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"Setting the world to rights"...one blog at a time! Plus anything else that comes to mind

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Mon 19th May to Thursday 22nd May 2003, Dawson City

Dawson city was at the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush.  A man called Carmacks and his Indian brothers-in-law (I think that's right), Skookum Jim and another one, found gold on what came to be called Bonanza Creek.  Skookum is an Indian word meaning strong, amongst other things - (don't know which language Carole, sorry but I have got a chart I can show you when we meet later in the year showing the language split and population numbers speaking the various languages).

The city has tried to keep itself very much as it would have been during the Gold Rush.  Old buildings have been preserved as far as possible in this climate and new buildings are in keeping with the old.  The only paved road is the Klondike Highway which skirts the City following the Yukon River.  The rest are dirt roads for the most part.  Because of this and the mud when the weather's bad most of the buildings have boardwalks outside and we are asked to remove our shoes before entering the hotel.

The result is a wonderful feeling of arriving back in the past, without being over-commercialised.  Of course, the lack of tourists at this time of year helps!  With my dusty clothes, jeans and heeled boots sounding on the boardwalks I fit right in and feel like Annie Oakley with a backpack.  Or perhaps Calamity Jane would be more appropriate?!?

The hotel is wonderful.  I had been disappointed that I was not booked into the Bunkhouse as originally planned, it looks wonderful from the outside but it is still boarded up for the winter.  As it happens I am happier to be in the Hotel Aurora.

Outside is in keeping with the rest of the town but inside it is modern and furnished throughout with pine.  They also provide a big welcome to go with the big airy rooms.  I was always greeted with a warm smile as I came and went.  Betty is Dutch and as well as cleaning the 18 rooms she 'minds the store', welcoming people and taking telephone calls.  She's worked here for the 6 years it's been going.  Bruno, a Swiss, is one of the owners and also greets people as well as overseeing the serving staff in the excellent restaurant.  Between them and Rene, the chef who I think is German, in the kitchen they have about 7 or 9 European languages between them, useful in this sort of business.

From time to time I would sit comfortably in the rocker in front of the TV in the reception, writing cards or chatting with Betty.  I call it a reception but more a big comfortable living room.  My room is also big, airy and beautifully appointed.

After the first day an invitation for a complimentary Kir 'Aurora' with dinner was left in my room each day.  An incentive to eat there, not that I needed one after the first night's meal.  I'm a big fan of French onion soup (minus the crouton & cheese of course), and Rene's is very, very good; I went straight for it again the next night.  To my shame I've forgotten one of the meals (but that's my duff memory for you, and the reason for this diary!) but they included - scallop and shrimp kebab; green pea soup; halibut & panacotta.  Most had to be adjusted for my diet and each and every one was superb.  Rene came out of the kitchen on the last night when he heard I was there and suggested the halibut, which wasn't on the menu, and he created a special dish for me.  I've no way of knowing if this is their usual service, or if they, or indeed anyone, could provide such a service at the height of the season, but I didn't care.  I was being treated like royalty and I loved it.  The only time I've had food as good was on the Orient Express travelling from London to Venice, except there wasn't as much as Rene provided!

Oh, just remembered, the other meal was baby back ribs with homemade BBQ sauce.  Everything served here is made from scratch on the premises including someone dedicated to the bakery-the produce of which is sold on a take out basis too.  (Are you drooling yet Mum?)

The day I arrived I rushed down to the theatre booking office to be sure I didn't miss out.  Silly me!  Start of the season and all that; there were only about 20 of us and 10 of those were locals using their complimentary tickets; they get them so they can tell tourists (or visitors as we are know in Canada) about the shows if they are asked).

After getting the tickets I wandered off around the city to get my bearings.  It would only take about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other but with lots to see and take in it was quite a while before I got back to the hotel for dinner.

After dinner I went to the theatre for the Gaslight Follies.  The theatre is an old-fashioned dream of a place, small but full of history.  It's been used as dance hall, music hall, cabaret, variety and even opera during its history.  There was singing and sketches but basically told the story of Dawson during the Goldrush, including such characters as Klondike Kate and Arizona Charlie.  It was a good production and most enjoyable.  I've tried, unsuccessfully, to get more information on the characters of the time.

Basically Carmacks, Skookum Jim and the Other One found gold on what came to be known as Bonanza Creek.  They were joined by all the other Sourdoughs (old-time Yukoners) in the area at the time.  By the time the Cheechakos (new-comers) arrived in their hordes the gold rush was well underway and all the land had been staked.  All they could do was work for the existing claimholders, most of which were already very rich.  A lot had previous skills to draw on such as smithying or banking and eventually they brought up their families, gradually changing Dawson City into a civilised place.  Not that it was as lawless as the Wild West as the Northwest Mounted Police had arrived right at the beginning to enforce law and order.
I used the Old Post Office to send my latest batch of cards, imposing with its dark wood and ranks of polished post boxes and ate breakfast in Klondike Kate's cafe each morning - apparently she was the proprietor for a lot of years.  Wood panels throughout with cream net curtains at the bottom and tops of the windows, leaving the middle clear. 

One day I went gold-panning on Bonanza Creek.  You are provided with a gold-pan and pay-dirt; shown the technique for separating the gold from the dirt and off you go.  (Dirt is dirt until it bears gold, then it's pay-dirt).  You can't actually go and get the pay-dirt, unless you want to go down a mine and thaw the permafrost first!  Once the free gold in the rivers had been panned out the miners had to go digging for it.  They would spend the winter tending fires to thaw out the permafrost, putting it in piles ready for the spring thaws and the running water necessary to separate the gold from the pay-dirt.  Their only advantage was that they didn't have to shore up the sides of the mineshafts of galleries as the permafrost prevented collapses.  I had great fun panning the gold and now wear what I found in a locket round my neck!  Panning is good for the waistline girls, but bad on the back; the old-timer miners have my wholehearted admiration and respect.  They moved onto more efficient methods of extracting the ore as time went on but my interest doesn't extend that far.

I had walked a few miles out of town to go gold-panning on Bonanza Creek.  Bad idea to walk - I was VERY hot and VERY dusty by the time I got there; even worse on the way back.  While Dawson City is lovely, and set in wonderful wilderness, the immediate surroundings are a series of dirt heaps left after dredging for gold.  As I said, Very dusty!
I had thought of going to Diamond Tooth Gertie's Dance Hall and Gambling Parlour, but didn't.  I'd probably have enjoyed it with a group of friends but not really my cup of tea - either gambling or dancehall-girls!!  Someone had tried to tempt me by saying you never knew who you were sat next to, it could be a millionaire in those dirty clothes, I could find a husband.  I treated that with the same scepticism as when I was told there was a rumour more gold had been found.  Or perhaps I was wrong...perhaps...

I spent a lot of time inventing reasons to go to the drug store, of the general store, or any store that would give me the excuse for walking the boardwalks.  There is a lovely feeling and air to the place of a frontier town that would possibly disappear as the season progresses and the tourists descend.  Some places may be closed now but I'm glad I'm here to see it as it is now.  Even the loos in the Visitors Centre are worth a visit with wood panelling and gleaming plumbing.  They were extremely helpful in the Visitors Centre, even to offering to get a copy of the theatre programme I had forgotten to get while I was there and didn't have time to go back for, and to post it free of charge.

I was very sorry to leave both Dawson and the hotel, I'd felt very much at ease there.

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