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 1932 for the same reason thousands before him did during the Gold Rush of 1896-1399, 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 Caimack 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 at own site 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 Canada from 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 Prohibiţi on-era bootlegger pickled in a jar of over proof 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 hr 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.