If you’d like to see forever, drive the Top of the World highway! Rather than winding through mountain valleys, the road runs for 79 miles (127 km) along the high unglaciated mountain ridges above the treeline. It gives you a stunning view of what Robert Service called “big, dizzy mountains” and “deep, deathlike valleys” in his century old poem, The Spell of the Yukon.
While most people drive the Top of the World Highway through the few summer months it’s open, we drove it during snowmobile season on Trek Over the Top. And feeling the wind whip up those 4500 foot summits, almost ripping the snowmobile helmet off your head, is a whole other experience!
Trek Over the Top Snowmobile Run
Trek Over the Top is a 200 mile international snowmobile run from Tok, Alaska, to Dawson City, Yukon. In fact, it’s the premier snowmobile event of the year, held annually since 1993. Each year, as winter draws to a close, trail groomers head out of Tok to the Top of the World Highway, officially the the Yukon Highway 9 in Canada and the Taylor Highway 5 in Alaska, to prepare for the group of several hundred snowmobiles that make the journey.
The March we snowmobiled the Trek started out at -35 degrees–and dropped to -42 when we dropped elevation on the trail! Luckily, it warmed up a lot, to -15, for the return ride after our three-day weekend in Dawson City.
The Snowmobile Journey from Tok to Chicken
David and I pulled out of the Alaska Trailblazers facility in Tok with some of the earliest snowmobiles. Our rental was far from his choice of machinery — a wide-track Ski-Doo Skandic. He looked enviously at the REVs and mountain sleds. However, we had enough room in our cargo area for the fuel can and a single bag for the weekend, while others had to tarp strap things on wherever they would fit.
We spent the first five miles getting used to the Skandic. There was no pretending it was meant for anything other than being a pack-mule, and I was the pack straddled over the wide seat, slip-sliding under David and generally getting shook to bits. I already knew from years of experience that mountains weren’t my thing for driving, so it was double up or stay home.
While those first seventy-five miles into Chicken were cold — and I do mean cold — they were also windy and smooth and fast. We soon had a rhythm going and I started to appreciate the sled, even without handwarmers or other such luxuries as are normally are found on 2-up sleds. The stop in Chicken took awhile. We set our helmets on the rack over the woodstove to dry out, ate some hot dogs, and did a few stretches to get the kinks out.
Snowmobiling from Chicken to Boundary
Those next sixty or so odd miles to Boundary had mountains that were higher and rougher and steeper than anything we’d covered yet. The temperature, though, was rising, and the sun had finally popped over the mountain peaks. We were making good time and I wasn’t even particularly cold.
All that bouncing, along with a cold one in Boundary, while David helped two non-mechanics fix their snowmobile, meant I had to check out the outdoor facilities. Much to my amazement, I discovered northern toilet seat covers, shaped out of styrofoam pieces, provided a non-icy surface for outdoor plumbing fixtures. Who knew?
We spent about an hour stopped, fixing the sleds, and getting to know the two guys David had helped–Jason and Mike (who helped make the whole trip memorable), so snowmobile after snowmobile stopped, fueled, then continued on past us. The worst, we soon realized, loomed on the horizon. Jason and Mike assured us they’d wait to make sure we made it past the terrible terrace. What was that? We were about to find out!
Snowmobiling from Boundary to Dawson City
Warm as toast, but shaking in my boots anyway, we climbed up out of Boundary with the snowmobile and tackled the next part of trail. It climbed and twisted and turned and then … the road disappeared beneath a rock-solid snowdrift that lay at a 45 degree angle from the top of the mountain to the next ridge.
The wind caught and the sled drifted a little lower.
David feathered the throttle.
I threw my rear up over the side, hanging over the steel frame of the cargo box. We inched along the terrace trying not to look aaaaaallll the way to the bottom — imagine, I told myself, that it’s only a sixty foot coulee — I’d jumped those before driving my own snowmobile and survived to tell the tale.
The first terrace was maybe half a mile, the second was longer. I tried not to look down and focused on throwing myself from side to side to help hold the snowmobile from careening down the mountainside. Before the last sixty miles was done we’d traversed another couple of terraces, driven well above the treeline at the mountain top in what felt like hurricane force winds, and passed most of the snowmobiles that had gone through while we were stopped. That’s one of the risks of riding double with a retired snowmobile racer — he can’t stand to follow another sled.
I’ve never been happier to see anywhere in my life than Dawson City when it appeared in the valley below us! The end of the Top of the World Highway was directly below at the ferry terminal, where the bright red ferry was frozen into the ice of the Yukon River. I was tired and sore and hungry. And, more than a little ready for the good time and relaxation that was to come.
Dawson City, Yukon
The Top of the World Highway started out as a pack trail when gold was discovered the summer of 1896. By fall that year, 300 men were panning Bonanza Creek for gold and the Klondike Gold Rush had begun. By the next summer, after the world learned about the gold, some 100,000 people from around the world joined the rush to the Klondike.
However, only about 40,000 actually made it down the routes collectively known as the Trails of ’98 that led into the region. Dawson City started with Joseph Ladue’s warehouse and cabin, which also served as a saloon. From five houses and an assortment of tents in January of 1897, it became the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg, as well as the largest western community north of San Francisco, by July 1st, 1898.
Two banks set up service to handle the money, 12 sawmills sprang up to turn trees into lumber, and the North West Mounted Police (forerunners to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – or RCMP) arrived to keep the peace. For a very short time, Dawson was declared the “Paris of the North.” However, two fires ravaged many of the most elegant buildings, and the discovery of gold in Nome, Alaska, lured many prospectors away.
