Dawson City, Yukon
Canada’s Yukon is a place of fiction and wonder, with a few real facts thrown in. Best known as the site of the Klondike Gold Rush, it’s a territory few Canadians will ever get to despite knowing about its river, gold and mounties. Many books and tales have been spawned by the hunt for gold and many of those sights are often bathed in summer sunlight still shining at midnight. And while dogsled and river raft were once the main choice of travel, today, the Yukon is best seen by RV.
RVs (Recreational Vehicles) are familiar to anyone who has driven our highways; in fact, there are over a million of them on the road in Canada today. And the term “RV” covers all of them from the practical pop-up tent trailer to the opulent 40-foot diesel-powered motorhome.
For our Yukon adventure, a rented 24-foot Class C motorhome (that’s the one with the bunk that extends out over the truck cab) was home for a week. This Ford diesel-powered unit had a 200-litre fuel tank, space to sleep five, a full kitchen, bath and shower, and, with its on-board propane system, the fridge stayed cold and the tap water was hot even if we camped just off the highway for a night. In the Yukon, this type of camping is common because we are talking about an area of the country that is long on highways and short on services.
In fact, I noted that most folks here measure distance in hours – not kilometres – as in “Yeah, it’s about eight hours to Dawson – if the road’s okay. Remember to gas up, eh.” That last bit is key, because towns are hours apart and the roads here are constantly heaving (as the permafrost under them buckles) while others are regularly washed out by mighty rivers and, of course, there is the time-consuming never-ending construction. But with a self-contained RV, bathroom breaks are never a problem and there is always a snack available.
While the roads are awful, the scenery is majestic, with a constant backdrop of mountains that wear mantles of green with hues of gold and red – often still snow-capped even now in July. Driving hour after hour, the scene is the same, yet it changes by the minute – mountains above, lakes and rivers below with a full palate of colours in between animated with wildlife.
This is the glory of the Yukon – that and the isolation. Stop on any highway, shut off the engine and you can hear – nothing. Feel free to stand in oncoming traffic while listening, ‘cause it’s so infrequent as to convey the feeling that you are utterly alone – unless you bring your wife and mother with you like I did. Interestingly, having the ladies and my teenage boys with me made me think that I was unusual at first, but as I found out later (and from what I saw on the road) 67 percent of RVs are owned by people who are under the age of 55, and 40 percent of those are families have children.
Most folks drive their own RVs north, as evidenced by the licence plates from all over North America, but rentals are popular, with several companies offering a variety of RVs located in Whitehorse, where there are also regular daily flights into a modern airport.
Driving to Dawson City from Whitehorse, we took a detour through Alaska so we could drive the “Top Of The World Highway.” For those who collect scenic routes as road warrior badges (you know, like the “Cabot Trail,” “Sea to Sky Highway” or “North of Superior Route”) this one has to be ranked in the extraordinary category. Note that it’s mostly gravel, has no guardrails and can leave the faint-hearted in a state of nervous exhaustion as the road cuts through the mountains. But for us, the topper came with the impression that on a brilliantly sunny day it was getting foggy. Soon enough, we smelled the smoke and realized we were driving toward a forest fire. As I’d find out in a bar that night, hanging smoke is a regular summer occurrence and amazingly, the fire we thought was nearby was more than 300 kilometres south of us.
Dawson City once had a population of over 30,000 (that’s as many people as live in the entire Yukon today) at the height of the gold rush in 1898, but even today, it’s home to 2,000 residents who divide their energies between mining gold and mining the tourists. Strangely, one benefits the other. By that I mean that real mining is still going on in the Klondike (the area produced 59,129 ounces of gold last year, worth in excess of 44 million dollars), meaning real people and real services are part of the Dawson streetscape, not just fake turn-of-the-century play actors. It’s this authenticity that makes Dawson real, unique and worth the drive.
On our last day, in homage to Dawson City, the legends and this trip, we headed out to Bonanza Creek and site of George Carmack’s discovery that sparked the 1896 Klondike gold rush. It’s a short drive outside town, and a place where you can still pan for gold yourself, something we did and failed at, but there is more than one way to find gold in the Yukon.
Later than night while playing blackjack at Canada’s oldest casino (Diamond-tooth Gerties) I was kidding a young (mildly intoxicated) miner named Shawn about his only offering some “paydirt” to a cute blond girl at our table when he turned to me and in a show of male solidarity said he’d give me some too. And he did – real gold dust mixed with the sands that are still being mined from the creek beds that continue to glint yellow in the midnight sun.
This trip was sponsored by Go RVing and the Yukon. The Go RVing Canada website has extensive resources on everything RV-related. Please see gorving.ca and travelyukon.com
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