Yukon, Canada: Where to experience rare phenomenons and untouched wilderness

Someone has just dropped a human toe in my shot of whisky. Ordinarily this would be cause for serious consternation, perhaps even a swift punch to the nose, but bizarrely, I paid for the privilege. 

Surrounding me, a group of perfect strangers chant my name in unison, thumping tables or stamping their feet. Raising my glass to the crowd, I down the shot in one, the gnarled toe contacting my lips for a few grisly seconds as custom demands. 

A ripple of applause fills the pub as I stagger to my feet before the next patron in line gingerly takes a seat behind me.  

Those game – or perhaps daft enough – to partake in this suspect ritual do so to become part of a hallowed society known as the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. Established in 1973, it has become an iconic tradition in Dawson City, a remote town in the Yukon, north-west Canada. 

The legend of the sourtoe dates to the 1920s when a rum runner named Louie Linken lost his frost-bitten toe to a blizzard. The amputated keepsake was preserved in a jar of alcohol until it was discovered years later by local man Captain Dick Stevenson who established the club. Today, its membership is more than 100,000 strong.

While it's an entertaining ritual and undoubtedly fosters tourism, in truth, there are many other good reasons to come here. Mine was to catch a glimpse of the Yukon Quest, an annual 1600-kilometre dog-sled race from Whitehorse, Canada, to Fairbanks, Alaska, of which Dawson City marks the halfway point. 

From the moment I rolled into town, it was clear Dawson City has a special feel. As the epicentre of the Klondike Gold Rush between 1896 and 1899, the city has retained a genuinely authentic historical air. 

Wooden houses painted vivid colours stand in stark contrast to the bleak, snowy landscape. Buildings ravaged by permafrost lean crookedly against each other while streets carved out of snow make sudden, steep ascents into the hills. It's like a miniature San Francisco transplanted into the wilderness.

But its strength also lies in the surrounds. Just north is Tombstone Territorial Park, a 2200-square-kilometre stretch of pristine wilderness dominated by the craggy Tombstone Mountain Ranges. And there are few better ways to see it than from the air. 


At Dawson airport, I meet 30-year-old pilot Scott Turner for a flight-seeing tour in his lightweight propeller plane. 

A thick fog envelopes the landscape as we taxi on the runway but once we are flying high over the ranges, the weather clears. Following the Klondike River west, I look down over thousands of frosted pines like needles on a pin cushion. 

Further north we cruise above the Tombstone Mountains where at times I'm almost eye level with the serrated ridgelines of a dozen jagged summits. At other times of year, I might have seen wild grizzlies, elk or even lynx, but there's something especially haunting about the bleak majesty of peak winter.

Back on the ground, I seek out the Yukon Quest mushers camp, hoping for a chat with a real-life Action Man. Though I'd imagined it to be somewhere around town, the facility can be reached only by navigating the frozen Yukon River; an exercise that prompts me to shudder each time my car tyres creak across the groaning ice. 

The camp is far calmer than expected. Beside the river, a smattering of tents is pitched in single file, each about 20 metres apart. Beneath tarpaulin sheets, huskies sleep amid piles of straw while the smell of campfires permeates the crisp air. Unsurprisingly perhaps, everyone is asleep. Though I would love to have chatted, I think better of disturbing a musher for fear of having a firewood axe buried in my forehead.

Walking home that night, a halo of ice crystals surrounds the moon above the coloured buildings, a rare phenomenon known as a "Moon Dog". There's a unique feel to this part of the world, a special remoteness that can only be fully appreciated here.

As pilot Scott Turner said, "There's a slower pace of life in the north and a certain kind of person that lives up here; I don't want to say loners, but fiercely independent, they don't need to be in big groups of people to exist. A lot of the Yukon is basically still untouched, from the forest to the mountains, and how many places can you still say that about?"






Dawson City is a seven-hour drive from Whitehorse. See dawsoncity.ca

Great River Air offers flight-seeing tours over Tombstone Territorial Park, See greatriverair.com


Air Canada operates frequent flights from Sydney to Vancouver with connections to Whitehorse, Canada. See aircanada.com 


The Aurora Inn offers comfortable rooms in downtown Dawson City. Rooms from $CA139 a night. See auriorainn.ca 

Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Yukon Tourism.