Where is Dawson City anyway? To find that out and a great deal more, contact Tourism Yukon (P.O. Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada Y1A2C6/403-667-5340). They’ll send you some very fine pamphlets focusing on their celebrations of the gold-rush centenary, which will continue for several years, plus a map showing that Dawson City lies about two hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle and only fifty or so miles from the Alaska border on the scenic Top of the World Highway. Any number of bus tours stop at Dawson, Whitehorse, and Skagway, traveling the Klondike and Alcan Highways. These trips pass through some of the tiny Yukon communities, now settled mainly by First Nation (indigenous) peoples, where the stampeders would have stocked up on supplies.
Skagway, at the northern end of the Lynn Canal, enjoyed a brief, raucous life as Alaska’s gateway to the Yukon; it was a supply depot for those planning to tackle the ice-swept Chilkoot Trail and a nonstop rip-off joint for the ones who came back “outside” with a little money in their pockets. From Skagway, many travelers book a train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route, which first came into being in 1898. Not only is the three-hour round trip spectacular in the scenery it reveals, but the route, blasted through the coastal mountains, has been named an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, along with such better-known monuments as the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal, and the Statue of Liberty. Skagway itself has, to my mind, become overcosmeticized, dramatizing its lawless characters and episodes to a degree that diminishes the real sense of the place.
By contrast, Whitehorse, which, the Canadian tourism brochures like to point out, is less than a day’s flying from any North American city, presents few alluring signs of its rugged past. A thriving community from the days when hundreds of steamboats Dawson-bound on the Yukon River would tie up here, it is now the territorial capital and a place of spread-out suburban, housing. Its few shopping streets speak more of the 1950s and 1960s than of any distant time. Still, there is a fine history museum, the MacBride, and the restored steamboat parked by the river is certainly worth visiting, even if it dates from steam’s last gasp, the 1930s.
For the first-time traveler to Alaska and the Yukon, a package tour eases anxiety, carrying one through sometimes uncertain weather over vast, mountainous distances on highways where hundreds of miles may go by between service stops. Tour companies like Collette (1-800-832-4656) and Tauck (1-800-468-2825) and the two main cruise lines of the area, Princess Tours (403-633-6592) and Holland America (1-800-426-0527), are masters at providing a smooth introduction to as many facets of this great land as they can fit into a week or so.
If you’re lucky enough to have real time or if this is a return visit, it’s worth planning your own trip. Whitehorse makes an excellent gateway to any number of magnificent scenic drives, river cruises, and fishing lodges, plus wilderness trips led by knowledgeable First Nation guides. And it’s only a two-hour ride from Whitehorse to Kluane National Park, home to Canada’s highest peaks; on every side rise mountain ranges of a stark, imperious beauty that might render even Robert W. Service speechless.