on the edge of civilization. Her residence is across the wide Yukon River from Dawson in grizzly bear country. In the depth of winter when it's 50-below and the sun peeps over the Top of the World Highway for only three hours a day, she walks to town over the ice-bound river. During the three weeks of the 'break-up,' she stays in Dawson, as there's no way to cross the heaving river.

She tells me that a mate lives on the far riverbank too, keeping the wolf from the door by drying mushrooms. He lives in a rock cave on the riverbank. The cave is either dusted with snow or encased in ice for seven months of the year. Yukon men are a tough breed.

No one visits Dawson without paying homage to the hardy folk who wrested gold from the nearby Klondike and Bonanza creeks. Some 30,000 stampeders from all over the world, struggled over the Chilkoot and White passes from Skagway in 1898, abandoning 3000 horses in Dead Horse Gulch.

It took them several months to pack in two tonnes of food and supplies, which the Royal Mounted Police specified for each man. The supplies then had to be loaded on a boat at Lake Bennett and taken 900km down the Yukon River to Dawson City, where the frenzied claim-staking began.

Out on Bonanza Creek, No.4 Dredge stands high and dry, a striking relic of Dawson's golden heritage. The largest wooden-hulled, bucket-line dredge in North America is eight storeys high and weighs 3000 tonnes.

The dredge tour guide tells me, 'The original dredge design was Chinese, but New Zealand engineers saw its potential for alluvial gold mining and adapted the technology. Dredges revitalised the industry and enabled commercial mining to continue up to the 1960's, saving Dawson from becoming a ghost town.'

Before I leave Dawson, I take one last stroll around the quaint streets of movie-set buildings dating from the halcyon days when the town was known as the "Paris of the North". In those days it was replete with deluxe hotels, plush river steamboats, champagne, moose steaks, high-rollers and painted ladies. The flamboyant Palace Grand Theatre is still used for comedy and musical shows.

Jack London's replica cottage sits serenely in the woods above the town. He penned the great classics White Fang and The Call of the Wild. Next door is a typical gold rush log cabin, a shrine to Robert Service, "The Bard of the Yukon", and creator of the poem 'The Cremation of Sam McGee'.

Visiting the old cabins of author Jack London and poet Robert Service in Dawson's 8th Avenue, is like turning back the pages of time and finding a mother lode of glittering history in prose and verse.

Robert Service saw the heart-stopping winter chill at 60°C below and the ineffable beauty of the shimmering Northern Lights from his tiny turf-roofed cabin. I stand in the porch where the bard often sat of an evening, and in the true spirit of an honorary Sourdough, I recite the words aloud:

There are hardships that nobody reckons
There are valleys unpeopled and still
There's a land - oh, it beckons and beckons
And I want to go back - and I will


Dawson City is a National Historic Site of Canada and is the northernmost city in Yukon, 530km northwest of Whitehorse. Dawson is 100km from the Alaskan border, which is reached via the Top of the World Highway.

Known as "heart of the Klondike" gold mining region, Dawson has a lively spirit, 1800 friendly residents and superb colonial buildings. Costumed guides take visitors on a heritage tour and there is an excellent visitor information centre.


By Air: Air North and Air Canada operate daily services from Vancouver

By Road: Drive up the Alaska Highway or Stewart-Cassiar Highway from Vancouver, 3000km through beautiful scenery.

By Sea: The Alaska Marine Highway system and the Inside Passage Cruises, dock in Skagway, Alaska. It is two hours by rental car to Whitehorse and a further six hours to Dawson.


Klondike Visitors Association -
Dawson City -


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