Dawson City – “Not the worst place to be stuck”

(21st August – 09th September, 2015)

“You’re in Dawson. It’s not the worst place to be stuck”, is what we heard from just about everyone. Apparently we aren’t the first to end up spending more time in Dawson than planned, whether by choice or not. “Some people planned just to travel through and they are still here.” We also hear. The town is full of such stories; and now we get to experience our own little Dawson City story.

The First Night in Dawson – on the other side of the river

George Black FerryIt was evening as we attempted to leave the parking lot of the Dawson City Tourist bureau. Although the clutch no longer worked we could still shift gears and we were able to start in second gear, though this time it didn’t work as planned. A few locals helped us to push the Landy from the middle of the road to the back corner of the parking lot. There we stood around a bit not really knowing what to do with ourselves, though on the bright side; at least we were in the city and not somewhere on the Dempster Highway between km 256 and 419, other than that though, not much seemed too positive at that moment. We also had to think about finding someplace to spend the night however; we didn’t really like the idea of spending the night in the parking lot and having to pee behind a house or building. We were informed that the Dawson City River Hostel, on the other side of the Yukon River, was supposed to be the most inexpensive in the city. So we packed our backpacks, took our pillows, leftovers from the pervious night, a couple of chocolate bars and our whiskey (one never knows) and headed toward the George Black ferry. The ferry is free and runs pretty much 24/7 during the summer. We didn’t really know what to expect from the Hostel except that we were promised that it’s a special place, without power or running water, but a bathhouse and outside kitchens, which actually all sounded rather interesting to us.

Upon arriving at the Hostel reception we are greeted with a friendly sign saying “Back in 5 minutes, please wait here”; so we put our backpacks down and waited, and waited, and then waited some more. During our wait we took the time to take in our surroundings. We saw a few roughly built wooden huts, lean-tos, tent pads, fireplaces and a collections of all sorts of, well, junk. At the entrance there was another sign warning that only registered guests are allowed beyond this point, another sign a few meters away read “Private, no entry!” By this time about 30 minutes had gone by without anyone seeming to take an interest that we were standing there at the reception. So we decided to take a peek around to look for the owner. After a few minutes of looking, and daring to cross beyond the no entry sign, we met a strange and rather unfriendly fellow who wanted to know what got into our minds to simply ignore the no entry sign. The sign on the reception door did read: “wait here” and anyway he was only gone a few minutes we could have at least waited patiently! The fact that we had been waiting way longer than five minutes didn’t seem to matter. He went straight on to business matters. We though briefly about leaving then and there but it was 9:30pm; we were hungry, tired and after the day we had we weren’t really capable of thinking straight. So we paid and traded a few inconsequential pleasantries with the rather strange Dieter, who also apparently doesn’t like to be reminded of his German heritage. When we asked about the kitchen we were informed that the stoves are wood fired, and if we need any dishes or utensils we can get them from him, which we did. “Could we have a pot, a couple plates and spoons please?” we asked, and receive exactly that, more or less. The pot was a rather battered old Aluminum camping pot without a handle or lid, 2 plastic plates and 2 spoons. Just as we were about to leave the police walked in apparently on the lookout for some criminal that was last seen staying at the Hostel. Strange place we’ve landed here, we think as we head off with our borrowed dishes and backpacks to our hut. For the $48 we paid we got a rough-cut board hut with a “bed”, table, a couple of threadbare blankets and a single chair. The outdoor “kitchen” is comprised of a number of hippy-killer-stoves, and some rather dilapidated lean-tos’ and countertops. You have to chop your own firewood so we set out to find some, only to discover that the “firewood” is mostly wet deadfall and scrap wood. The sign warning of the dangers of nails spoke volumes! Gary sawed some of the dryer wood avoiding the nails, and first had to clean eons worth of ash out of the stove before attempting to start a fire. We set our dented pot on the stove making sure not to get too close to the stumpy chimney, as all around the top was some sort of crumbly black deposit that we didn’t want sprinkled in our stew. As expected it took an eternity before there was enough heat in the stove to heat up our food. At least that gave us enough time to search around in the greasy shelves for something that we could use to take our hopefully soon to be hot pot off the stove with. We did manage to find something like an oven mitt and spooned our food onto our plastic plates all the while annoyed about the money we were spending to stay at this dive. As we returned to our hut we found out that only stubs remained from the promised candles and since Dieter disappeared again we are left sitting in the dark. At least we were smart enough to bring a headlamp with us so that we could later find the outhouse and of course the whiskey bottle, which after the day we had, was quite the godsend.

