After a lucky 1896 panning discovery ignited the
Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon territory, thousands of nugget-eyed North
Americans stampeded in for a slice of golden pie.
Most remained empty-handed, but the influx triggered
rapid development – especially in remote Dawson City, a town close to the
original find and just 105km from the Alaskan border. Raucous saloons, gambling
dens and houses of ill repute sprang up, quickly transforming the fur traders’
bolt-hole into a 30,000-strong boomtown.
But once the easy gold was played out, this outback
city’s fortunes sank faster than a pyrite boulder. After a few years, the
population dropped below 5,000 and its empty clapboard buildings began to warp
Fast-forward to today and the dirt roads of Dawson are
now a National Historic Site, populated by around 1,300 artsy locals and
transient tree-planters – many of whom still take the time to pan for gold in
the hills. Charming visitors with its heritage buildings and authentic frontier
town ambiance, one of Dawson’s main attractions is its tasty round of
old-school, character-packed watering holes.
From grungy dive bars to a wood-floored casino where
dancing girls and Yukon Gold ale go hand-in-hand, a night out in Dawson – where
the summer sun sets as late as 1 am – is a glimpse of the days when sourdoughs
(the nickname for locals that stems from the sourdough bread old-time
prospectors kept in their cabins) celebrated their glittering discoveries with
a drink or three.
Toeing the line
The first stop for many is the swing-doored Sourdough
Saloon, a cosy, flock-wallpapered tavern with an ever-busy pool table in the
red-painted Downtown Hotel. The saloon’s
main lure is the Sourtoe Cocktail
Club, a 40-year-old drinking game.
You buy your tipple (usually a shot of Yukon Jack whisky),
sit at a table before a captain-hatted attendant then pay five Canadian dollars
to have a real, salt-preserved human toe dropped in your glass.
The original toe, reputedly a frostbitten digit
self-amputated by a 1920s gold miner, was found in an abandoned cabin by eccentric
Dawson sourdough Dick Stevenson, who created the legendary drink in 1973. Due
to theft, damage -- and an occasional swallowing -- it has been replaced at
least seven times over the years with donated toes, including one from an
American who severed his during a lawnmower accident. According to the bar,
there is a backlog of replacement offers from around the world.
Knocking it back, you have to let the gnarly,
leather-brown digit touch your lips. That makes you a member of the 44,000-strong
club – and you receive a certificate (and possibly an involuntary gag reflex)
to prove it.
One block away, the Midnight Sun Hotel is popular with
hard-drinking Dawsonites. There are two bars here: a sweaty live music joint
and a tin-ceilinged lounge lined with vinyl chairs, sticky tables and – on some
nights – a crowd of regulars warbling karaoke soft rock of indeterminate
To make instant friends in the Midnight Sun’s lounge,
ring the bell attached to the bar – it means you will be buying a round for
everyone. The rule, stemming from the days when miners celebrated their gold
discoveries, applies to any tavern with a bell in Dawson.
If you inadvertently nudge it and need to make a quick
escape, the paint-peeled Westminster
Hotel is a short sprint away. Also a double-room dive, the locals call its
tavern bar the Snake Pit and its lounge bar the Arm Pit – with the
low-ceilinged, fairy light-strewn latter recommended for its regular live
Yukon bands like the Pointer Brothers typically
perform behind the wooden hitching rail, but the paintings studding the
cabin-like walls are almost as entertaining There are naïve portraits of locals
and world leaders, plus an infamously naughty Canadian Mountie action scene
that has most snickering into their libations.
Classing it up
Dawson is not only about boozy dive bars. Decade-old Bombay Peggy’s is for those preferring
a civilized sip. Named after an infamous Gold Rush madam – check out the photo
of her above the bar scandalously dressed in slacks – it is the kind of bright,
convivial pub found in many North American neighbourhoods.
The full Yukon
Brewing beer roster, brewed in capital city Whitehorse, is available, and
the Lead Dog Olde English Ale is recommended. But Peggy’s specialises in
well-executed cocktails with racy names like Easy Lai, made of passion fruit
liqueur, coconut rum and pineapple juice and Brazen Hussy, concocted with gin,
triple sec, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice.
Like several Dawson bars, Peggy’s closes in winter
when temperatures shiver down to -30C. But regulars have developed a handy way
to stay warm: on winter Friday nights, a different house each week hosts a
party under the Bombay banner, and everyone drops by with booze and food to
keep things rolling.
Some Dawson bars are open year-round, including the
one inside Canada’s oldest legal casino. Run as a not-for-profit by the local
tourism association (proceeds are re-invested in the community), Diamond
Tooth Gerties is named after another of the Gold Rush’s infamous working
ladies – and yes, she had a diamond wedged between her two front teeth.
As the heart of Dawson nightlife, the small, friendly
casino is a million miles from soulless Las Vegas gambling factories. Here, the
slot machines and poker tables take second place to a large wooden stage where
chorus girls prance behind a femme fatal singer who works the room, mussing the
hair of seated, slack-jawed males.
Like stepping into a classy Wild West saloon, Gerties’
burlesque-lite show runs three times a night in summer; late-carousing locals
prefer the midnight performance. It is the perfect way to remember Dawson’s
gritty but party-loving good old days.
The article 'A local night out in Dawson City' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.