Dawson City, YT: Gold Rush Era & Sour Toe Cocktails

Dawson City, YT: Gold Rush Era & Sour Toe Cocktails

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Dawson City was birthed during the exciting few years of the Klondike Gold Rush, when thousands of prospectors migrated to the area. The locals are proud of their heritage and work hard to preserve it. Many of the century-old buildings in downtown Dawson have been protected and look authentic and dilapidated, while others have fabricated store fronts that pale in comparison to the originals. The sidewalks are made from wooden planks, the roads of dirt, and the cuisine of fish and liquor. All of these ingredients mix together to create a charming city, even if it’s a muddy mess when it rains!

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Canada Day

We arrived in Dawson City on Canada Day. The little town holds a few events for the holiday, but sadly the rainy weather really dampened those plans (pun intended). Guillaume and I made the effort to watch the parade, despite the downpour. Kids road their decorated bicycles through the mud; a band played music in the back of truck, cradled under the weakening shelter of a flapping tarp; and Dawson City’s fleet of fire trucks sounded their bellowing horns. The parade marched through the entire town in about thirty minutes and then the streets went quiet.

I was fairly depressed after that spectacle. It’s not fair that their well thought out holiday was hindered by rain, but the local folks are used it. They party on through the rain and mud, shrugging off the harsh weather as if it’s nothing. One woman told us how she packs a sleeping bag for her kids on the school bus in the winter, when the temperature can get below -40F.

“They hate me for it, of course.” She chuckled, “It’s not cool to be the kid with a sleeping bag. But if that bus broke down and the heater went out, they’d be thankful.”

Fun Fact: Many Dawson residents live across the Yukon River, completely off the grid. This means relying on generators in the winter and green energy in the summer. The soil in the Yukon is not fit for growing plants, so composting to make your own dirt is a way of life for gardeners. Many residents go the extra mile to live off the land. Fishing, hunting and growing vegetables in the summer allows locals to save on food costs (which are much higher in the north). 

Speaking of food….

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Restaurants in Dawson

There are a surprising amount of eclectic choices in such a small rural city. I have three recommendations for your tummy:

1). For Local Specialities – Klondike Kate’s

A small restaurant keeping with the Gold Rush theme. Local fav.

2). For Fish – Sourdough Joe’s

Casual atmosphere. We loved the fried salmon and chips, as well as the homemade chowder.

3). For Healthy European Fusion – Alchemy Cafe

Great atmosphere, good coffee and fresh ingredients. We parked out front and had an impromptu open house. Try the panini! Breakfast / lunch only. 

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Can-can Show at Diamond Toothed Gerties

Nightlife in Dawson

One local told us that drinking is “a sport” in Dawson City, and I believe it. With just over 1,300 year round residents, I suspect you’d have to be a drinker to get through Dawson’s brutal winters. I have three recommendations for you:

1). For the Tourist : Diamond Tooth Gerties

This casino is a staple in Dawson City. Normally I would stay away from casinos and tourist gimmicks, but Gertie’s is actually a lot of fun. Antlers are mounted all over the walls. A large stage serves as a focal point with a red velvet curtain, live band and balcony seating. The bar has a variety of local beers available for a decent price – beer from the Yukon is usually expensive and/or hard to find.

The big spectacle is the can-can show, which is performed three times a night. The can-can girls were athletic enough that I forgot I shouldn’t be applauding young women for lifting their skirts and shaking their bums in my direction. I silently wondered if this is why they went to ballet school as I cheered with the rest of the crowd. When in Rome…

2). For a Conversationalist : Bombay Peggy’s Pub

Bombay Peggy’s used to be a brothel but now it’s a small socialite pub with specialty martinis. It also seems to be the local hotspot for people in their late 20s and 30s. A great place to stop in for a drink and conversation.

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3). For the Rebel : Downtown Hotel‘s Sourdough Saloon

The Downtown Hotel Bar has a musty smell, probably from decades of cigarette smoke embedded in the wallpaper, but it could also be from the amputated human toe they keep for their famous “Sour Toe Cocktail.” Dare-devils line up at the hotel’s Sourdough Saloon to drop the black stinking toe into their shot glass. This right of passage allows them to join the ranks of other idiots… ahem, I mean rebels, who have tried the cocktail.

Guillaume was one of them.

The lady in charge of the Sour Toe Cocktail recited a practiced speech with a raspy voice:

“You can drink it fast or you can drink it slow

But at the end of the day,

Your lips have got to touch that nasty toe.”

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The Amputated Toe used in the famous “Sour Toe Cocktail”

When Guillaume asked her where the toe came from she said: “A foot.” She also mentioned that they’ll be getting another toe in the next few weeks because this one is getting “a bit maggoty.” After one of her disciples finished their Sour Toe Cocktail she asked: “Care for the drippings?” And squeezed the remaining toe juice into the glass. Needless to say, I liked the Sourdough Saloon’s classic crone. She had spirit.

Next Up: Independence day in Chicken AK (population 15)



  1. Stephanie
    July 22, 2015 / 3:34 pm

    “The soil in the Yukon is not fit for growing plants”….can I just say that this statement is not at all true. Plants grow incredibly well here in the north with long daylight hours and some of the soil that is along the banks of the rivers is incredibly rich. Many people do like to compost here though, so that part is true.

    • User Avatar July 22, 2015 / 7:11 pm

      Interesting. I was trusting the information one local gardener told me in Dawson. He spoke of his great need for compost. Perhaps he was growing vegetables that require more nutrients. Being from a farm town, I must admit the soil seemed dry – similar to the south western USa. But I’m sure certain veggies do grow well in the Yukon. Thanks for your comment. I’ll look more into it.

  2. July 15, 2015 / 10:41 am

    When we visited Dawson City in our airplane, the air traffic controller called us a Pace Arrow rather than a Piper Arrow. They don’t get too many retractable gear fixed wing planes up there I guess. We weren’t sure what a Pace Arrow was, maybe some kind of old tail dragger. We were on a boat heading up the Yukon River for a salmon dinner. We passed the ferry crossing and there sitting in front of the line was a huge RV with Pace Arrow emblazoned on the side. We had to laugh about the image of a huge boxy RV flying into the airport and landing. – Margy

  3. Jeanette
    July 15, 2015 / 8:18 am

    I saw your house in Fairbanks, Ak when I was traveling with daughter, who lives in Seward, to Chena Hotsprings. It was exciting to see in person even though we were on a mission to get to Chena. I live in Mexico and follow your blog since the beginning. Love traveling far and wide.

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