It was a shame really. The general idea of the hostel is actually really great and perhaps it was great at one time, but now we think it’s a pretty run down and inhospitable place, so much so that the next morning, we packed up our stuff up without delay and headed out without a word back to the other side of the river.

Experience Dawson

"Cowboy Parking"After breakfast at the Front Street Bistro we took stock of our situation: It was Saturday and all the garages (there are only 3) were closed, so there wasn’t really much we could do at the moment, other than try to find a place in town to stay for a few weeks that wouldn’t cost us a fortune. Although we still weren’t really sure what the exact problem with the clutch was we are pretty certain that it was serious and would most likely take time to repair. After all we were in a pretty remote town in the Yukon and had absolutely no idea how long it would take to get the parts shipped there.

We asked the very helpful and friendly staff at the Tourist bureau for help with our search for available accommodation alternatives and hit pay dirt! They not only told us to head over to the Bunkhouse and ask them about their weekly rates, they also introduced us to Erich, a semi-retired German gold miner, who has a fascination for Land Rovers. Erich, a very kindly gentleman, turned up not 10 minutes later at the parking lot to take a look at the Problem. He couldn’t help us too much at that point but he did offer help in anyway he could, which we of course gracefully accepted. He towed us to a more suitable location, drove us around a bit and even invited us to his place to sit on his terrace for Tee (and Beer). He loaned us his truck so that we could go to the gas station to fill our propane tank! We were really quite speechless with all the help we were getting. At the Bunkhouse we actually managed to get a room at an unbeatable weekly rate; they even let us set up our stove on the balcony, which answered the cooking question. So after setting up our camp table and making a coffee we sat back and enjoyed the sunshine on our balcony. We were actually quite satisfied with how things ended up turning out. The Bunkhouse has quite basic furnishing, but is clean and neat and we felt pretty comfortable there.

Gary spent the rest of the day writing emails to a bunch of Land Rover parts distributors in North America and Europe to get an idea of how long they think it would take to get the parts to us. We ended up going with an offer from RovahFarm, with an expected delivery of 7-10 days, for a complete clutch set. After all we weren’t even sure what exactly was wrong with the clutch and the idea of waiting another 10 days for a missing part was not really appealing. We also couldn’t make an appointment at a garage because we weren’t certain when the parts would arrive. So we had quite a lot of time on our hands to explore and enjoy the town. The Bunkhouse is in the perfect location; everything is practically around the corner besides the fact just about everything in Dawson is easily reached in a few minutes walk. So we walked Dawson discovering something new at every corner; we hiked up the Midnight Dome and enjoyed terrific panorama views; were fascinated by all the Ravens that call Dawson home; enjoyed the really great walking tour “Strange things done under the Midnight Sun” where we heard stories about some really strange Dawson City goings on. Incidentally one of which is the Sourtoe Cocktail, it is still a favorite and is served at the Downtown Hotel, though we didn’t “do the toe”. On Fridays we went to the oldest Hotel in town to listen to “Harmonica George” play and sing; Saturdays we shopped at the farmers market for awesome regional and organic produce. And even treated ourselves one Sunday to a spectacular brunch at Klondike Kates. We visited the oldest casino in Canada, Diamond Tooth Gerties and had a blast at the variety show! We even had the opportunity to take in a concert by Ontario folk singer Craig Cardiff. On sunny days we headed out to the riverside park for picnics and to simply enjoy the weather, other than that we did something that we hadn’t done in a long time. Yes that’s right! Watch movies! The video store was just around the corner so we took advantage of their rather large movie selection.