In 1902, when Dawson was incorporated, its population had dropped from a boom of 16,000 (with another 15,000 miners on nearby creeks), to around a 1000.
Today, around 2000 people make their home permanently in Dawson City. While many of the hotels, dining rooms and bars are closed over the winter, it’s a booming destination every summer.
The Downtown Hotel and the Yukon Order of the Sourtoe Club
Trekkers arrive in Dawson City with one goal — to have a good time. And we were lucky to end up at the Downtown Hotel, home of the Sourdough Saloon and Jack London Grill, where many a good time has begun! Since 1973, visitors to Dawson City have been able to earn the honor of becoming a member of the notorious Yukon Order of the Sourtoe Club founded by Captain Dick Stevenson.
Try the Sourtoe Cocktail
The sourtoe cocktail begins with a legend…some time ago, a guy named Stevenson discovered the petrified remains of a human toe under the floorboards of an old miner’s cabin on the Sixtymile River. The toe made the rounds of local saloons, until someone dared Stevenson to stop flapping his lips and use them to prove himself by putting them to a drink with the sourtoe in and swallow it instead. As chance would have it, a newspaper reporter happened to be present, and the legend was born.
Captain Dick, owner of the Downtown Hotel, carries on the tradition. The toes, which only a few brave (crazy) souls have swallowed, are donated by people, mostly Yukoners, who lose a toe to some calamity, such as frostbite. The Sourtoe induction ceremony takes place in the Downtown Hotel’s lower level, in the Sourdough Saloon.
Becoming a sourtoe definitely isn’t for the squeamish or weak of spirit (spirits however, consumed in great quantities, do make the whole process easier to take). My liquor of choice was peppermint schnapps, a strong enough flavor to hide whatever taste the pickled toe in the shooter glass might have had. Indeed, the sourtoe was a REAL human toe, complete with a brown-stained, cracked toenail and a few hairs.
The process was simple. An ounce of alcohol was poured into a shot glass over the sourtoe. Me, the inductee, needed to down all the fluid while being carefully observed to make sure that the toe came in contact with my lips as I drink. There is, of course, a chant and ceremony, as spectators all watch to confirm (or deny) the drinker’s claim to have touched the sourtoe.
If you manage to have your lips touch that toe, as I did, you’ll even get a certificate issued by the Yukon Order of the Sourtoe Club to prove it.
Dining at the Jack London
As well as activities that might not suit the faint-of-heart, the Downtown Hotel also provides a classy dining room. In the Jack London Diner, on the hotel’s main floor, you can expect to fine white linen and candles, along with some great food. I had the Arctic Char, a local favorite, and highly recommend it.
Jack London, who the dining room is named for, was a writer who brought the spirit of the Yukon to the World. His most well known book is Call of the Wild, although he wrote over 50 novels and stories. London, an adventurer born in 1876 in San Francisco, landed in the Yukon in the winter of 1897 and found his own kind of gold in the Klondike Gold Rush, when he began publishing.
Along with bringing the wild to life, London also was an activist somewhat ahead of his times. One of the most publicized figures of his day, he supported socialism, women’s suffrage, and eventually, prohibition. He was among the first writers to work with the movie industry, and his novel, The Sea-Wolf, became the basis for the first full-length American movie.
Diamond Tooth Gerties Evening Entertainment
Diamond Tooth Gerties opened for business in 1971, as Canada’s first and only legal gambling hall, bar, and cancan show parlour. The building however, has a lot more history, since it was erected in 1901 as a home for the fraternal Arctic brotherhood.
Diamond Tooth Gerties felt like we’d turned back the clock to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, until we looked around and saw, not miners, but snowmobilers sporting their bright yellow, red, and green jerseys.
There really was a Diamond Tooth Gertie though, who came to Dawson’s dance halls during the Gold Rush era–Gertie Lovejoy. The Diamond tooth part, as you might have guessed, came about because of a diamond she wore between her teeth when she danced.
The Gertie from that era–as befit a woman in the time of Queen Victoria–was a lot more demure than the modern Gertie. She wore typical Victorian attire that covered arms and front, and danced, not the cancan, but a waltz, polka, reel, or schottische.
Miners, for the pleasure of holding her for a one or two minute dance, paid the handsome sum of twenty-five cents!
Gertie went on to marry one of Dawson’s prominent lawyers, although she never truly lived down her earlier employment in the dance hall.
The Snow Shoe Shufflers
On our Trek adventure, we were treated to not only a performance by the regulars at Diamond Tooth Gerties, but also to the Yukon Snow Shoe Shufflers.
Snow Shoe Shufflers may seem like an odd name until you actually see the girls. For indeed, these talented dancers wear snow shoes on their feet, and as they say: “Over 100 years ago, the Yukon played host to the greatest gold rush in history. Thousands of stampeders made their way valiantly over the mountains, and through the valleys, to lay claim to the rich Klondike goldfields. Hot on their heels came the women… who mined the miners! They were a hearty breed… fleet of whit, strong of courage and thick of thigh!”
Plan Your Adventure
Drive the Top of the World Highway during the summer – http://www.explorenorth.com/library/roads/topofworld.html
Snowmobile Trek Over the Top – https://www.toktodawson.com/
Plan Your Visit to Dawson City, Yukon – https://dawsoncity.ca/
We were guests of Yukon Tourism for our Trek Over the Top snowmobile adventure.
More Things to do in the Yukon
About the Photo
The photo in the header was taken in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, during Trek Over the Top.