The Yukon, the vast, rugged, thinly populated expanse of land located above the 60th parallel in northwestern Canada which shares its border with Alaska and accurately earns its self-proclaimed slogan of “larger than life,” is a topographically diverse, serenely beautiful, and intoxicatingly attractive territory of barren, treeless plains, boreal forests, rugged mountains, glaciers, and mirror-reflective lakes and rivers inhabited by Canada’s First Nations people and abundant wildlife. Because of its high latitude, it experiences more than 20 hours of daylight in the summer, but fewer than five in the winter, replaced, instead, by the northern lights known as the “aurora borealis.” Aside from the major “cities,” most communities are only accessible by floatplane or dogsled.
The Yukon’s history is, in essence, that of the Gold Rush. Sparked by the August 16, 1896 discovery of a gold nugget in northwestern Canada at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, it began when some 100,000, seeking wealth and adventure, set off on what had later been designated the Klondike Gold Rush Trail between 1897 and 1898. The event, which produced an instantaneous population boom and ultimately shaped the territory, traces its path to five significant locations in both the United States and Canada.
The first of these, Seattle, Washington, had served as the gateway to the Yukon. Advertised as the “outfitter of the gold fields,” it sold supplies and gear stocked ten feet deep on storefront boardwalks, grossing $25 million in sales by early-1898, and was the launching point for the all-water route through the Gulf of Alaska to St. Michael, and then down the Yukon River to Dawson City. Despite the high fares, which few could afford, all passages had been sold out.
Dyea and its Chilkoot Trail, the second location, had provided a slower, more treacherous, alternate route, via the 33-mile Chilkoot trail which linked tidewater Alaska with the Canadian headwaters of the Yukon River.
Skagway, Alaska, the third location, quickly replaced Dyea as the “Gateway to the Klondike” because of its more navigable White Pass route which, although ten miles longer than that of the Chilkoot Trail, had entailed a 600-foot-lower climb. The trail, quickly destroyed because of overuse, had ultimately been replaced by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad whose construction, financed by British investors, had commenced in May of 1898 and had extended to the White Pass Summit by February of 1899, Bennett Lake by July of 1899, and Whitehorse by July of the following year. Skagway itself had been metamorphosed from a cleared, tent-dotted field to boardwalk-lined streets sporting wooden buildings with 80 saloons in the four-month period between August and December 1897.
At Bennett Lake, the fourth location, 30,000 stampeders awaited the spring thaw, constructing 7,124 boats from whipsawn green lumber and launching their flotilla on May 29, 1898, fighting the Whitehorse rapids before following the Yukon River to Dawson City.
Dawson City itself, the fifth location, had been the site of the first gold nugget discovery and had begun as a small island between the Yukon and Klondike Rivers hitherto only occupied by the Han First Nations people, but exploded into Canada’s largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Vancouver with up to 40,000 gold seekers covering a ten-mile area along the river banks. Thirty cords of firewood were used to burn shafts through the permafrost to the mines themselves. Of the 4,000 who actually discovered gold, only a few hundred ultimately emerged “rich.”
Whitehorse, the Yukon’s wilderness capital on the banks of the Yukon River with a population of 23,000, had itself been shaped by the gold rush and the transportation means which developed to facilitate it. Named for the rapids on the Yukon River, which resembled the flowing manes of charging white horses, the area had first served as a fishing encampment of the Kwanlin Dun First Nations people. In 1987, the tent-comprised Canyon City served as the operational base of a horse-drawn tramway which, for a fee, carried people and goods, particularly gold rushers, round the treacherous White Horse Rapids on log rails.
Three years later, in 1900, the tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad reached the city, today the only international narrow gauge railroad still operating in North America, and passengers transferred to the extensive riverboat service, which completed the journey to Dawson City by the Yukon River.
In 1942, the US Army completed the 1,534-mile Alaska Highway in a record eight months, 23 days, and Whitehorse had been incorporated as a city in 1950. Three years later, it replaced Dawson as the capital of the Yukon.
Whitehorse itself is accessible by multiple travel modes. The paved Alaska, Haines, and Klondike Highways provide road access within the territory and to Alaska, while the gravel Dempster Highway connects Dawson City with Inuvik above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. The Alaska Marine Highway and multiple, daily cruise ships serve Skagway and Haines, Alaska, during the summer season. The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad connects Skagway with Fraser and Bennett Lake, British Columbia, with service soon to be extended to Whitehorse. And the Whitehorse airport offers daily service, via Air North, Air Canada Jazz, First Air, and Condor, to Yellowknife, Dawson, Fairbanks, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Frankfurt, Germany. Floatplanes provide remote community access.
