Alaska, the Last Frontier - Summer 2012 travel blog

Yukon River



permafrost friends

saggy middle

B & B

cute cabin

dirt street

Gold Dredge #4



S.S. Keno

If Dawson City wasn’t 165 miles from the Arctic Circle, it could be a nice place to live. It is located in a picturesque spot on the Yukon River, surrounded be rolling hills and mountains. It was put on the map by the gold rush which happened here 1896 when the first nuggets were discovered. Within a few years Dawson was a city with 20,000 inhabitants, mostly men. At the beginning it was a Wild West town filled with saloons and women of easy virtue. Then gold was discovered in Nome and 8,000 people left within the week. Those that stayed behind were folks that had staked productive claims or begun businesses that supported the miners. Most of the wild west ways also passed on, although one brothel stayed in business until 1964.

These days many of the buildings in town are owned by Parks Canada, the national park folks in Canada, and they are in the process of lovingly restoring them and opening them up so visitors can see what life was like in the gold rush days. All but the main road are dirt and pedestrians stroll the town on boardwalks. There are also buildings that look historic, but may not be. It gave us the feeling we were wandering around in a movie set. Guides and historic interpreters dress in the Gold Rush period, adding to the ambience. A few old buildings are left as is, showing the disastrous effects permafrost has on building foundations. Any warmth that escapes from the building, melts the ground and it begins to sag. Since this whole area is permafrost, special building techniques must be used any time something is erected.

Until the 1960’s gold continued to be mined here. The easy pickings that any yahoo with a pan and shovel could find were long gone, but huge dredges were brought in to work their way through the rich gravels found beneath the permafrost. The dredges are so huge that it boggles the mind how they got up here. They came in pieces; some on the railroad from Skagway and some on steam boats through the Bering Sea and up the Yukon River. If pieces broke, they were fabricated here. Replacement parts could take three years to arrive. Only recently mine companies have been required to restore the land to how they found it, so huge piles of tailings wind their way through the valleys, looking like a convention of caterpillars from above. Mother Nature struggles to reclaim these disturbed lands in such a tough environment. We toured the largest gold dredge in the world. It floated in man made lakes and scooped the gold laden gravel up with buckets, sluiced the gold from the gravel in a water suspension and spit the gravel out on the other side. As it scooped it moved forward and the tailing piles grew behind it. None of the massive parts of the dredge were lubricated, since gold would stick to the grease and the sound the dredge made as it worked was deafening. This dredge closed in 1964 when the price of gold was still fixed at $35/ounce. These days with gold selling at $1600 it could be cost effective to open mining operations here again, but the dredge is too weather worn to use again. When we were here last, it was still under water/ice where it had tipped over.

Dawson used to be the capital of the Yukon Territory and it appears that all that what it has left now is the gold mining operations and tourists, enthralled as they walk through the picturesque town and learn about yesteryear. It would be easy to stay here another day, but the almost freezing temperatures at night are giving us the hint that it’s time to head south. And so we will.

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