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Dawson City: Many come to visit; plenty never leave

Visiting the famed Gold Rush town for the first time, I hoped to find what attracts seniors to live just 241 km south of the Arctic Circle.

Rick Tae was celebrating with a pint of beer as he watched eager patrons line up to try the sourtoe cocktail at Dawson City's Downtown Hotel.

"That's not for me," said the Comox, B.C., man as he sipped a Yukon Lager draft in mid-July to celebrate a marathon journey along a gravel road on his BMW motorcycle to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, and back.

"It was my first time up there. I was so pumped," said Tae, who realized a lifelong dream by pitching his tent on an Arctic Ocean beach.

Visiting the famed Gold Rush town for the first time, I hoped to find what attracts seniors to live just 241 km south of the Arctic Circle.

While the town of 2,200 can face challenges due to weather extremes, there wasn’t a soul I spoke with who said they'd consider living anywhere else.

"There are really interesting people here; from artists to miners and everything in between," said Brenda Baxter, 75, who moved from Ontario to Dawson City in 1974.

"You either love it or you don't. You can go a little squirrely sometimes," said the retired community health nurse, who spends six months every winter in Mexico. "The territorial government has an excellent health care plan and Dawson has all the required amenities, including a hospital. Older people who move here tend to stay here." 

Loralyn Cleland, 63, moved from Windermere, B.C. in 1974 and has stayed, marrying and raising a family.

"I could afford to go south for the winter but I don't," said Cleland, who works full-time at the local longterm care facility, and spends most of the winter months socializing. "I like to visit with friends and family. We have our coffees together. I used to go to the curling rink, but now I read a lot, and we watch movies."

Cleland says she tolerates the cold of Dawson but has never gotten used to the darkness: Up here, direct sunlight disappears for five weeks each winter.

"It still bothers me," said Cleland, who admits to great anticipation when the calendar inches towards mid-January. ''Those first sun rays are like magic. We pray for spring."

The interpreter at the cabin of author Jack London was smitten with Dawson City after moving from Ontario in 1973.

 "You can walk everywhere. You’re next door to nature," said 75-year-old Piercy, who spends six months in Mexico each winter.

Vinny Amendola, 73, followed his sister from New York City to Dawson City about 50 years ago.

"I'll never go back. This is a pretty special place. It's the history and the people," said Amendola, a retired phone company worker who spends the winters in Palm Springs.

Though it may sound otherwise, locals say they figure most of the 314-odd seniors living in Dawson City do stay for the winter. Town councillor Patrik Pikalek, who moved to Dawson City from the Czech Republic following a visit to the town 11 years ago, says the residents are what make his new home a great place to live.

““Everyone has different motivations for being here, but they all have good motivations for being here,” he said.

The town’s mayor, originally from southern Ontario, says facilities have improved over the years to now include an artists’ centre, better internet connections and a new senior’s facility.

“It’s much like anywhere in Canada, and 30 to 40 below here can feel more pleasant than 10 below next to the Great Lakes,” said Bill Kendrick.

Tommy Taylor, an Indigenous man born in Dawson City, has been embracing all four seasons for more than 60 years.

"I do go down to Vancouver for a couple of weeks each winter but I have to come back. I get homesick," said Taylor, who operates a boat charter business in the summer and offers snowmobile tours in the winter.

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