Sourtoes and Shipwrecks. Dawson City, YT. May 22 – 23, 2017.

Dawson City is a destination in its own right, though the usual attractions – Klondike gold rush history, gold panning, cabaret, and other old mining town and frontier sales pitches – were not what drew me there. I wanted to ride the Top of the World Highway, which started at the landing point of the George Black Ferry.

But a stop at a historic mining town along the way was swell, too.

A break in the endless spruce.
Poking around Montague Roadhouse Historic Site.

Embarking towards Dawson instead of taking the Alaska Highway to Tok meant embracing the unpaved surfaces ahead. I’d left the pavement before for Baja, but it was more a test of patience than technique on my overloaded Vespa. Before setting off, I pored over The Milepost’s map for the Klondike Loop, trying to anticipate road conditions. I did this, in spite of knowing I’d only be ready when I found myself there.

Distances between development stretched even farther – the Yukon’s test of patience for my Vespa had already begun. I just held the throttle open.

Trying to warm up with hot soup in Carmacks. The placemat depiction of a mosquito carrying off a VW was barely hyperbole.
Canadians have the best chip flavors.
Brr.

It’s on stretches like these that my mind wanders, its latest fixation being to script whole conversations in my head with people I miss. How many hours I wished they could be with me, sharing the sights, smelling the spice of pine in the air, feeling the temperature rise with the sun. I explained myself to no one but the sky and the road, justified my actions to blue mountains on the horizon and an evergreen blur of trees flitting by.

There sure is a lot of space for introspection here.

Ahead of me in Haines, a ship waited to take me back to the mainland. I intended to reach it, but hopefully after a heavy dose of glaciers, ghost towns, and wild beauty because I also didn’t want to get there. Arrival would set in motion the next series of events, culminating in a return ticket to Boston. Fred was settled there, but I remembered when I first returned to New England and realized it had become just one more destination – no more a home than another stop along the way. High speed internet had petered out since Vancouver, and every choppy FaceTime call was a disjointed reminder of another world. I hadn’t seen Boston since last year, a lifetime ago. I wondered if Fred felt like he had a ghost for a girlfriend, my things alongside his, living in Cambridge even when I didn’t.

Is home just a place for your stuff, or is it more useful to see it as a state of mind? I once had a vision for it, but it’s obscured now, or multiplied, like a kaleidoscope.

Surely I was racking up sleep debt.

Canadian topes? They’re much more polite.

Drivers had complained of the frost heaves on the way to Dawson City, but I mostly picked my way around them. Mostly. While lost in made-up conversations in my head, at least one caught me unawares and launched me clean into the air.

Destination for the night.

It was a bit chilly to camp, but the hotels in a tourist town were expensive for a solo traveler. There were two hostels, one across the river and a new hostel in town. Nancy dissuaded me from the one across the river, so I pulled up to the Cat’s Pyjamas.

Historic building on the front…
…historic character where you’re actually staying.
Walk about town.

At the height of the gold rush, Dawson City ballooned to a population of 40,000 – unimaginable, when a brisk walk could find you at the edge of town in less than 15 minutes now. The storefronts and boardwalks looked like a movie set to me, but unfortunately movies and Disney rides were the only things I knew to measure Dawson against.

Cabin next to the Klondike Visitors Association, but I don’t recall if it belonged to someone of note or if it was reconstructed to Yukon historic standards.
Placard on the right explains the use of old flattened barrels for siding.
Ruby’s Place was a brothel and later a boarding house. Businesses are all themes of gold, diamond, and bonanza.
The vibrant colors add to the unreality feel, but maybe it’s more cheerful in high tourist season.
Building on permafrost has some drawbacks.
Definitely some drawbacks.

Let’s just say, the Cats Pyjamas made my freshmen dorm look swanky. Though the metal bunks were shored up with planks, mine required some acrobatic prowess to mount since it was missing some reinforcement. I managed to sleep a night without squashing my lower bunkmate.

Ragtime piano player at the Downtown Hotel.
Our group of intrepid young travelers are here for…

“Drink it fast or drink it slow, the lips have gotta touch the toe.” I’d missed getting Hyderized, but I guess I couldn’t escape all the weird northern alcohol traditions.

At the recommendation of previous patrons, I had my Sourtoe Cocktail with Newfoundland Screech Rum. I believe the finer points of the liquor were lost to the spectacle of the little salami-like object plunked in my drink.

Captain Dick Stephenson’s Sourtoe cabinet.

