Under leaden skies I turn onto Hunker Creek Road off Highway 2, just where it crosses the Klondike River in the northern part of Canada’s Yukon Territory.
It is September, with colours on deciduous trees now yellow and gold – an appropriate colour for this part of Canada – but it feels like this territory will be in the icy grip of winter very soon.
There’s still gold in these thar hills and any trip to Dawson City should include a visit to nearby Goldbottom Tours as well as the Dredge 4 mining site.
During the early Gold Rush years, there were 5,000 residents who called Goldbottom home but now it belongs to miner David Millar, star of the second season of the reality TV series Yukon Gold. This second-generation miner is still mining gold today and he is happy to tell visitors how gold is deposited by nature and extracted by man.
Exactly 125 years after gold was first discovered at Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek) and the first claims staked, the way the ground is sifted through for gold dust hasn’t changed a great deal.
In the creek, just off the wide dirt road, I notice equipment, bulldozers, and trucks the evidence of mining operations today.
The hunt for gold entails digging up the top layer of organic material and dumping it into an angled long trough which has water continuously flowing through it. At the same time, the machine agitates and initially washes large rocks and pebbles from the material leaving the dirt behind. As this process is repeated several times, it sifts through enough silt to find ‘pay dirt’. Pay dirt is, of course, the heaviest material – gold! I am told that given that one ounce of gold still fetches about $1,700, a three-man operation can often make $3,000 or more in a couple of days.
But it is when I get my hands into the freezing water to try out a bit of gold panning myself, that I discover what an arduous process this is.
I start with a pan full of dirt from the stream bed, which I sink underwater in a metal trough. Swishing and swirling, I throw out the bigger pebbles and stones. By repeating this process over and over I finally get rid of most of the dirt. Though my fingers end up feeling like icicles, it’s worth it for a few flakes of the precious metal. My gold!
Go for the gold
The 125th anniversary of the Yukon Gold Rush in 2023 will draw tourists and keen historians to the region. Whilst there’s still gold to be found, today it’s the fascinating history, cultures, languages and traditions that mostly captivate travellers.
“It is always very special to visit the Yukon but this year and next will be more so as we celebrate 125 years since the Klondike Gold Rush,” said Maurine Forlin, Marketing Development Manager, Europe/UK at Travel Yukon. “Gold has always been a big draw to the Yukon and visitors can experience the historic Gold Rush town Dawson City, the rich First Nations culture and heritage, museums, cultural centres, and sites from the era with fascinating gold rush exhibits.
“You can even pan for gold on an authentic mining excursion with Goldbottom Mine Tours or join a gold fields tour with Klondike Experience, both leaving from Dawson City.”
Forlin expects to see an influx in visitors in 2023 saying: “Our tour operator partners are reporting increased interest in self-drive tours to the Klondike and some have even launched new gold-themed itineraries, so visitors can really follow in the footsteps of those early pioneers”.
Beyond the Yukon, gold was also discovered in British Columbia, most famously during the Cariboo Gold Rush. Today’s visitors can follow The Gold Rush Trail that spans from the Fraser River in New Westminster and winds its way north to Barkerville Historic Town and Park, following First Nations peoples’ trading routes utilised during the fur trade and expanded during the gold rushes of 1858-1862.
Karen Farrar, Product & Marketing Manager, North America Travel Service, says that Canada is in high demand for 2023 with clients keen to explore beyond the gateway cities. She said: “Canada has bounced back strongly, which resulted in depleted airlift and hotel availability for mainstream destinations in 2022.
“This has spurred early demand for 2023, particularly for British Columbia and Alberta, but there is also more repeat Canada business coming through, meaning a much broader spread of chosen destinations.
“We are seeing more enquiries for Yukon and Newfoundland, with more experience-driven itineraries being requested.”
Experiences that reverse time
From rocks to riches: Dawson City’s Bonanza Creek was the site of the first gold strike by George Karmack, his wife local Han woman, Shaaw Tláa, and her cousin Skookum Jim. Popular tours are available with Klondike Experience and can include a visit to the area’s first casino, Diamond Tooth Gerties with its popular nightly shows. In the town of Whitehorse, learn about the history of those travelling the Yukon River with a visit to the S.S. Klondike, one Canada’s few remaining steam-powered paddle-wheelers.
A back-country journey on horseback: Horse-riding into Yukon’s back country near Whitehorse is a real delight when hacking with Mandy and Armin Johnson’s outfitters. Their ranch is home to the family, as well as 40 racing dogs and a fine selection of horses. Riding western style is easy for beginners, so it is worth giving it a go as it is a great way to see the area around Fox Lake. A one-hour experience can include a salmon bake or steak dinner; however, guests can also opt for rides that are several hours long or even choose a multi-day pack trip that lasts for up to seven nights. The operator will pick up from your hotel on request. yukonhorsepacking.com
Soar above the Alaskan peaks: This tour operator is based on Whitehorse’s Schwatka Lake and takes guests by sea plane to view spectacular coastal peaks in nearby Alaska. Here the first prospectors, also known as ‘Stampeders’, hiked up the famous 33-mile Chilkoot Trail on their way to stake a claim at one of the creeks near Dawson City. Passengers soar west over the vast Yukon territory following the path of miners who arrived during 1896 onwards. alpineadventures.com
Toe curling traditions: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe!” So the famous saying goes at Dawson City’s Sourdough Saloon. Swagger on in to take part in the time honoured tradition of a Sourtoe cocktail. It is not just about having the drink but also being included in a century-old tradition that is presided over by a grizzly old miner. He drops a mummified human toe into your drink – alcohol of your choice – before you down the hatch. Warning: there is a $2,500 fine for swallowing the toe!
Paddling the Yukon River: You can rent bikes, canoes, boats and more with outfitter the Kanoe People, but a guided tour down the Yukon River is a truly unique experience. Once you pass the swiftly moving part of the river and enter a quieter channel, you will spy beaver dams, bald eagles, and more. Surrounded by bluffs and forest, the experience of paddling in such a vast expanse of wilderness is something not to be missed. kanoepeople.com
Accomodation: The luxury Raven Inn is the first new hotel in Whitehorse for 50 years. With 38 hotel rooms including nine King Deluxe Suites, guests have an array of accommodation choice. The hotel’s historic rail-themed Railwork Lounge is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and renowned for its Sunday Brunch. raveninn.com
What could be described as boutique and bijou, another new accommodation is the 10-room Dawson Lodge in Dawson City. Catering to the independent traveller, this accommodation is housed in a historic building but has a fresh, strikingly modern design and sustainability ethos. Each bedroom has a private ensuite shower and toilet and two of the rooms are pet friendly. dawsonlodge.com. You can also book a spa treatment through its website.
Tutchone Tours is led by Teri-Lee Isaac, a First Nations local who offers boating trips on the Yukon River and takes guests from Minto on to historic Fort Selkirk. There is also a trip to an indigenous Fish Camp to explore how modern day people depend on Salmon.
Agent tools: Travel Yukon has created a Yukon Sights and Sites travel planning app which acts as an on-hand expert travel guide, providing essential information on driving routes and points of interest across the Yukon. travelyukon.com
Book it with…North America Travel Service: The 11-night Yukon fly-drive Silver Trail Explorer itinerary begins and ends in Whitehorse and visits Dawson City. The trip is priced from £2,665pp, based on two adults sharing, travelling in June 2023.