The Spirit of Dawson City

Dawson city is a very special place with a very unique charisma, one that you can actually feel. But what exactly is so special about Dawson? At first glance it’s simply a cute little town in the far north with a lot of historical buildings. But it’s really so much more. Most of the people we met in Dawson felt the same way and while everyone wonders why it’s so special no one can really say what it is exactly. Perhaps it has to do with its history and the old gold rush; perhaps its because no one lives here that really doesn’t want to be here; or perhaps it’s the raw, but wonderful, northern nature. Or perhaps it’s a city of individualists, as every house and garden is completely different; none are even remotely similar and a stroll through town is always exciting. You, of course, also meet very individual people too! “You know”, said Robert the manager at the Bunkhouse, a very remarkable and endearing fellow, “when people talk about Dawson they often have tears in their eyes.” I have to admit it’s happening to me as I write this.

No End in Sight

After over a week waiting on our parts and seeing that it didn’t seem to be moving any farther north we started getting a bit nervous and so decided to dig a bit deeper. And what would you know; It’s stuck in Customs! Only nobody bothered to try and get in touch with us and let us know what we needed to pay duty before it would be sent along. So when it finally did arrive after all of the delays none of the garages in the area had any time for us. At Small Town Automotive they promised us, however, that they would do what they could, even though they couldn’t promise us when exactly that would be. We agreed to at least get the Landy towed over to their lot so that it would be “in-line” as soon as they were ready for it. So with the help of Adam, our neighbor at the Bunkhouse, we towed the Landy over there and hoped for the best. It was Wednesday the 2nd of September and the Bunkhouse was set to close on Monday; the tourist season here in the north was quickly coming to a close. When we still hadn’t heard anything by Friday we figured it would be a good idea to call, only to find out that they hadn’t started working on it yet! There was no way that they would be finished on Monday, especially since it’s a holiday, now what? Thankfully the very friendly Scandinavian owner of the Bunkhouse had a solution and promised us we could stay at the Bunkhouse at least until Thursday; which is when they turn the water supply off. We were definitely relieved that we wouldn’t be thrown out on Monday.

Klondyke Cream and CandyWinter arrives a lot sooner in the North; the beginning of September felt more like the middle of October to us. It’s really quite cool and one can almost watch the colors of the leaves changing and gently fall to the ground. The whole town was preparing for winter; it was really strange to see how more and more people were leaving the city. Since we were still in Dawson so late in the season we were able to participate in an end-of-season tradition at the “Klondyke Cream & Candy” shop; free ice cream! On the last day of their season they open their doors and serve free ice cream until it’s gone. Almost as though it was planned the sun came out to play and so in the afternoon sun we lined up with what looked like half of Dawson along with some other tourists lucky enough to also be here. Whenever someone came out of the shop with their ice cream you could hear the Mmmm and Aaahs from the line-up and the children boast about how many different types they are going to get. Finally after we got our ice cream we headed over to the riverside park to enjoy our last taste of summer in the sunshine. Everywhere we looked we saw people enjoying the sunshine and free ice cream; something like this could only ever happen in Dawson!

