Why is it that the further from civilization one gets, the more civilized the people become? Last month I fulfilled a long-standing desire to visit Canada’s North with a holiday in Dawson City, Yukon. My journey started at Pearson Airport in Toronto, the heart of international travel in Canada, and an intimidating and mammoth zoo of terminals, gates and security checks. I was eager to leave behind the hubbub of the big city and was soon off on a multi-leg journey on my way to Dawson.
Toronto to Calgary, six-hour layover, Calgary to Whitehorse, overnight stay, and then finally Whitehorse to Dawson. My excitement grew as the planes shrunk with each leg of the trip. The final leg from Whitehorse to Dawson was especially interesting as I got to sit next to Buffy Sainte-Marie who was performing a kick-off show to the Dawson City Music Festival I was attending.
When the plane landed at the Dawson City International Airport I sincerely hoped this tiny, remote northern town would provide me with the escape I was looking for. When I saw the baggage claim area, I knew it would…
At the height of the gold rush in 1898, Dawson City was the largest city in Western Canada with a population of 40,000. The former “Paris of the North” and capital of the Yukon now has a population of about 2,000. Gold mining is still an important part of the economy for Dawson, but its main economic activity is now certainly tourism. The buildings in town are maintained to keep the look and feel of the gold rush era, making for a unique and colourful experience. Besides Front Street, the rest of the roads in Dawson are dirt and wooden boardwalks crisscross the town making you feel like you’re in a Wild West movie.
At first I was nervous that Dawson would be far too touristy and kitschy, but it doesn’t come across as tacky at all. It’s successfully built up a tourist industry without losing its charm.
I think in part that’s because of the type of tourist who comes to visit Dawson. It’s not a roadside attraction or the first place someone thinks of when they’re planning their family vacation. Its remoteness and relative inaccessibility (with visitors arriving either by plane, on the one road in and out of town, or paddling down the Yukon River) attracts the “right” kind of tourist in my mind – those with a spirit of adventure and the right amount of hippy in them. So even though I was there in its peak tourist season, during the Music Festival, it maintained an authentic and chill vibe.
I stayed at the Dawson City River Hostel and highly recommend it for those who don’t mind being off the grid. Not having electricity isn’t really a big issue though considering the 20 or so hours of daylight you get from May to August.
Although no darkness can be a problem as I discovered one night when I woke up and desperately had to go pee. I was half-asleep and didn’t fancy putting my shoes on and hiking over to the outhouses so I thought I’d just go outside my cabin door next to a tree. The problem was it was still light out and I was surrounded by other tents and cabins who would surely see me if they were still awake. I didn’t have my glasses on so I squinted through the half-light and hoped nobody was watching. Apologies to anyone who did see me; you may blame the land of the Midnight Sun.
My stay in Dawson was wonderful. Staying at a hostel is great when you’re traveling solo as I was since it’s so easy to meet people. Everybody I met was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The people I met were probably my favourite part of the entire trip (besides meeting Fred Penner of course, which I’ll get to in another post).
There was Dierdre and Christine from Toronto who became my partners in crime for much of the trip (Dierdre was my official videographer for my Sour Toe Cocktail video – check it out in my July 30th post if you haven’t seen it and haven’t had lunch yet).
There was Pieter from Belgium who liked bananas in his spaghetti sauce.
There was Adam and Sarah from Saskatchewan who had just eloped to Dawson City.
There was John, the American cyclist who powered through the washed out Alaskan highway to make it to town.
There was Gilbert the local man we met at the Wesminster Hotel who told us about life in Dawson and how he retrofitted his van into a camper of sorts so he could pass out in it after a hard night of drinking at the “Pit” instead of driving home.
There was Lars, the drunkest Swede I’ve ever met.
There were the Good Lovelies, Caroline, Kerri and Sue, recent winners of the 2010 Juno for Roots Album of the Year, who were both good and lovely and had a drink with us at the Beer Tent during the festival.
There was Jan, another Belgian, who was leaving Dawson City to go back to BC in pursuit of a woman he had just met and fallen madly in love with.
Yes, by far the coolest part of my trip to the Yukon was the variety of visitors, each with their own unique reason and story for being there. And Jan wasn’t the only one who fell madly in love with someone he just met. I fell under the spell of “Diamond Tooth Gertie,” the gorgeous singing sensation performing in the Klondike-style can-can shows at Canada’s oldest casino.
Gertie’s real name is Dana and we invited her out with us after the show to 80’s night at the Midnight Sun Hotel. And the cool part is she and a few other performers did come up and we got to hang out with the Dawson City “celebrities”. You gotta love a small town.
Although a romance with Dana didn’t materialize, my relationship with the much romanticized Yukon lived up to my expectations.
Arriving at the airport I was reminded one last time of how different Dawson was from Toronto, with this paper taped above the secured entrance to the airport’s runway…
Duane Elgin, author of “Voluntary Simplicity”, talked about the “invisible wealth of experiential riches.” My “I’ve Never Club” is inspired by this idea and chronicles my reflections on the novel things I’ve done recently.
Funny stories. Good advice. Josh Martin the author of the book “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.” Click here to learn more and to purchase a copy.