The confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers is where the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin have gathered for thousands of years, and in the early 1900s it’s where gold was found—which began the big Klondike gold-mining boom. Travelers like us who go through famous Dawson Creek to the south call this “Dawson City,” but I’ve noticed that locals just call it “Dawson,” because up here it’s the most famous place in Yukon.
We’ve been staying in the Yukon River Campground (run by the territorial government) for several days, so we can run errands and feel settled for a bit before we boondock a bunch on our way to Fairbanks. Plus, Dawson is a fun place!
The Free Ferry
I am starstruck by so many things, so forgive me for being all excited about a ferry.
There’s no bridge for, I don’t know, hundreds of miles around; instead the government runs a free ferry service across the Yukon. The city is on one side and our campground’s on the other, so we’ve ridden this sucker more than twice a day since we’ve been here. I think nearly everyone thinks it’s tons of fun, even some of the folks working it. It runs 24-hours a day, all year long! In the winter when the river is frozen, people simply drive across.
The ferry will hold eight small vehicles, but there are a lot of RVs and trucks going across, so the workers have you line up on the bank according to your size and they guide you on in the order that works for their Tetris-like loading system.
When we took the Airstream over, Tracy had to pull in the side mirrors because the space was so tight, but that meant he couldn’t see the trailer fit through the narrow entrance and had to trust the folks guiding us in entirely. Some hold up a sign and some point with their fingers—it’s clear they’re geniuses at this, but what they need is those foam fingers people use at football games so you can see where they’re pointing with no doubt.
Pedestrians and cyclers get to walk on in front of the line of vehicles to load, then stand at the little side section and get a really good feel for the ferry moving through the water. (Our new friend Susan—hi Susan!) took this shot of us waiting.)
The ferry driver lets the current pull one end of the ferry drastically downstream until the bow is pointed to the unloading area on the other side, and then he powers up the motor and heads straight there. It’s a dramatic swing through the current; very exciting to me!
I’m not alone, either. As I was watching one worker gesture to another over the engine noise, the gesturing one turned to me with a big grin to show me what he meant, and he was pointing out a section of the sky where the clouds had just opened up to let sun shine on the valley. What a job.
The Paddlewheel Graveyard
This campground is really just a gravel road along the river bank and through the woods: no potable water or electricity, but pit toilets and trash cans, which the government does a great job providing all over the territory.
If you walk just ten minutes downstream, you come across a pile of old river boats.
These lightweight, large sternwheelers used to be the only way to get materials to and from Whitehorse and Dawson and Fairbanks, but when the railroad and then the Alaska Highway were built, the boats became obsolete.
Some were saved for display, but these were dry docked along the Yukon, which eventually just shoved them all up on top of each other in the woods. Atlas Obscura says there are seven here, but we could identify only four. They’re so big and jumbled up it’s hard to tell what’s what. They’re cool to walk up on out of nowhere and then walk around.
We’ve heard a bunch about permafrost under the tundra up here and what happens when you build on top of it. Permafrost stays frozen all year (obvs.), but if you build a road or a dwelling right on top of it, it will melt and your construction will sink.
There are sections of highway where they scraped away the tundra and put the road right on top of the permafrost, which of course ended in a big melted hole filled with water. These buildings show what happens when permafrost melts at different rates: they look like fun house walls.
Now people build on a raised foundation to protect the permafrost. Even pit toilets are sometimes raised high, so you have to climb a flight of steps to get to them!
Robert Service and Jack London
Truthfully, I didn’t know about Robert Service until Jacqui quoted to me that hilarious and wonderful poem about the gold miner from Tennessee who froze to death up here; he didn’t get fully warm until his ghost declared it from his pyre. In any case, Service was beloved by Yukoners, and his name is everywhere.
The first cabin was his, and the second was Jack London’s, who lived up here for only a year, I think, but is famous enough to get a whole museum and tour of his tiny place. Check out the sod roof on that!
One reason we’ve stayed here so long is to enjoy the town’s festivities for Canada Day. Small town, big charm.
The parade included Mounties, costumed gold miners, kids on bikes, the two fire trucks in town, and this pack of sled dogs we were lucky to see run in front of us. I hope this is just the first of many sled dogs we get to see!
Food, games, and music at the park started with an elder of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin welcoming us on their land, and then the mayor (he’s wearing a Canada umbrella hat, below) gave an enthusiastic speech that was basically a poke in the eye to the visiting Americans. He acknowledged the atrocities of the colonizers here, but said there’s hope for a better future.
Then he said, just look at all the positive things Canadians have going now, and he listed every single damned thing the U.S. has screwed up (without mentioning the U.S.) that Canada is doing right. Universal healthcare, universal protection of human rights, legal abortion, an inclusive culture, and on an on, until he ended with legal marijuana, which got a huge cheer. Best mayoral speech I’ve heard.*
This is our last day here, and I’ve pulled everything out of the trailer to dry in the rare sunshine.
I didn’t need to pull Banjo out; she’s excited we haven’t ridden the ferry into town for once.
* These topics are complicated, I know.