Travel blog – Vancouver to Yukon part 4 (Whitehorse to Dawson, & in Dawson City)

Tuesday was a pretty simple day – I started the day with a stop at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse as soon as it opened (the museum was otherwise unremarkable, but the Gold to Government exhibit was very interesting!)  From there, I grabbed a scone at Baked (a café I’ve come to rather enjoy – they have almond milk!), and hit the road for Dawson.

The drive was pleasant though nothing ‘new’ – still more gorgeous scenery – so many reds and yellows and greens in the plant life, with many more mountains and lakes to see, and the Yukon River ever spectacular.  I made a handful of photo stops along the way, and really just took the drive easy, which was nice.  I crossed paths with virtually no one.

As I pulled into Dawson, the scenery immediately changed.  All around me was rubble piled high.  Huge piles of stones and gravel, which I learned were the tailings from gold dredging that was done over half a century ago – left there, scattered all over the landscape, forever.  Somehow, this is something that is displayed openly – there are even signs explaining the scenes to tourists.  One subdivision is actually called “Dredge Pond Subdivision,” as people have built their homes in and around these piles of rocks and the various ponds formed as part of the dredging activity.

In the mountains were numerous visible scars where large sections of the rock had simply been torn out by gold miners last century (and the century before).  Surprisingly, the most noticeable one that overlooks downtown was a natural landslide, but there were still countless visible impacts of all the mining everywhere else.  As I got into town, as soon as I came off the highway, I was on unpaved town streets.  The sidewalks, when they exist, are wooden boardwalks, and often falling apart.  This is partly due to the fact that Dawson is situated on permafrost, but for a city that has brought so much wealth to Canada, it’s startling.

I checked into my hotel (which was fully booked for the night), and was unsurprised to find most things in Dawson (including the restaurant that operates in my hotel) to be closed.  Fortunately, I found a hotel a few blocks away with a restaurant that was open, and I was the only patron.  Someone came in soon after, and ask the waitress what “fries” were.  I guess I’m not the only tourist in town… but he was the only other patron all night.

The next day was my only full day in Dawson.  I started the (very cold: 1 below already!) morning with a walk along the waterfront to check out the river as well as some historic sites along the way.  All of the Klondike Historic Sites closed a little over a week ago, but the outsides of them are obviously still accessible.  I grabbed a coffee in the only place that was open before 10 AM, and hopped in the car.

My first stop was the Midnight Dome – the top of a rounded mountain peak that, apparently, was the destination for townsfolk hoping to see the midnight sun at the solstice in the town’s early days.  Well, there was no midnight sun (it set for a couple of hours), but the view remains spectacular and easily accessible.  I had a really clear day and could see way off into the distance – the views of rolling hills and mountains were just stunning.

From there I drove down the Bonanza Creek Road, which is where most of the actual mining-related attractions (all currently closed) are.  There is also still currently-active mining activity in this area.  I drove past pile after pile of dredge rubble, along a still mostly-unpaved road – the National Historic Sites, maintained by Parks Canada, involve driving a muddy / gravelly road for quite some time.

But, no matter.  I was the only one on the road for the vast majority of the time I was driving, which made it easy.  The first real stop was Dredge #4.  After most of the easy-to-access gold was taken out by panning and chipping away using traditional mining methods, dredges were brought in at the turn of the twentieth century to extract what was left.  This destructive practice stopped in the 1960s, and now no longer takes place anywhere in Canada, but it basically went like this: one end of the eight-storey-tall machine chewed up rock from the land that contained gold (“pay dirt”), the rock went through the machine, gold was separated from the rest of the rock using a water-intensive process, and out the back end came fractured bits of rock and wasted water.  This is what caused the landscape I saw when I got into town.  One such dredger was kept at Dredge #4 site, and has been maintained by Parks Canada as a National Historic Site since not long after it closed.