The story of Whitehorse can be traced by its many diverse sights and attractions.
The MacBride Museum, for instance, toted as “Yukon’s first museum” and housed in a log structure with a sod roof, had been established in 1951 by historian Bill MacBride in order to explore the Yukon’s history. It features stuffed wildlife in its upper gallery; “Rivers of Gold,” an exhibit depicting Yukon prospecting and placer mining since 1883, and Yukon’s First Nations people, in its lower gallery; and early copper mining equipment, blacksmithing, and Sam McGee’s original, 1899 cabin in one of two outside exhibition areas. The other contains overland stages used by the White Pass and Yukon Route between Whitehorse and Dawson, an 1895 Northwest Mounted Police Patrol cabin, and Engine number 51, built in 1881 and used on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad seven years later in 1898.
The Old Log Church Museum, an Anglican cathedral built in 1900, is one of the oldest buildings in Whitehorse and tells the story of the early Yukon missionaries, including that of the priest who survived a winter expedition by eating his own boots for sustenance.
Perhaps the most popular sight, and one which serves as the very city symbol, is the S. S. Klondike, a National Historical Site of Canada. The largest of the 250 sternwheelers to have plied the Yukon River at 64 meters long and 12.5 meters wide, it had been constructed in 1920 by the British Yukon Navigation Company, a subsidiary of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, in the city of Whitehorse itself, and had been an integral part of the inland water transportation system which connected Whitehorse with the remainder of the territory and hence served as the principle element of its own growth.
The design, which traced its lineage as far back as 1866 when the first such steam-powered riverboat reached Selkirk, the S. S. Klondike I, with a 1,362.5-ton gross weight and powered by two 525-hp compound jet-condenser engines, had featured a revolutionary hull which enabled it to offer 50 percent more cargo volume than previous configurations without sacrificing shallow draft instability, enabling it to accommodate more than 300-ton loads for the first time, along with 75 first and second class passengers. Of its three decks, the first, or main, deck housed the engines, boilers, and cargo; the second the lounge, communications office, dining room, galley, and sun deck; and the third the bridge and the crew quarters.
Succeeded by the dimensionally identical Klondike II after the initial vessel ran aground in 1936, itself completing the 460-mile downstream run from Whitehorse to Dawson in 36 hours with only one or two wood-replenishing stops, it had been operated as a cargo boat between 1937 and 1952 and had ultimately been converted into a small cruise ship for service until 1955.
The current dry-docked boat appears in its 1930 guise.
The Whitehorse Train Depot, which replaced the originally constructed, but later fire- consumed structure, reflects the typical western Canadian architecture of the early 20th century, although alterations had been made during World War II and during the Alaska Highway project. After scheduled railway service had been discontinued in 1982, the Yukon government had purchased the building and restored it, its passenger waiting room now reflecting its 1950s heritage.
The Whitehorse Waterfront trolley, using the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad tracks and paralleling the Yukon River with stops at Rotary Peace Park, the Tourist Information Center, the White Pass Train Depot, Wood Street, Shipyard’s Park and Kishwoot Station, and Spook Creek, provides an excellent introduction to the city, using a single trolley car, number 531, for its hourly round-trip service.
The car itself, in its original yellow color scheme, had been partially built by the J.G. Brill Company of Philadelphia in 1925 for the Lisbon Electric Company which subsequently assembled the kit in its Santo Amaro shop. Of the 202 cars constructed there, 24 had been of the car 531 type.
Trolley 531 had operated in Lisbon until 1976, at which time it had been acquired for the Lake Superior Museum of Transportation in Duluth, Minnesota, where it remained until the Yukon government had purchased it in 1999. Flatbed truck transport, through bitter cold and ice, enabled it to reach the White Pass and Yukon Route engine restoration shed in Whitehorse on January 6, 2000.