“Welcome to the Hotel California”

On Tuesday evening we finally got a call from the garage that they were finished with the Landrover and so we picked it up immediately. A small test drive proved that the clutch was in full working order though it did seem somehow louder. We first thought that it had to do with the new clutch but that didn’t seem to make any sense. So Gary started checking the vehicle out. He discovered that the soundproofing foam underneath the gear shifter gaiter was missing! You could now see directly onto the transmission and ground below – no wonder it was so loud! That can’t stay like that, and most certainly not for $1200 that we paid for the repair. The next morning he drove over first thing only to find out that the foam had apparently torn during removal and the guy simply tossed it in the garbage not bothering to tell us… not exactly something you want to hear from a mechanic, one immediately wonders what else may have been tossed in the garbage. Not wanting to get into any sort of discussion or blame game Gary fished the foam out of the garbage and reinstalled it. We packed all our things had a farewell breakfast at the bistro and then for the 3rd time, this time with our vehicle, headed over to the ferry. We did feel a bit sad saying goodbye to Dawson after almost 3 weeks. However, just a few kilometers on our way we noticed something new: As we drove up a long hill the temperature gauge on the Landy was also going up all the way into the red! Oh My God, now what! We stopped on the side of the road and waited a while for the temperature to go back down and then tried again. Within a few minutes the temperature started going up again… The next town is hundreds of kilometers away and we didn’t want to risk doing any damage to the motor so there was only one thing for us to do: back to Dawson! As we found ourselves back on the ferry crossing the Yukon river a certain song by a certain band popped into our heads: “Welcome to the Hotel California….you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…” Somewhat depressed we arrived once again on the other side of the river, only to find out that our garage closed early. We then drove to one of the other garages to see if they could help but of course the earliest they could see us was the following Saturday. Despondent we headed once again towards the tourist information not really knowing what to do and suddenly we noticed something strange. When the lights are on and we step on the gas, the temperature gauge goes up and the fuel gauge goes down! We certainly hadn’t noticed that behavior before since we had the lights turned off. Also the left indicator seemed to be acting crazy especially when either the lights were on or when we stepped on the brakes with the left blinker on; it all started to make sense to us (well it made sense to Gary). It had to be a short-circuit somewhere! Well that was actually good news – it meant it wasn’t a real problem with the motor overheating! The only thing is it can take quite a while to find a short circuit when one doesn’t really know where to start looking. Perhaps something else wasn’t put back together correctly from our clutch job, or perhaps something was broken? If we went back would be even get an honest answer from them? Not really wanting to put off our departure any longer, short circuit or not, we headed toward the ferry for the 5th time. This time, however, we were going to make it to Alaska!

Top of the World Highway

During the planning for this trip we looked at the map and had decided there and then that we absolutely wanted to drive it. From the Midnight Dome above Dawson we could see it’s start on the other side of the Yukon as it made it’s way up the hillside. We looked often across the river, as we waited for the repairs to be completed, and worried that as soon as the snow started they would close the highway and that would be the end of our plans. But there we were on a wonderful sunny evening on September 9th; we were really driving to Alaska on the Top of the World Highway! We asked ourselves a number of times why it’s called the Top of the World Highway; after all there are more northerly or even higher highways. But now we know: The highway meanders like a mountain trail along the crest from one mountain to another. The entire time you are treated to a panorama view that really gives you the feeling that you are driving on top of the world. The 100 km to the American border is breathtakingly beautiful, full of late autumn colors that seem to glow with the evening light, somehow soothing us after such a nerve-wracking day. We reached the border to Alaska at about 19:00 and with the crossing behind us began a new Adventure.

Thank you Dawson!

Thank you so much for the wonderful time! We really want to thank Erich for the amazing willingness to help and the inspirational talks. We especially want to thank the folks at the Tourist Information for all their help and tips, and also for the great walking tours. A very special thank you to The Bunkhouse for their help and friendliness, and also that they let us stay even after official close of business. Adam “The New Guy” for helping us out, and for the very entertaining radio show you did by CFYT  :). The Klondyke Cream & Candy shop for the really tasty season end free Ice cream, and last but not least Fate who made it all possible that we could spend so much time and for the really unforgettable memories.

1 reply
  1. Marilyn
    Marilyn says:

    Another fabulous story , safe travels God bless , I hear you’re enjoying Van. For the time being . Take care .

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