Stepping out onto a street in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory feels like you’re on the set of a snowy western movie. This little town comes replete with swing-door saloons, dancing girls and gambling halls populated by men of the wild and woolly variety. Born during the Yukon gold rush, Dawson City is a charming community with historical sites for tourists, pristine wilderness for the outdoor adventurer and breathtaking beauty for the amateur photographer in all of us.
While you can get the same cultural experiences, rivers and teeming wildlife in other places, Canada’s great white north has an intangible something that makes it truly unforgettable. You get the feeling that here, in this place where there are more moose than people and the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice, anything is possible.
Seeking a truly northern experience, I travelled to Dawson City during winter while the weather was at its North-iest. Okay, so not the -40 Ned Stark-approved dead cold of winter, more like the tail end when the warmer weather makes it easy to be outside. I know this is not a popular time to travel North, but baby it should be! You get the unique snow-covered beauty of the Yukon winter and the warm hospitality of the locals all to yourself.
And the snow-covered beauty is truly so breathtakingly astounding and wild, that you will have to take several moments to compose yourself. The sky seems bigger here, and bluer too and the endless boreal forest planes stretch out for forever, broken only by the equally endless mountain ranges.
And the locals aren’t just warm; they are downright toasty. By day two, I felt like I belonged in Dawson City, waltzing down the street greeting friends I had met in the bar, supporting bake sales and feeling more part of a community than I ever have living in the fourth largest city in North America.
I had come to Dawson City to participate in the annual Thaw DiGras festival. That’s right; when you think Mardi Gras, think New Orleans, Paris… Dawson City. While equally focused on hedonism and beer as they are elsewhere, the Dawson City festivities have a unique take.You can watch a video of the festival here.
We started the day by sampling entrants in the chilli cook-off, then went on to the axe throwing contest which was thrillingly dangerous. I tried my hand, but the axes were so heavy that I barely made the target and was happy to escape with all my digits intact. While many of the men had the distance, they couldn’t get their axes to peg.
Then a very small lady pushed her way through the crowd to much scoffing from the general populace. She took off her coat, and then totally smoked the competition, getting three out of four axes to peg and a bulls-eye!
From there we migrated to the chainsaw toss which is exactly what it sounds like. Old chainsaws are thrown by participants while the crowd cheers them on. Only when you’re this far north does one become expert at throwing a motorized cutting device. I was warned about a wiry older gent who sees the chainsaw toss as a way to single out a new paramour as he likes his women like his coffee (I’m assuming strong and sweet?).
Getting a little husky
Thaw DiGras is not just for humans to enjoy: dog sledding, dog pulls and dog shows give our four-legged friends the chance to show off their skills. Along with traditional canine events, there is also the skijor: here a dog will pull you on skis for maximum fun times.
The humans also got a chance to show off their moves with snowshoe baseball (good luck sliding into first!) and road hockey. If you’re looking for something more refined, Yukonians have your back with ice sculptures and the tea boil where teams compete to see who can make a fire and boil tea the fastest.
The Dawson City Thaw DiGras festival is the most fun you can have with your clothes on (no really, keep your kit on, it’s really cold out there) and a truly special experience for any adventure traveller.
The writer was a guest of Travel Yukon. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.