THE Top of the World Highway out of Chicken, Alaska, runs eastward through rolling high country where there are no people. Here, during eight-month winters, the road simply disappears; later, in the chilly drizzle of the Yukon Territory, it turns to mud. Other times, it's a dusty trail that crosses into the Canadian Yukon at the frontier town of Boundary, passing a weathered roadhouse and a customs agent with very little to do. Sixty-five desolate and beautiful miles later, the road descends from a high ridge and comes to rest at a wide, fast-flowing river, where a ferry shuttles cars to an incongruous collection of buildings on the other side. This is the Klondike Gold Rush town of Dawson, on the banks of the Yukon River (see map, page B9).
In August 1896, gold was discovered at a place called Bonanza Creek, where the Klondike River meets the Yukon, and within the next two years, virtually uninhabited territory was overrun by treasure hunters from Canada, the United States, and beyond. Dawson was founded by people who came downriver from Whitehorse after clambering over the Chilkoot Trail near Skagway, Alaska, during the rush.
Linked to civilization by the Yukon River and the steamboats that came down from Whitehorse, Dawson suddenly grew into a city of 30,000, with 12 first-class hotels, 40 restaurants, and five newspapers. There were telephones, steam heat, and movies. At one point the price of eggs hit $18 a dozen; a litter of kittens was sold off for $100 apiece.
Dawson City was a boomtown, and as with most boomtowns the party was over almost as soon as it had begun. The new century saw a steady dwindling of the area's population, as most of the gold seekers gave up and headed back south, or drifted off to stake claims in newer Alaskan fields.
But Dawson never faded completely off the map. The Yukon provincial capital wasn't moved south to Whitehorse until 1953; within the next 10 years, the town's residents (there are now about 800 year-round) and Canadian government authorities back east realized its potential as a living museum of the Klondike's gaudy past. In the early 1960s, Dawson City became a national historic site.
Since then the pace of downtown renovation and reconstruction has quickened, and today's visitor can stand at the corner of King Street and Third Avenue and imagine what it was like when the steamboats brought in Paris gowns, and tough customers in ornate caf'es slapped pouches of gold dust on the counter when they called for service.
Robert W. Service, author of ``The Shooting of Dan McGrew'' and ``Cremation of Sam McGee,'' has brought the old Klondike to life for four generations of readers. He arrived in Dawson in 1908, 10 years after the Gold Rush began, and spent several years living and working in the log cabin that still stands on Eighth Avenue in Dawson. Service's cabin has been furnished as the poet kept it in those days, with every detail matched to original photographs.
Another writer associated with Gold Rush days, Jack London, lived in a wilderness cabin, later reconstructed from its original logs just down the street from the Service site. Interpretive tours of the London cabin are given each afternoon.
The Dawson City Museum is in what was once the largest building in the Yukon, a cavernous wooden structure with a classical fa,cade on Fifth Avenue. From 1901 until 1953 this was the province's administration building, and it was an expensive luxury indeed. During the winter of 1902-03, it took 549 cords of wood to heat the uninsulated monster. Today it houses the collections of the Dawson Historical Society.
Unless you are camping, staying in the Klondike means staying in Dawson. There are a dozen or so hotels and motels, ranging from several bare-bones prefab establishments (about $40 Canadian a night) to the posher quarters of the Eldorado and the Sheffield House ($60 to $80).
If you're heading south out of Dawson by car, try to get in a night at the Moose Creek Lodge, 95 miles down the gravel road toward Whitehorse. The gaslit lodge is owned by Chris and Nancy Sorg, two refugees from suburban New Jersey. For $25 they'll rent you a log cabin out back, complete with a wood stove and an ax.
Allow an hour or so to explore the melancholy iron innards of Dredge No. 4, a wooden behemoth that chewed its way across the permafrost on its own moving pond from 1912 to 1959. No. 4, one of 35 giant dredges built in the Yukon after 1905, has been preserved by Parks Canada. A ranger is on hand to explain a process that would send modern environmentalists into orbit. Practical information
You don't have to drive into the Klondike; there's air and bus service out of Whitehorse, connecting with major Canadian cities by frequent flights and year-round ground transportation.