The double-ended tram car, with controls at either end, has two 25-hp General Electric motors and two k.3 controllers, and had been intended to operate off of overhead electrical lines with a power pole, but the lack of such facilities in Whitehorse necessitated the temporary provision of a trailer-installed electrical generator. The present 600-volt operation replaces its originally intended 550-volt current, and the installation of railroad wheels permits it to run on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad’s 36-inch tracks, although it had been designed, with its original trolley wheel base, to utilize the narrower, 34.5-inch rail width.
Because of the equally standard-gauge body, it permits four-abreast, two-two, seating, sporting a varnished hardwood oak, mahogany, and cherry interior with original signs still in Portuguese.
The Whitehorse Rapids Fish Ladder and Hatchery, located five minutes out of town, had resulted from the late-1950s construction of the Whitehorse Rapids Hydroelectric Facility by the Northern Canada Power Commission. The Alaska and Klondike Highways, linking many communities and obviating the need for the then-vital sternwheeler river transportation system, ultimately led to the transfer of the Yukon’s capital from Dawson to Whitehorse, and its population expansion could no longer be supported by the downtown diesel generator electricity method. Construction of the greater-capacity hydroelectric dam, commencing in 1956, formed Schwatka Lake, and this produced the city’s first electricity two years later, in 1958.
Although the facility improved the quality of life for the human population, it proved the detriment to the salmon species in the river. Salmon had traveled up the Yukon River to spawn for thousands of years, laying their eggs in gravel which, after the winter gestation period, hatched into alevins in early-spring, and fed and developed in the cold, clear waters for up to two years. Swimming out to the ocean, they returned several years later to the exact location of their births to lay their own eggs and begin the process anew.
In order to circumvent the new hydroelectric dam and permit them to continue their life cycles, the world’s longest wooden fish ladder, at 366 meters, had been built in 1959. Progressively rising in steps by 15 meters from the Yukon River to Schwatka Lake, it enables salmon to safely pass round the dam and continue their migration process.
A two-hour boat cruise on Schwatka Lake by the appropriately-named m/v Schwatka, a 28-ton, dual-decked, 40-passenger boat, provides an excellent introduction to Whitehorse’s wilderness side and sails through Miles Canyon, the turbulent “Devil’s Punchbowl,” and the Yukon River itself.
Several interesting attractions are located along the Alaska Highway, up Two Mile Hill Road.
The Copperbelt Mining Railway and Museum, the first of these, provides a 1.8-kilometer figure-eight loop from its red McIntyre Station building through the skinny spruce forest, using an abandoned spur line of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad located in the historic Whitehorse Copper Belt mining district. Its two engines, 10- and 20-hp Loke diesels, were manufactured by the Jenacher Werks in Austria in 1969 and 1967, respectively.
The Yukon Transportation Museum depicts the territory’s Gold Rush transportation heritage, displaying unusual travel modes associated with the north, from the snowshoe to the dogsled to the airplane. Exhibits include a Canadian Pacific DC-3 mounted on an outside pedestal; a full-size riverboat, the “Neecheah,” and a steam locomotive. Inside exhibits include a gasoline-powered Casey car, which transported workers on the rails; a passenger car used by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad; a White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad model train layout; a Ryan B-1 Bougham designated “Queen of the Yukon,” a sister ship to Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis,” which served as the first commercial airplane to have operated in the Yukon after its purchase from the San Diego factory by Yukon Airways and Exploration, Ltd., in 1927 for $10,200.00; dog sleds; a 1927 Chevrolet convertible; a five-cylinder Kinner engine; a Lycoming R-680 engine; a 1965 International Travelall ambulance; a welded steel frame from a Fairchild FC-2W2; a Smith DGA-1 “Miniplane” homebuild; a bus from the B.Y.N. Bus Lines; military vehicles, including a seven-passenger Dodge Carryall used by the US Army’s Northwest Service Command during construction of the Alcan Highway; and a log rail tramway which used parallel logs as “tracks.”
The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center examines Beringia, a sub-continent of the last Ice Age which had been located in the Bering Strait and had encompassed Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon. Although the remainder of Canada had laid under massive ice sheets, Beringia itself had been untouched by glaciers because of the 125-meter reduction in sea levels, producing tundra whose tough, dry grasses had supported a wide range of herbivores and carnivores.
The woolly mammoth, among them, had been the predecessor to the modern Asiatic elephant and the museum sports a full-size cast of the largest example ever recovered. The short-faced bear, which had been one foot taller than today’s grizzly counterpart, had been the largest, most powerful land carnivore in North America during the last Ice Age. The museum also features a reconstruction of the 24,000-year-old Bluefish Cave archaeological site.