Like everything else in Dawson, it closed last week (though it’s still visible from the parking lot, which remains open year-round). But there’s more to this story.  A few days earlier, while reading a couple of follow-up tweets from Parks Canada Yukon (here, and here), I browsed to their homepage and came across a retweet from Sandy Silver, Liberal MLA (and Interim Yukon Liberal Leader) for Klondike.  This led me to Sandy’s page, and I was surprised to see this tweet from him.  It appears, without any particular notice on their website, Parks Canada has decided to stop providing tours / access to the public, due apparently to federal budget cuts.

So I was really shocked, when I saw this sign on the administrative building on the Dredge #4 site. Is Canada’s Economic Action Plan (oh, how I loathe that phrase) really “shut down National Historic Sites?” If so, how exactly does this contribute to our economy?  A brief Tumblr entry I found clarifies: the Economic Action Plan sign is advertising a $2.5M investment in renovating and restoring the machine.  That is, the machine that is a National Historic Site that is being shut down permanently by the same government that provided the $2.5M to renovate it.  *shakes head*

Anyways.  From Dredge #4, I continued on the road to “Bonanza Creek Discovery Claim,” which is a neat little interpretive walk along the creek where Dawson’s initial gold claims were made, with signposts along the way telling the stories of mining and settlement in the area.  I completed the half-hour or so walk without seeing one other person – tourist or otherwise. It was kind of nice.

From there I took a quick drive by Claim #6, where if you feel like it you can go hunting for gold yourself (for free), but it was cold, and I had no tools, so I headed back into town, after stopping for some $1.58/L gas.

The couple that was on my Kluane Glacier Tour flight had recommended the Top Of The World Highway.  When I was first planning this trip months ago, I had actually intended to take this highway all the way into Alaska, and then find my way back South from there.  It was unclear, however, whether the US border crossing would be open when I came, or what condition any of the roads would be in, given that it’s approaching winter this far North.  But this couple convinced me to take a brief drive over there anyway, and simply to turn back before getting anywhere near the border.

I’m glad they did.  Getting to the road involves a ferry ride (on a rather wild ferry – it accommodates up to about six cars and twists and turns its way across the racing Yukon River), on which I was only one of two vehicles crossing (each way).   I went about 30 km along the mostly-unpaved road and after about 10 km the view in front of me opened up to beautiful mountain valleys.  The road is so-named in part because we’re so far North, but also because it runs along the ridge of the mountains, and not the valleys.  The views are just gorgeous and simply driving it is lovely – there aren’t many places to stop for photos but it’s worth it just for the drive.

I got back into town, grabbed lunch at the same café I got coffee from in the morning, and then headed to Dawson City Museum, which has a great collection and displays about the history of the town and the gold rush.  I found most interesting a series of display cases at the top of the stairs about the history of prostitution in the town – which was viewed as a necessary evil in a city of mostly men.  It was very interesting that rather than ban it, the North West Mounted Police chose instead to regulate it – imposing licensing fees and requiring bi-weekly medical checkups.  It’s surprising how forward-thinking our society was over a century ago.  The other highlights of the museum were the still-functioning courtroom and the “Visible Storage” (rather than keep artefacts in storage, out of sight, the museum chose instead to keep them in open display cases, without explanation or context.  The contents were incredibly interesting!)

After that, it was just a slow afternoon wandering the streets of Dawson.  There are plenty of really old buildings to be found everywhere, so I just wandered the grid back and forth across town until I ran out of grid to wander.  I visited (the outside of) Robert Service’s cabin as well as (the outside of) the bank he worked at.  And then had a nice meal at one of the other few restaurants still open, wandered the waterfront a bit more until the excessive amount of flies finally got to me, and called it a night.

Next up: A brief journey down the Dempster Highway (only the first 75 km or so), back to Whitehorse, then on to Skagway, Alaska and to Juneau on the ferry!

I continue to add a small selection of photos to Flickr here.  Many more will come when I get home.

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