Dawson City: the wildest little town in Canada's Yukon

It's midnight at The Pit and while it's still broad daylight outside, the shades have been drawn and the fairy lights illuminated to give some semblance of darkness in Dawson City's most notorious dive bar.

Just like every other evening during the brief northern summer, The Pit is going off. Speed Control, a local Yukon band, has a capacity crowd roaring as they belt out quirky AC/DC-inspired originals. There are punters dancing on tabletops, another on the bar and I cop an eyeful of bare breasts, flashed in drunken exaltation when a gold miner "rings the bell" and buys a round of shots.

On the wall behind the band is a provocative painting depicting the artist having his way with Queen Victoria (or so I'm told); on the opposite wall there's another masterpiece of a Mountie being pleasured by a lady of the night. I'm blushing – but hey, this is Dawson City, and anything goes.

When gold was discovered in 1896 at Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, it began an unprecedented stampede as 100,000 desperate, recession-hit dreamers set out to strike it rich in the north-western realms of Canada. Few could contemplate the hardships they would endure on that route – sub-zero temperatures, unchartered wilderness and an arduous passage that included treacherous mountain ascents and an equally harrowing river journey.

Many died on the trail, even more dropped out, with just a tenacious 30,000 making it to the goldfields – only to find that most claims had already been snapped up. However, out of this epic failure came prosperity as the disorderly frontier outpost of Dawson boomed into "The Paris of the North", with banks, churches, theatres, bordellos and, of course, saloons.

However, with every good boom comes a bust; and within a few years, a third of the population had left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. When Dawson was incorporated into a city in 1902, the population had dwindled to less than 5000, with many of the rickety wooden buildings, hastily constructed on permafrost, falling into ruination.

Declared a National Historic Site in 1972 (and now vying for World Heritage designation), Dawson's downtown today  is something of a living museum, with major restoration projects breathing new life into many of the original, false-fronted buildings. Some, such as the pressed tin-clad Bank of Commerce – where the beloved Bard of the Yukon, poet Robert Service once worked – are slowly undergoing major reconstruction; others, like the Kissing Buildings, which have collapsed in on each other in a frosty embrace, are beyond repair but are maintained for posterity by Parks Canada. But it's not the buildings that make Dawson City such a fascinating destination – it's the people, the larger-than-life eccentrics coined "the colourful five per cent".

"Dawson City attracts the weirdest people," our guide, Justin, says during an entertaining walking tour conducted by Parks Canada, comparing goldrush days with modern life in Dawson City. "It's like we're a gravity well – winter can be difficult, and people can go a little strange."

One way for the permanent population of around 2000 to deal with the isolation, 24-hour winter darkness and temperatures as low as minus-60 degrees Celsius, Justin tells us, is to get involved with Dawson's vibrant arts scene; another way is to party, with the town boasting a plethora of bars, from the Sourdough Saloon in the historic Downtown Hotel (featuring the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of choice garnished with a mummified human toe) to stylish Bombay Betty's, a former whorehouse now converted to a boutique B&B and bar, where locals and tourists happily mingle. 

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Dawson City also boasts a surprising number of excellent restaurants, including The Drunken Goat Taverna and Klondike Kate's, named after one of the town's most beloved goldrush characters. I'm also delighted to discover real coffee at the Australian-owned Alchemy Café, serving some of the best vegetarian food – including smashed avo on toast – north of the border.

Despite the trappings of modern life, Dawson City is still in essence a gold mining town, with about 80 small, family-owned and operated mines, and more than 13,500 placer claims in the surrounding hills. Jewellery stores on the main street sell natural gold nuggets brought into the store by the miners themselves; while a hand-written sign on the local community board advertises a gold claim for sale for $5000.

Meanwhile, in the quirky Trading Post on Front Street, gold-panning equipment sits alongside other curiosities of the north, such as grizzly skins, wolf snares and first-editions of Robert Service poetry – a delightful dichotomy that really exemplifies this bawdy, bold yet strangely poignant town.

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

travelyukon.com

FLY

Air Canada flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Vancouver daily, with domestic connections to Whitehorse in the Yukon. See aircanada.com.

Dawson City is a seven-hour drive north of Whitehorse or an hour's flight with Air North. See flyairnorth.com

STAY

Rooms at the historic Downtown Hotel start from $192 + tax per night. See downtownhotel.ca

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