If the bulldozers on Tony Beets’ gold mine ever break down he could just use his bare hands. They are gigantic and caked in dirt, the way God’s must have looked the day he created the mountains. Tony came to the Yukon in 1982 for the same reason thousands before him did during the Gold Rush of 1896–1899, but the old stories don’t interest him much.
‘The history is the least of my concerns, to be honest with ya,’ he drawls. ‘It’s nice, but they could have left a little more.’
Despite a century’s worth of miners striking it lucky, there is still enough gold in these hills to have made Tony a rich man. His straggly hair and beard may disguise it but his net worth is estimated at over $5 million. ‘We strictly came here for the money,’ he says. ‘Let’s say that worked. We’re a little spoiled now, but like I always say…’ He holds up those dusty articulated fists. ‘It was earned.’
Tony mines near the Klondike River, where gold was first discovered on Rabbit Creek by Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Tagish Charlie in August 1896. The area proved so rich that when the prospectors arrived back in San Francisco in July 1897 their ship’s cargo was worth over a million dollars. The news sparked a Gold Rush that led 100,000 people to attempt the long, punishing journey to the Klondike.
Realising that these stampeders would be even easier to mine than the hills, a barkeeper named Joseph Ladue built a sawmill and staked out a townsite on the mud flats at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon. He named this Dawson City, and it became home to the miners, and to the pimps, hustlers and dancing girls who followed in their wake. Dawson City remains an outlaw town. ‘You can do things the way you want here,’ says Tony. ‘A lot of places are regulated and over-regulated, but here they still let you get away with stuff.’
Wandering Dawson at dusk the only thing missing from the scene is a pair of duelling gunslingers. The buildings of wood and tin haven’t changed since the 1900s, the saloons still have swing doors and the streets are little more than dirt tracks.
Dawson is still the end of the road. Keep going north and the only settlements you’ll find are in the Arctic Circle. That means a certain breed of character washes up here, like nuggets in the bend of a river. On any given night, in bars like The Pit at the Westminster Hotel, you’re likely to hear tall tales from guys like Duncan Spriggs, the former landlord who’ll tell you about the time he rode a horse from Vancouver to San Francisco. Or about Dana Meise, who walked across Canadafrom the Atlantic to the Pacific and claims to have fought no fewer than three grizzly bears along the way.
No bar sums up the spirit of Dawson quite like the Downtown Hotel. The signature drink here is the Sourtoe cocktail, served with a genuine severed human toe resting in it. Dawson is not a place concerned with Health and Safety regulations. The story goes that in the early 1970s a man named Captain Dick Stevenson came across the toe of a Prohibition-era bootlegger pickled in a jar of overproof rum. Yukoners refer to anyone who hasn’t spent the harsh winter here as a ‘cheechako’, while anyone who has survived one becomes a ‘sourdough’. Captain Dick decreed that in order to become an honorary sourdough, one must kiss the ‘sourtoe’. To date, over 67,000 have.
Like the miners, the dancing girls are still here too. Most nights in Dawson end at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest casino and home to a can-can show hosted by the eponymous Gertie. One of the most famous dance hall stars of the Gold Rush era, she’s currently played by Amy Soloway, a singer from Nova Scotia who moved to Dawson eight summers ago to take the role.
‘Gertie was a smart lady, and she knew what men liked, especially lonely men: liquor, ladies and gambling. ‘She was the baddest chick in 1898,’ says Amy. ‘When I mingle after the shows I meet miners and feel transported back. It’s still very much alive.’
Not everybody comes here for the gold, but it has a way of pulling you in. Leslie Chapman and husband Bill just wanted to live off the grid when they moved from Calgary in 1974 and built a cabin near the Alaskan border. Soon they started finding gold dust and after staking their claims built a house in Dawson where Leslie now works as a goldsmith making jewellery, mostly from the spoils of their own mine. She has an electronic scale on the counter, accurate to 1/100th of a gram, and miners often pay her with dust pulled from their pockets. It’s not what keeps her here though.
‘The Yukon means freedom,’ she says. ‘That’s the reason I came. We still have so much open, unclaimed land in its natural state. So many people in the world can’t even see the stars anymore. That’s not a problem here.’
The Yukon is a good place for people who like space. The territory stretches over a slice of land twice the size of Great Britain but its total population is just 37,000. Over 27,000 of those live in the capital, Whitehorse, leaving the rest to scatter themselves in small towns, tiny villages or cabins in the wilderness. The roads that cut through the Yukon stretch for mile after mile through seemingly endless woods of spruce, pine and fir and it’s rare to see more than a handful of fellow travellers. Only when you reach higher ground, above the tree line, do you really get a sense of the scale of the place and how far the few cabins you pass are from anything resembling a town or city.
