Big night out in Dawson City, Yukon
When the Klondike Gold Rush kicked off in Canada’s Yukon in 1897, thousands of nugget-eyed North Americans trekked in for a slice of shiny pie.
Most remained empty-handed, but the influx triggered rapid development – especially in remote Dawson City. 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, Dawson’s fortunes sank faster than a pyrite bolder. After a few years, the population dropped below 5,000 and its empty clapboard buildings began to warp and fade.
Fast-forward and the dirt roads of Dawson are now a National Historic Site, populated by artsy locals and transient tree-planters. Charming visitors with its heritage buildings and authentic frontier town ambiance, one of its main attractions is a tasty round of old-school, character-packed watering holes.
From grunge-tastic 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 a.m. – is a glimpse of the days when sourdoughs (the nickname for locals) celebrated their glittering discoveries with a drink or three.
Toe-ing the line
The first stop for many is the swing-doored Sourdough Saloon in the red-painted Downtown Hotel (http://www.downtownhotel.ca). A cozy, flock-wallpapered tavern with an ever-busy pool table, its main lure is the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, a 40-year-old drinking game.
You buy your tipple (usually a slug of Yukon Jack whisky), sit at a table before a captain-hatted attendant then pay $5 to have a real, salt-preserved human toe dropped in your glass. The original toe was found in an old cabin. But due to theft, damage and an occasional swallowing, it’s been replaced over the years with donated digits.
Knocking it back, you have to let the gnarly, leather-brown toe 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 (http://www.midnightsunhotel.com) 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 vintage.
To make instant friends in the Midnight Sun’s lounge, ring the bell attached to the bar – it means you’ll 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 (http://thewestminsterhotel-1898.com) 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 music.
Yukon bands like The Pointer Brothers typically perform behind the wooden hitching rail here. But the paintings studding the cabin-like walls are almost as entertaining: naïve portraits of locals and world leaders plus an infamous Canadian Mountie action scene that has most snickering into their libations.
Classing it up
Dawson isn’t only about boozy dive bars. Decade-old Bombay Peggy’s (http://www.bombaypeggys.com) is for those preferring a civilized sip. Named after an infamous Gold Rush madam – check the photo of her above the bar scandalously dressed in slacks – it’s the kind of bright, convivial pub found in many North American neighbourhoods.
The full Yukon Brewing (http://www.yukonbeer.com) beer roster is offered – Lead Dog Olde English Ale recommended – but Peggy’s specializes in well-executed cocktails with racy names like Easy Lai and Brazen Hussy.
Like several Dawson bars, Peggy’s closes in winter when temperatures shiver down to minus 30 degrees Celsius. 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 open year-round, though, 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 (http://www.dawsoncity.ca/klondikeattractions/diamondtoothgerties) is named after another of the Gold Rush’s infamous working ladies – and yes, she had a diamond between her teeth.
The heart of Dawson nightlife, the small, friendly casino is a million miles from soulless 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’s the perfect way to remember Dawson’s gritty but party-loving good old days.