Fields Of Gold

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Even though many of the buildings Dawson preserves are empty and locked, they hold window displays that are remarkably vivid, be it at the mortuary or the men’s haberdashery. One store-front at the corner of Third Avenue and King Street is filled with women’s clothing of another era; here Mme. Tremblay sold goods for more than thirty years. When Pierre Berton visited Dawson in the 1970s, he noticed nascent signs of restoration: “Who would have thought of Mme. Tremblay’s store as a monument? To us it was a place where … you could look in the lighted windows and see the mechanical toys you hoped somebody would give you for Christmas. Now the store is to be preserved and its owner, long deceased, to be immortalized. She was, it turns out, the first [white] woman to cross the Chilkoot Pass, years before the goldrush. I had never known that …”

There are no better guides to Dawson than the books of Pierre Berton ( The Klondike Fever and Drifting Home ) and of his mother, Laura Berton, who, in I Married the Klondike , tells why she ventured there in 1907 and why she remained for the next thirty-five years. The Dawson City Museum, housed in the old Territorial Administration Building, provides a fine introduction to both Pierre Berton and Dawson; it’s a sprawling wooden structure built in 1901 and is still infused with its original dignity. Here you can view a documentary film about Dawson, City of Gold , written and narrated by Berton, whose father, a failed gold seeker, stayed on as a clerk working in the mine recorder’s office, in this very building. Born in 1920, long after the town’s great year, Berton evokes the lace at its peak, “a weird, demented city … feeding on gold … an American town on Canadian soil, populated almost entirely by strangers.” In the oddest twist, he explains, “Many never bothered to look for gold at all. In a strange way it was as if many had already found what they were seeking.”

Several local companies offer tours of the goldfields just outside town. You travel out on a gravel road, climbing hills scarred by snakelike piles of rock and gravel, called tailings, that are the unsightly leavings of several dozen dredges that once worked this territory. Thanks to current environmental concerns, this machinery is mostly gone.

A dramatic, though nonfunctioning, exception is Dredge No. 4, now a National Historic Site. Two-thirds the length of a football field and eight stories high, the hydraulic dredge operated from 1912 to 1959, the latter date a tip-off that mining went on here long after the initial gold rush. Early in the century large concessions began to push out independent miners, but even now some work small claims, and hundreds continue to maintain claims that go back decades. They can’t forget the fact that here, alone among the world’s gold strikes, no one has yet struck the mother lode, the richest find of all, and though many experts doubt the existence o the lode, gold still washes out of these hills—thirty-six million dollars’ worth in 1995 alone.

Many of the goldfield tours end up at Discovery Claim, on Bonanza Creek, site of the original strike, and when you walk along the stream’s pebbled bank to what is thought to be the precise spot, you find that—as with so many places that are flash points in history—its very ordinariness makes it remarkable.

Wandering the strangely uncrowded wooden sidewalks of Dawson, past shuttered buildings that are reminders of so many once-thriving enterprises, I thought of Pierre Berton’s comment, “The more enterprising of the new arrivals quickly realized that there were easier ways to garner Klondike gold than to mine it, and that there were business opportunities everywhere for a man of imagination.”

Then I met Bill Hakonson, a true inheritor of that spirit and the founder of what one might imagine Dawson, with its extremely brief, if light-filled, summer needs least: a nine-hole golf course. Successful in many Yukon ventures, including mining, the Norwegian-born Hakonson first came here in 1943 to help build the Alcan Highway. Several years ago a friend persuaded Bill, who had just retired and never swung a golf club in his life, to take on this quixotic mission. When I asked him why, he responded simply, “The Yukon’s been good to me.” He laid out the course on 125 acres across the river and up a mountain road in a flattish, open space where once the gold rushers grew vegetables. Now in its third year, the Top of the World Golf Course is almost always open twenty-four hours a day, with a season that lasts from mid-May to mid-September or as long as the tiny car ferry that plies the river runs.

It’s not your classic course. For one thing, it isn’t very green, thanks to the rugged climate. Then there are the moose and bears that regularly roam the links and the wily ravens that make off with golf balls. On a bumpy ride around the greens, Bill bellows, “Stella!,” as powerfully as Stanley Kowalski did in A Streetcar Named Desire , in the hope of summoning his favorite moose. Alas, Stella doesn’t appear, but even without her the course is unusually picturesque, with antique dredge buckets, which first saw duty at one of the original strikes on Dominion Creek and now serve as 150-yard markers, and old steam boilers that divide the fairway. Glimpsed in the distance, past a screen of trees, the Yukon River flows.

Bill plans soon to add another nine holes to Canada’s northernmost golf course. “If you’re a dreamer,” he says, “you can see the whole thing.”