It’s the same across the border. Heading west from Dawson takes you on the Top of the World Highway to Chicken, Alaska, another gold-mining town. Settlers initially planned to name it after the many ptarmigan that lived in the area. However, none could agree how to spell ‘ptarmigan’, so ‘chicken’ was chosen to avoid embarrassment. It now has a population of 50 in the summer, dropping to just four in the winter.
Susan Wiren owns and runs Downtown Chicken, a miniature high street consisting of a shop, a saloon and the Chicken Creek Café. She came here 28 years ago, and laughs at the RV drivers who pass through complaining about the road conditions and expecting to find phone signal, wi-fi or ATMs. ‘They have no idea what it’s like,’ she says. ‘We have a generator that makes our electricity and we drive a 150-mile round-trip to get supplies. When you live out here, everything logistically is difficult.’
Nobody will claim that life here is easy, but it does offer the opportunity to live in a place still largely unchanged by human hands. Three-hundred and fifty miles south of Chicken, following the Alaska Highway back into the Yukon, you’ll find Kluane National Park. Its 8,500 square miles of protected land is home to black and grizzly bears, bald eagles, caribou and Brent Liddle, a naturalist and trail guide.
The park has been Brent’s natural habitat since he was posted to the small town of Haines Junction in 1975 by Parks Canada and he has dedicated his life to exploring it. ‘When I first came here I really had the sense of being at the end of the world,’ he says, ‘but the more you live here, you lose that sense of isolation. You’re busier in a remote community than you would be in a city where everything is provided for you. There are a lot of lonely people in cities.’
In Kluane, you get a sense of how the whole of the Yukon would still be if nobody had ever struck gold here. The mountains that tower over the glacial lakes look as they must have done when the pioneers first made their way among them. Kluane is home to Canada’s highest peak, the snow-engulfed Mount Logan. It rises 19,525 feet in the midst of the largest non-polar icefield in the world, a glacial area where mankind still rarely treads.
The only way to understand the vastness of this unforgiving land is from the air. There are peaks in Kluane that were never glimpsed by human eyes until the National Geographic Society’s first flight over the icefields in 1935, and many are still unnamed. Occasionally the ice offers up preserved artefacts of the area’s earliest human inhabitants, such as throwing spears, stone tools and even human bones belonging to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
‘People who think the Yukon is all about the Gold Rush are looking at it through a narrow lens,’ points out Brent. ‘It was an interesting period, but the First Nations history preceded it by 10,000 years.’
However, even in Kluane the Gold Rush left its mark. Unsignposted near the banks of Kluane Lake is Silver City, once a staging post for stampeders travelling north to Dawson. Now it’s a true ghost town, where rusty tin cans and broken glass litter the ground and trees twist through the tumbledown cabins as nature unhurriedly reclaims the land.
Silver City was just one stop on a journey that would have taken months in 1898. Most of those who joined the Gold Rush took steam ships from San Francisco and Seattle up to the port of Skagway, Alaska, now overrun by cruise-ship tourists. From there, they faced a treacherous hike to Bennett in British Columbia. They built boats for the 500-mile journey along the lakes, rivers and rapids that lead all the way to Dawson.
There were plenty of opportunistic hoteliers and saloon keepers in Bennett who, like Joseph Ladue, set out to profit from the influx of people. Among them was a German immigrant named Fred Trump, grandfather of Donald, whose family had changed their surname from the rather less auspicious Drumpf. He ran the Arctic Hotel, which according to most biographers (based on letters to the Yukon Sun newspaper and other sources) was rife with prostitution. Its popularity helped make Trump his fortune. ‘It’s a shame,’ observes Brent, ‘that nobody robbed him back then.’
These days, the crowds that made Trump rich are long gone. Brent leads hikes through parts of Kluane where it is not humans but bears, scratching their backs on trees, who have left their mark. Along the way he stops to point out which mushrooms and berries can be eaten safely.
When the sun disappears behind the mountains the only light for miles around comes from his own solar-powered cabin in the woods. In the still evening it is easy to understand why Jack London named one of his Yukon novels The Call of the Wild. More than gold, it is that call that still draws those who hear it to live here. ‘The Yukon,’ as Brent puts it, ‘picks its own people.’
As night draws in, the cabin is shrouded in the sort of perfect darkness impossible in towns or cities. There are no lights visible anywhere on the earth, but the sky above glitters with gold dust.
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