A toe is staring back at me from the bottom of my glass at the Sourdough Saloon, magnified by a good measure of high-octane alcohol.
I take a deep breath and drink quickly, making certain the pickled human digit touches my lips, however briefly, to qualify for membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club. The tradition started years ago as a rite to initiate someone who became a sourdough, a true northerner who has survived at least one brutal Yukon winter.
Normally, I steer clear of goofy local rituals, but after a few days in Dawson City, I found I couldn't resist. There is an infectiously giddy feel about this little town at the edge of the wilderness that burst into life as the epicentre of the great Klondike gold rush of 1898.
Within months of the outside world learning gold had been found in the Yukon, a First Nations fish camp and moose pasture at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers swelled with 30,000 dreamers.
Close on the heels of the neophyte miners were the entrepreneurs --male and female -- who relieved them of their bulging pokes. As gold poured into this "Paris of the North," it was slapped onto bar and restaurant tables for $30 glasses of champagne, fresh oysters at $8 apiece or kid gloves from London. One fellow bought a dance-hall queen for her weight in gold. It was the true Wild West.
Dawson still looks and feels the part. The tiny town is a collection of 1890s historic buildings, log cabins and Victorian houses decorated with rusty picks and shovels from nearby goldfields. Unpaved town roads are either muddy or dusty, depending on the weather. Sidewalks are raised wooden boardwalks.
You feel like you're in a western movie, down to the swinging batwing doors. Small wonder the permanent population of 1,800 locals refers to this town as "Dodge."
Back in its heyday, Dawson had Calamity Jane and Swiftwater Bill. These days, there's a piano player named Barnacle Bob. You're likely to run into Trapper Dave at an art show or Caveman Bill, a.k.a. Bill Donaldson, at a sushi party.
Someone bet Bill he couldn't live in a cave once used for cold storage across the river for six weeks. He did and has now resided there for years, raising chickens and using an exercise bike to run the lights and his CD player.
Before long, you get into the swing of things and find yourself with a hankering for a jaunt on a Yukon River paddlewheeler or trying your luck with a gold pan.
I developed cravings for sourdough pancakes with maple syrup at Klondike Kate's, named for a real-life, red-haired dance-hall girl from Kansas, and martinis at a former brothel, Bombay Peggy's. I even dressed in knickers, fishnet stockings and bustier and had myself photographed in sepia tones.
Dawson City is one of those rare gems, a themed tourist mecca with genuine soul and character, partly due to gold still being at the heart of the community. Its presence can be felt in the mountains of pebbles that snake across the landscape, century-old tailings left by riverbed gold dredges. Some folks around town make a living from gold, and hundreds regularly come north each summer with a pan and sluice box.
Leslie Chapman sees them in her Fortymile Gold Workshop & Studio. "There are about 150 professional miners in the Klondike, and they show up with moosehide pokes, peanut-butter jars or Ziploc bags full of gold," she says, pointing to rows of tiny dishes filled with flakes and nuggets of all sizes and shapes alongside a display of contemporary jewelry and entitled "Not your Mama's nuggets."
Dawson is also a gutsy, artsy, enterprising collection of community-minded residents. The Yukon has a thriving cultural scene unparalleled in the country. More people make a living from art of all kinds and more music albums are recorded per capita than at any other place in Canada.
What brought me 2,000 kilometres north of Vancouver was a musical bonanza, the annual Dawson City Music Festival. For one jamming, packed long weekend in July, this town is overwhelmed with music lovers. They arrive with backpacks or guitar cases strapped to their backs, canoes on the rooftops, in muddy RVs or on mountain bikes. They're tattooed, blue-rinsed, tie-dyed, Tilley-hatted, hiking-booted and flip-flopped.
The festival is intimate and many performers express a special affection for the festival. Musicians are billeted with locals, as there aren't enough hotel rooms, and residents volunteer to feed them lavish sushi, Ethiopian and Greek spreads, a far cry from the canteen cuisine they are accustomed to on the folk-music-festival circuit.
"This place is in the middle of nowhere, expensive to reach and tiny," says Laurel Parry, the Yukon government's manager for the arts.
Dawson's biggest summer event plays out at five venues, including two old churches and Parks Canada's spectacularly reconstructed Palace Grand, a theatre built in 1899 by Arizona Wild West showman Charlie Meadows. Parks Canada has also restored and rebuilt several dozen gold-rush-era buildings, including the 1901 post office designed by Thomas Fuller, who also worked on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, a blacksmith shop, mortuary and a saloon. They also keep an eye on the Kissing Buildings as they tilt toward one another, having sunk into permafrost on which the town is built. Other buildings are left to decay for character unless someone wants to take them over.
The cultural tradition began during the Gold Rush when American author Jack London came north with gold fever and lived in the Yukon, where he later set his novels, Call of the Wild and White Fang. His cabin still stands in town, as does that of the bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, who penned such famous lines as: "There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun by the men who moil for gold... " There are daily readings of Service's famous poems, including The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew.
Dawson City was the hometown of prolific Canadian literary icon Pierre Berton, who wrote such classics as Arctic Grail, Klondike. His childhood home is the site of the Dawson City Writer in Residence program.
The wilderness still comes right into town. One day, I watched a moose swim across the river and that night stopped for a pair of badgers crossing the road.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO...
All area codes (867) unless otherwise noted. Prices in Canadian dollars.
Air North (www.flyairnorth.com, 1-800-764-0407 has regular flights from Vancouver to Whitehorse,YT, and also serves Dawson City.
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com, 1-888-247-2262) has several flights daily from Vancouver to Whitehorse.
Where to stay
Hotel rooms are limited in Dawson City, especially during the music festival. Book well in advance.
Bombay Peggy's (www.bombaypeggys.com, corner Second Aveue and Princess Street, 993-6969). Charming restored Victorian brothel. Boutique hotel with rooms from $99 double occupancy.
Bonanza Gold Motel and RV Park (www.bonanzagold.ca, 1-888-993-6789) is near the Klondike goldfields just south of Dawson City at the intersection of Klondike Highway and Bonanza Creek Road. Excellent motel accommodation.
Where to eat
Riverwest Bistro (Front and King streets, 993-6339). Excellent healthy soup/panini/wrap café. Very casual. Best coffee in town.
Klondike Kate's (www.klondikekates.ca, corner of King & Third Avenue, 993-6527). Casual and funky, a popular local restaurant with excellent smoked king salmon. Open breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Tourism Yukon, www.travelyukon.com, 1-800-789-8566
Klondike Visitors Association, www.dawsoncity.ca, 993-5575
Dawson City Music Festival, www.dcmf.com, 993-5584