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Dawson City, Canada - Ground Zero of a Stampede: The Yukon/Klondike Gold Rush Trail on the Looney Front, Part 2

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Dawson City, snug on the banks of the Yukon and Klondike rivers in Canada's far-north, now lives off its past as epicentre of one of the largest peacetime migrations ever, the Klondike gold rush, when news of a lucky strike in Rabbit Creek - quickly renamed Bonanza Creek - unleashed 100,000 hopefuls on the long journey north from the U.S. West Coast in 1897/8.

Of these, 30,000 to 40,000 completed the 500 mountainous overland miles from Skagway, the gateway from the sea at the top of a fjord in Alaska's panhandle.

Town markers spell out gold rush history

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The final stretch took them by boat through lakes and the swift Yukon's rapids to a spot that had for millennia been home to the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in indigenous people, who found the junction of the two rivers a particularly rich fishing ground.

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Dawson City today

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Another view

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And another

Among the newcomers in ensuing years were authors Jack London and Robert Service whose sagas and poems - in the case of the former Call of the Wild and White Fang, in the case of latter like The Spell of the Yukon, The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew - forever immortalised the Klondike gold rush.

By 1904 Klondike was the largest gold producer in Canada and the fourth largest in the world.

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The river front

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Tourists board paddle-wheeler

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Zoom in

Today many of the wooden buildings and boardwalks have been reconstructed as tourist traps with guides in period dress in a hamlet that barely numbers 1,500 year-round residents but has some 60,000 visitors pouring in annually to see a recreation of its raunchy past of saloons, brawls and whores.

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Main Street

Despite the kitsch, and ugly miles of tailings that still attest to its original source of fame and continuing gold prospecting, it is a delightfully picturesque and charming place with river front walks, paddlewheel steamer, straight grid of streets, and backdrop of steep spruce and forest-covered hills.

Town streets

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Bonanza Creek, with a couple of gold dredges, branches off to the left from the Klondike (from the Hwëch'in word throndiuk meaning hammer-water) just before it joins the Yukon (apparently meaning big river) at a leafy junction.

Where the Klondike meets the Yukon

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You can let your imagination run riot as you walk past the Jack London Café or the Palace Grand Theatre, the cabins buying gold, or the marker boards with photos from the original gold rush days.

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Jack London Café

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Close-up

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Near the inside entrance to the café

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Palace Grand Theatre

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Theatre marker

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Guide in period dress

At the back of the town you can gaze out at Jack London's actual cabin and food cache, the little shack on raised columns used to keep victuals away from bears and other predator animals.

But there's a hitch here. Jack didn't actually live in Dawson City at all. He resided in a solitary log cabin on the North Fork of Henderson Creek, 75 miles to the southeast. It was rediscovered in 1936 and the logs were shipped out in 1965. Two replicas were rebuilt from them, one here and another in Oakland, California, where he lived.

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Jack London's reconstructed log cabin

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Interior

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Food cache

Even so it's an evocative sight and there's an excellent little Jack London museum by the side with full information and documentation on the author in print, photos and film.

Barely a stone's throw away is Robert Service's cabin, apparently still on its original site. Here the man known as the Bard of the Yukon composed his poems in his time off from his job as a bank teller.

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Robert Service's cabin

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Cabin marker

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Sam McGee

Perhaps the biggest draw is the walk on the wild side, a stroll down memory lane to Klondike Kate's and Diamond Tooth Gertie's. Kathleen Eloise Rockwell was a vaudeville performer of suggestive dancing in Dawson City's heyday. Now she's the pleasant Klondike Kate's Restaurant & Bar.

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Klondike Kate's

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Inside

Diamond Tooth Gerties, a casino with roulette, blackjack tables and cabaret prides itself for 'wowing visitors with its unique Klondike period style can-can entertainment and friendly charm' since 1971.

It takes its name from Gertie Lovejoy, apparently one of the town's most legendary dancers who had a diamond inserted between her two front teeth, though some claim she may never have existed at all.

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Diamond Tooth Gerties

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The programme

Be that as it may, it now offers its audience of mainly old geezers and ancient hags - there were several walking sticks and a couple of walkers when I was there - three shows a night, with a lady singer who, to put it mildly, looks way beyond her 'sell by' date as she belts out old favourites.

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The four cancan girls, whose looks deteriorate the closer they get to you, entice audience participation by draping their tutus over the old geezers' bald pates, finally inviting four of them up to the stage to can-can with them and remove their garters with their teeth. The audience laps it up. The ragtime pianist, though, is very good.

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And now for a Robert Service parody of his old haunts:

Diamond Tooth Gertie, she the most dirty,
A slut to the nth degree,
No gold rib of Adam, this Dawson madam,
She catered to all for a fee.
Some say the depiction of Gert is all fiction,
The lady is just one big myth;
She did not exist, some mavens insist,
It's really all wind and pith.

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Be that as it may, for commercial today,
She must live, as you all do know;
Diamond Tooth Gerties, the new home of dirties,
Thrives now as a can-can show.
And lewd Klondike Kate, who gave men a date
In Dawson City's old prime,
Is now holding sway as a bustling café
At lunch and at dinner time.

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But back at new Gerties, 'tis time, the eight-thirty's
Follies are striking anew;
The piano kid's tuning, the can-can girls mooning,
The audience's more than a few.
The faux Gertie lady, her lip is quite shady,
Flails hard as she sports her fat arms
To rouse up her listeners - they're far from farbisseners,
That's Yiddish for lacking in charms.

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Oh boy, they participate, shout, scream and ululate,
Belying their distance from birth;
Combine all their ages, go through all the stages,
They're older than fair Mother Earth.
The can-can girls wander off stage and down yonder,
Draping men's heads with their skirts;
The male bulls squeal - this is all so unreal -
And gaze in true love at their flirts.

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The faux Gertie lady, I think she's called Sadie,
Tells all to shout out loud 'Yee-Ha;'
By George, what a goofer, and yet they all do for
As told - it's their dicks' last hurrah.
And looking much closer, I really suppose her
To once have been doing real great
- Beneath all that make-up, the years through the cake-up -
Way back in eighteen ninety-eight.

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There's yet one more caper - oh Gawd, go and tape her -
She calls up four ancient old farts
To go dance the can-can; each girl has a man,
Swishing his she-manly parts.
And now each old farter may take off the garter
But only by using his teeth;
Their mouths to each thigh on each can-can girl, high,
As they lower the flowery wreath.

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[Upcoming blog on Sunday: Yukon's spectacular Tombstone Park and on to Whitehorse]

Views over Dawson City and the Yukon from atop Midnight Dome

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.