Karen Halabi explores frontier towns enroute to the Arctic Circle for the summer solstice.
'You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have got to touch the toe." The chant rings in my ears as a bar crowd cheers on those game enough to take part in this ritual. When it's my turn, someone shakes my hand. Then time stands still as I raise the proffered glass to my lips.
I'm drinking a sour toe cocktail - so named because it contains a human toe - in the Sourdough Saloon of the Downtown Hotel, Dawson City. The drinking ritual is said to have started in the 1920s with the amputated toe of a miner. To earn a certificate, your lips must make contact with the toe. I taste salt, a strange odour - and it's all over. No worries, I'm a survivor, as tough as any of those Yukon "gals" whose legacy lives on in this gold rush town.
"Yukon: North of Ordinary" has become a brand name for this wild territory in Canada's north-west bordering Alaska and Inuit Territory. The people who inhabit Yukon are tough and resilient, and in many ways the territory is still a "frontier". As one old-timer at the Downtown saloon bar confirms: "Those people who weren't born here are either running away from something or running towards something. If you're not in one of those two camps, you ain't a true Yukoner."
Dawson City has preserved much of its 19th-century Wild West and gold rush roots in the form of its wooden buildings and boardwalks, and in saloons and gaming halls where can-can dancers perform and tourists mingle with locals dressed in 19th-century-style clothes.
When Dawson City was the epicentre of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush it had a population of about 40,000, most of them prospectors and their families who risked their lives journeying in icy, treacherous conditions, including coming up the Chilkoot Pass on the border between Alaska and Canada, to get to Dawson.
Today, about 1800 people call the city home; however, the saloons have never closed, nor the gambling ceased. Many women who came this far north in the gold rush days stayed, too. Some, such as Klondike Kate, made a fortune running saloons, flop houses and bordellos that provided lodging, meals, dancing partners and ladies of the night to goldminers. "Kate" wasn't alone in her ventures - Ruby's, Bombay Peggy's, Paradise Alley and Diamond Tooth Gertie's are still standing in Dawson City. At Bombay Peggy's, while struggling to choose between a Brazen Hussy and a Chastity Belt (both martinis), I learn that many businesses in town are still run by women. But not, I later discover, the city's infamous "Pit". In the 100-plus-year-old Westminster Hotel, the Pit bar opens at 9am. I stand outside trying to decide between entering via the Snake Pit (the left door) or the Arm Pit (the right door), when a local, Spence, grabs me and regales me with tales of how cold it gets in winter. "You know how you know it's winter in Dawson?" he says. "When you have to say hi to everyone 'cos you can't recognise anyone, and when even Caveman Bill starts to look good." Spence laughs at his own joke; it's a style of humour that reminds me of Australia.
Just two days earlier and 500 kilometres away at Whitehorse, the Yukon's capital, the humour was also evident. "Where you staying?" asks my driver, Charlie. "At the Worst Western?"
As we head into town from the airport, we pass a bear on the side of the road, doing his business. "Well, there's the definitive answer to the age-old question, 'Does a bear shit in the woods?"' Charlie says.
It is estimated the Yukon has 10,000 black bears and 6000 grizzlies, as well as twice as many moose as people - 60,000 at last count.
A wilderness such as the Yukon can make you catch your breath at every turn. After visiting Whitehorse and Dawson City, I prepare for another kind of adventure into the wild - a journey by light plane to the Arctic Circle. Well, not right onto the Circle, but landing damn close.
As we leave Dawson City on a Yukon-owned Tintina Air charter flight, passing over the craggy snowcapped peaks of Tombstone National Park, the pilot, Dave, tells me there's no actual airstrip. However, it's approaching the night of summer solstice in the Land of the Midnight Sun and I want to be at the Circle. It's the longest night of the year, when you can eat dinner outdoors in full sun and read at midnight by white light.
"We have to land on the Dempster Highway," Dave says. "But it will be fine, I've done it before. There's always a gap in the traffic and most of them know to look out for planes landing. I'll just do a couple of circles to make sure there's no trucks, and then we'll go in."
We land comfortably and Dave turns our plane into a siding off the highway. A vehicle from Eagle Plains Lodge comes to pick us up. The lodge is known as the halfway point on the Dempster Highway, otherwise known as Yukon Highway 5, Canada's only all-weather road leading through the Arctic Circle. Half an hour later, driving on a desolate, winding road, we reach our destination - a signpost in the middle of nowhere. We're at the Arctic, latitude 66° 33' north, and surrounded by Winnebagos, four-wheel-drive vehicles and backpackers who've hitched rides on trucks. We pose for photos.
After all, how many people can say they've touched the Arctic Circle at solstice? It's 9pm and as bright as noon. It will remain sunny here until midnight. I look ahead, down an endless road, towards Old Crow, the northernmost settlement in the Yukon, close to the Alaskan border, and imagine it continuing to the Inuvik Region.
But, really, in every direction in Canada's north-west, humans are simply dwarfed by the scale of nature.
Karen Halabi travelled courtesy of Yukon Tourism. See travelyukon.com.
Air Canada has a fare to Whitehorse for about $2080 low-season return from Sydney including taxes. Fly non-stop to Vancouver (about 14hr), then to Whitehorse (5hr 25min). See aircanada.com. Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect.
Air North flies from Vancouver (as well as from Calgary and Edmonton) to Whitehorse and Dawson City. A flight from Whitehorse to Dawson City (about 70 minutes) costs about $C300 ($287) return including tax. See flyairnorth.com.
Tintina Air operates charter flights from Dawson City. A summer return charter for six people from Dawson to Eagle Plains is from $C2300. Charters from Whitehorse to Eagle Plains also available. See tintinaair.com.
In Dawson City, the Aurora Inn, corner of 5th Avenue and Harper Street, is in walking distance of galleries and attractions. Rooms from $C169 in summer. See aurorainn.ca.
In Whitehorse, the Takhini River Lodge has rooms for between $C180 and $C220 a night in summer. See takhiniriverlodge.com.
Inn on The Lake, about 30 minutes' drive from Whitehorse, has rooms from $C190 a night in summer. See exceptionalplaces.com.
See + do
At the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, $C5 gets you a sour toe cocktail.
The northern lights, aurora borealis, are best viewed in the Yukon from about late August to about mid-April.