The earliest human inhabitants, following bison and mammoth herds 24,000 years ago, had migrated from western Beringia to current Canada.
3. Kluane National Park
One of four contiguous national and provincial parks, inclusive of the Yukon’s 21,980 square-kilometer Kluane National Park, Alaska’s 52,600 square-kilometer Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska’s 13,360 square-kilometer Glacier Bay National Park, and British Columbia’s 9,580 square-kilometer Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, Kluane National Park itself is topographically diverse, encompassing massive mountains, valleys, lakes, boreal forests, valley glaciers, and ice fields. Of the two mountain ranges—the Kluane and Icefield—the latter sports Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, at 19,545 feet. The largest non-polar ice field in the world, a remnant of the last Ice Age, is also located here.
Of the two types of populations—human and animal—the former includes the Southern Tutchone people, who had previously lived a nomadic lifestyle, but continue to practice a culture which closely revolves round the natural world, and the latter includes grizzly bears, lynx, mountain goats, moose, wolves, black bears, caribou, coyotes, 180 species of birds, and the world’s largest concentration of dall sheep.
Haines Junction, which is located two hours from Whitehorse via the Alaska Highway and serves as the national park’s base, is a year-round, full-service village whose modern history began in 1942 with the completion of the Alaska Highway itself at Milepost 1016. A year later, a branch road, over the Chilkat Pass, connected it with Haines, Alaska, and Kluane National Park had been designated a preserve in 1972.
Its few sights, always flanked by the breathtaking, purple-hued St. Elias Mountains, include the Village Monument, a local wildlife sculpture; the eight-sided log St. Christopher’’s Anglican Church; and the Our Lady of the Way Catholic Church, which had been constructed in 1954 from an old army Quonset hut remaining from the Alaska Highway project.
The ubiquitous slender, dark green spruce, encountered during my own tour of the national park, lined either side of the deserted Haines Highway, the vertical ridges of the St. Elias Mountains of Kluane National Park on the right side hues of purple, chocolate brown, and velvet-green at their bases. The silver surface of Kathleen Lake reflected between them.
Kluane National Park and the adjacent Wrangell-St. Elias National monument across the border in the United States had been jointly nominated to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. Together, the properties present an unbroken, pristine natural system, with a rich variety of vegetation, patterns, and ecosystems.
The first stop of my own drive revealed a pebble beach, which, acting like a threshold, led toward the emerald green water of Kathleen Lake, bracketed on either side by tall, silent, fragrant spruce, the water itself interfacing with the green-carpeted mountain on the far side in seamless transition, taking the eye up to the brown, vegetationless top, from which a slender “s” of snow still snaked, a remainder of the long winter and short summer “pause” between the next frigid cycle. Since it had been August, that beginning had not been very far way in these northern latitudes.
The Kokanee salmon, living in the fresh water lake for the first three years of its life, swims the short distance to Sockeye Lake in the fourth year, at which time it dies. In the 1700s, the Lowell Glacier had surged across the Alaska River, blocking its drainage into the Pacific Ocean and thus creating an enormous lake. When the dam suddenly burst in 1856, the waters had been released in torrential floods, draining the basin.
Kluane National Park sports both glaciers of ice and rock, the latter formed in cold, alpine environments on mountain slopes. During the last 8,000 years, brittle bedrock shattered into fragments by the freezing and thawing action of the winter-summer cycle. Lubricated by meltwater and riding a core of glacial ice, a continually accumulating mass of rock slowly ground its way down the mountainside, forming rock glaciers.
The huge, deep blue of Dezadeash Lake, encountered at another stop, had been surrounded by considerably-distanced mountains, whose soft-curved, inverted bowl-like peaks had been reduced to gray and green, almost indistinguishable silhouettes in the early-afternoon beneath the high, unobstructed, gleaming sun. The sky had been a flawless blue.
Klukshu Village, dotted with tiny log cabins and a gift shop, had been an important place for many Champagne and Aishihik families, particularly during salmon-spawning season between June and September when king, sockeye, and coho salmon migrate up the river.
The Yukon, with its capital city of Whitehorse and wilderness Kluane National Park, indeed provides an interesting journey through its Gold Rush legacy and the transportation means which had developed to facilitate it.