As I stared down into the glass, I thought for a moment I saw a little brown chip, like a toenail, that had fallen off and sat at the bottom. It was merely a reflection in the glass, but pointing it out satisfactorily grossed out my new friends.

The value is in grossing out your friends. Especially the vegetarian!

Five dollars, what a racket! At least the good Captain will give your glass a tap if the toe gets stuck to the bottom.

Washing out the taste of the Sourtoe by sampling other local booze: Yukon Jack.

Ryota was staying in the rustic hostel across the river. In keeping with Yukon authenticity, it skipped such luxuries as electricity and running water. That morning, he spent 3 hours making his own fire to cook breakfast. Guess I’ll take the sloped, neglected hostel! Even though the oven looked like it was from the 1970s, and hot oil leaked out and slid across the slanted kitchen floor the last time a guest tried to use it, hey, “At least it’s not the 1870s!”

The other couple, because they were two, booked the cheapest hotel room on the other side of town. Ha.

The Pit, a tavern at the base of the bright pink Westminster Hotel, is quiet this early in the season. We emerged from the bar to pink skies, midnight sun trickery.

There was some talk that night about the lack of affordable housing for the seasonal workers in town, many from Europe. The next day, hostel staff walked to the free store on the outskirts of Dawson, in search of kitchen basics like a kettle and dish sponges.

Scooting around town. 18 mile loop.
Overcast at the Midnight Dome Viewpoint.
I finished a photography course while in SF, and Pete loaned me his Olympus for this trip.
Now I get to play with lenses.
Scoot by some old cemeteries.
Why do they these graves have little cribs built around them?
Oh no there were babies.
In death, like birth?
RCMP cemetery.

I took my turn on the glacially slow ferry across the Yukon, to explore a paddleboat graveyard.

That’ll do for a bridge.
The sign reads: Help us preserve our heritage. Please leave the site as you found it.
There were clearly some footpaths around the ruined ships. Water too, sought the easiest path to the river, soaking the ground beneath the planks and turning paths into ponds.
Does my treading (or hopping from plank to plank) do more damage than the ravages of weather?
Paddling no more.
Hull goes there.
A sea of multiple shipwrecks.
The Yukon glides by.
I compressed myself in some places, and lifted myself to access others. Glad to be covered in kevlar, leather, and armor.
Smells musty in here. Sadly, there were some beer cans and graffiti.
Cast iron survivors.
Beached.
What a blast.

With no railings or guidelines, the paddleboat graveyard was neither safe nor child proof. It was so much fun!

Procession going on back in town.
Ceremony for the rededication of an RCMP cemetery…the one I scooted by earlier.
There was a free BBQ after, with fiddle music and cancan dancing. Party Dawson City style!
Thank you for your service, handsomely dressed mounty.

I shared a table with modern surveyors over lunch. Panning for gold in the rivers was for tourists. Their team of geophysicists and small craft pilots analyzed vast swaths of land, providing consulting services for corporations on locations most likely to be rich in minerals of any kind. A fascinating turn in modern mining, but in true nerd form (I recognize my own), they had to stop themselves short of sharing proprietary techniques.

Nice rig, who are you?
I was recommended to fill up on fish and chips at Sourdough Joe’s.

For those of who wonder how I can eat out so often on a budget: you’re right, I could stretch my dollar farther by cooking my own dry goods. I do cook sometimes and always carry breakfast, but I very much enjoy eating what’s available around me. For me, it’s worth the extra expense, and with inflated American portions I seldom eat more than half a meal serving anyway. The other half I wrap in aluminum foil (indispensable on the bike, it also makes a funnel for oil changes), saved for another meal.

Yep, I make it work by hoarding food. My soft cooler instead of a camp kitchen works for me, and I’m okay with eating a lot of food cold. This also hopefully curbs the tendency to balloon up on fattening road foods. I mean, my potato chip intake alone has increased 1000% since embarking north…

Meeting some hostel folks for the cabaret at Diamond Tooth Gerties. The can-can dancers made some of the younger guests blush.
I tried bribing the doorman with my leftovers from Sourdough Joe’s, and it actually worked!
Goodbye, sinking hostel! Happy to leave this squalor behind.

I must admit, I was eager to put Dawson City in my rear view mirror. Since all the claims had been made it had the air of a far-flung reenactment camp, capitalizing on tourists and taking advantage of the good nature of European seasonal workers. The frontier was stocked with enough ice cream and dreamcatchers for the busloads, but the real frontier was the search for a dish sponge.

To be fair though, I can’t call it a tourist trap – you’re never really trapped. The fantastic, raw wildness of the Yukon was always right there, outside town.

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