Touring the Cities and Wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory

A Dawson City, Yukon, streetscape

By Roger Allnutt

In August 1896 prospectors in the northern Yukon region of northwestern Canada, close to the Arctic Circle, discovered large deposits of gold on the Rabbit River tributary of the Yukon River, subsequently named Bonanza Creek. When news of the find reached the United States it precipitated what is now referred to as the Klondike Gold Rush, one of the greatest stampedes of men from many parts of the globe, all seduced by the prospect of incredible riches.

These men, most totally unsuited to the incredible hardship and conditions (much during periods of incredible winter cold) they encountered in reaching this remote part of the world, mainly arrived in 1898 and 1899 to find that much of the gold had already been mined or the best leases had already been staked.

To reach the goldfields most had to ‘scale’ one of two passes – Chilkoot or White – leading up from Skagway in the Alaskan waterways. Once through the pass they were faced with another 400 miles, much of it along the Yukon River, in makeshift craft, 300 miles upriver from Whitehorse to the boom town of Dawson City.

A rail line over the White Pass was completed in 1900, a remarkable feat of engineering. Nowadays travelers can take this same route in the comfort of carriages pulled by a replica of the original train run by the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway Company. It is a popular and dramatic route, the line clinging to the sides of the valleys crossing several high trestle bridges.

Over 100,000 men made the epic trip during the gold rush and only a few made their fortune (usually subsequently lost). Currently there are only around 35,000 people in the whole of the Yukon, about half the number of moose that roam the countryside.

There is still a frontier feel about the Yukon, a region of extremes with temperatures in winter going down to -40 degrees F (-40 degrees C). Even it summer it can still be cool so take plenty of warm clothing.

Whitehorse is a thriving community nestling on the banks of the Yukon River. The MacBride Museum of Yukon History captures many of the elements of the region’s past from the gold rush to a display of the many animals (including grizzly bears) found in the territory. First Nations people have lived in the region for thousands of years and their history and lifestyle are also faithfully represented.

Missionaries, mainly from the UK, arrived in the 19th century and endured incredible hardships in developing contacts with the First Nations peoples; this history is vividly displayed at the Old Log Church and Rectory (pictured, left) which are among Whitehorse’s oldest buildings.

Sternwheelers plied the Yukon River between Whitehorse and Dawson City until the mid 1950s bringing cargo downstream and ore back from Dawson City and silver mines at Mayo and Keno. SS Klondike 2, the last of these craft, also carried passengers, the first-class passengers in true style. The ship, beautifully restored, is open for inspection at Whitehorse (pictured below).

Another highlight in Whitehorse is the fish ladder on the edge of the Yukon River designed to facilitate the passage of the salmon returning to their natal spawning grounds – they have already swum upstream nearly 2,000 miles from the mouth of the river at the Bering Sea (best time is late July and August). The Transportation Museum near the airport includes the world’s largest weather vane – a small passenger plane on a pedestal that moves with the wind.

Some 3,330 miles from Whitehorse along the Klondike Highway, Dawson City is like a time warp of the gold rush. Many historic buildings representing different aspects of life a century ago – pub, mortuary, bank – have been restored (in some cases just the façade) and it is worth joining the excellent walking tour by Parks Canada to learn all the historic details. The old Palais Theatre still puts on shows while Diamond Gertie’s doubles as a gambling casino and presents three nightly song and dance shows during the summer (only $7 and you can stay for all three shows that get more risqué as the evening progresses).

If you want to get an idea of the scale of operations during and after the gold rush, tour Dredge No.4, now ‘stranded’ on the banks of the Klondike River. The scale of rock removed to get at the ore is overwhelming. Our guide Sue, a veteran of mining camps, was waxing knowledgeably about the mining process and the operation of the dredge when a moose plus two calves appeared in a nearby pond and everyone raced off to photograph this surprise sighting.

Author Jack London lived in Dawson City as did poet Robert Service, and you can visit their homes.

The Yukon is huge. The Alaska Highway from the border with Alberta at Dawson Creek runs for nearly 1,200 miles to Beaver Creek on the Alaskan border. In summer this highway is busy with large numbers of RVs (some like buses or mobile homes) heading north to Fairbanks and Denali in Alaska. The road is generally good although there are some parts where it’s bumpy and rutted as the underlying permafrost plays havoc with the surface.

Small villages dot the highway which passes through varied scenery – there is no shortage of trees in the Yukon! West of Whitehorse is some of the most dramatic scenery in Canada with many of the country’s highest peaks forming a barrier between the inland and the Pacific Ocean. Snow-covered peaks abound including Mt. Logan, at nearly 20,000 ft the highest in Canada; these mountains lie within beautiful Kluane National Park. Helicopter rides are available from Haines Junction to get close to this magical wilderness area. The effects of the blight caused by the spruce bug can be clearly seen by the widespread demise of stands of this proud forest tree.

Kluane Lake (pictured, left) is very beautiful and Kluane Lake B&B highly recommended. The small museum at Burwash Landing contains world-class wildlife exhibits together with displays on the life of the local Southern Tutchone people. At Beaver Creek don’t miss the nightly (except Tuesday) summer dinner/show at the Westmark Inn ‘Beaver Creek Rendezvous’, another of the excellent productions held throughout the Yukon. It is amazing to find such talent in this remote part of the world.

The Klondike Highway through Dawson City continues on as the ‘Top of the World’ Highway joining up with the Alaska Highway near Tok in Alaska. Evidence of recent bushfires can be seen. The remote village of Chicken attracts many visitors (many in RVs) still panning for gold; one veteran showed me some specks of gold in his pan – it seemed a lot of effort for not much return.

Note: There are direct flights from Vancouver to Whitehorse with both Air Canada and Air North.

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Roger Allnutt was assisted by Yukon Tourism.

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