Canada: The Yukon and
A Short Trip Through the North West Territories in August and September

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The Yukon from Western BC to Whitehorse via the Klondike Highway, then full North on the Alaskan Highway, Top of the World Highway, Dawson City, the Dempster Highway to the North West Territories, Inuvik, back to the Yukon to Mayo, Keno, Pelly Crossing, the Campbell Highway, Ross River, Watson Lake.
This landscape around Swan Lake is what remains of an ancient land named Quesnellia, after a small town in central British Columbia where similar rock formations are well exposed. As difficult to imagine as it is, we are looking here at eroded volcanic islands scattered on an ancient seabed! During the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era -- between 206 and 144 million years ago -- these granite formations were crushed between the Pacific and Continental plates, granite cooled in the earth crust and undersea volcanoes erupted above the granite. Simpson Peak in the background still displays the granite roots of this once-mighty volcano and the angular spikes of its ancient magma chamber. Swan Lake is located at km 1,152 on the Alaska Highway, approximately 85 km after the border the Yukon shares with British Columbia.
The Hudson's Bay Co. established in 1904 a post in Teslin, a Tlingit word for "long narrow water" referring to the 125 km-long lake by the same name. Teslin remained accessible only by boat or trail until the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942. With a population of nearly 200, Teslin is one the largest First Nations populations in the Yukon. The Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre is housed in a striking building on the shore of Teslin Lake which draws its design from the lean-to structures serving as temporary homes to the Inland Tlingit people after their migration from the Pacific North Coast. It displays artifacts, masks and other crafts telling the history and culture of the Tlingit people in the area, among which colorful totems and canoes carved in a single cedar shaft. Here on the foreground, the Raven symbolizes the Creator, capable of changing form at will.
South of Carcross, a low pass separates the water expanse of Windy Arm from Tutshi Lake. Tutshi is a Tlingit word meaning "deep dark lake", an accurate description for its 300 meter-deep waters. Tutshi Lake is not actually in the Yukon, but just across the border in British Columbia. Yet it makes sense to present it in this section as this portion of BC can be accessed only through a Yukon-Alaska route, whether by road on the Klondike Highway or by train with the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. As a result, frequent border crossings are part of the fun when visiting the area of the "Southern Lakes"...
The Takhini River flows into the Yukon River, meeting it between Whitehorse and Lake Laberge, before heading 2,000 miles north to the Bering Sea. Deriving its name from a Tlingit word meaning "king salmon", the Takhini River runs along Klondike Highway 2. The Klondike is a mispronunciation of "Thron-diuck", a northern Athabaskan word meaning "hammer water".
The portion of the Alaska Highway or Highway 1 between Whitehorse and Haines Junction makes for a particularly pleasant drive when the sun lights up the 2,500 meter-high snowy caps of the Kluane Ranges.
After Pearl Harbor, the project of a highway connecting Alaska to continental US though Canada became a strategic priority for the US, for security reasons but also as a supply route to access northen oilfields. Canada agreed to it, provided that the US bore its full cost and turned it over to the Canadian authorities six months after the war would end. The 2,237 km of the ALCAN Highway were completed in less than 8 months in 1942 between March and October, connecting Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, AK. This was quite an impressive feat under particularly challenging conditions: winter bitter cold coupled with the difficulty of building a road on frozen ground was replaced in the spring by clouds of mosquitoes, flies and gnats, mud and river floods. Regularly improved since, the Alaska Highway proves a constant challenge to maintain with the growing problem of melting permafrost due to rising temperatures in the region, another unforseen consequence of climate change.
The Kluane National Park and Reserve protects the St Elias Mountains summits, where Mount Logan towers at nearly 6,000 meters (19,524 feet), the highest point in Canada. Kluane is one of the two largest non-polar icefields in the world, a vestige of the last Ice Age which covers nearly half of the park. As moist air coming from the Pacific passes over its mountains, enormous quantities of snow continue to accumulate around the peaks and compress under its own weight, forming glaciers that blow their way into the valleys.
By the side of Highway 1 between Haines Junction and Burwash Landing, Christmas Creek carves its unassuming little course in a vivid carpet of yellowish grassland, scattered with a crisscross of fallen twigs.
Kluane Lake owes its name to the South Tutchone language from a word meaning "lake where fish abound". The Alaska Highway hugs the western shore of Yukon's largest lake, for the better part of its 65 km length, crossing what is left of the Slims River at the south end of the lake. About 300 to 400 years ago, the Kaskawulsh Glacier advanced across the Slims River and closed the drainage outlet of Kluane Lake, causing its water level to rise over ten meters, which in turn reversed the lake drainage. Even after the waters receded, it no longer flowed south to the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean 225 km further, but ran instead from the northeast end of the lake, following a ten times longer new channel which connects it with the Yukon River system and heads north to the Bering Sea.
The glacier-fed White River flows for over 300 km, draining the northern slopes of the St. Elias Mountains, with its greatest runoff often occurring as late as July. The river gave its name to the local First Nation people who are culturally affiliated with the Upper Tanana and Northern Tutchone groups. The river also contributed to name a major geological feature of the area, the White River Ash which carpeted much of the southern and central Yukon around Mount Churchill, which is located in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska near the headwaters of the White River, exploded twice --1,900 and again 1,200 years ago -- with a force ten times more powerful than that of Mount St. Helens in 1980.
It is here in Beaver Creek, on the Alaska-Yukon border, that construction crews working from opposite directions connected the Alaska Highway in October 1942, thus making it possible for the first time for vehicles to travel its entire length. Twenty years later, a metal Quonset hut left behind was recycled in a clever project: the original pre-fabricated steel half cylinder was creatively turned into a Catholic church named Our Lady of Grace! At the end of WWII, the military had offered the public most of its 150,000 Quonsets for 1,000 dollars each. And this is how they became a fixture of the built environment in the Great North and a stereotype of the pragmatic lifestyle in the region, where function is often given precedence over form.
The Canadian border post of Little Gold Creek is found at an altitude of 1,258 meters. It is open only in the summer, approximately from mid-May to mid-September, according to how late or early snowflakes fly, corresponding to operation of the ferry service at Dawson City. Even the entry stamp in our passports was exotic to us: it represents a gold panner! Its US counterpart bears another colorful name, Poker Creek, AK! This border post is located on the Top Of The World Highway, with Dawson City about 100 km away. Yukoners often refer to it as "The Sixty-Mile", although the road's official name is Yukon Highway 9, while past the border on the Alaskan side, it becomes the Taylor Highway.
The Sixty Mile River is a tributary of the Yukon River. The highest point of the Top Of The World Highway offers splendid perspectives on its valley below. From there, a track starting as a fairly wide path down the valley gradually narrows and gets so muddy that it made us turn back. A bedrock of fractured quartzite and schist in some areas, schist and limestone in others, are still actively being mined for gold.
The Top Of The World Highway crosses lands which have been returned to the local First Nation called Tr'ondek Hwech'in according to the Final Agreement of 1998 signed with the Canadian government. Descendants of the Han people who lived along the Yukon River, their name means "people of the river". Today, its population centers mostly around Dawson City.
The Top of the World Highway wanders around the high points of a series of ridges far above treeline, offering spectacular open views as far as the eye can see. It puts on its finest show shortly after the first hard frosts arrive, usually around mid-August. The hills are then painted with colors so brilliant that they seem almost unreal, especially when the blueberry bushes turn this vivid shade of red. For us, seeing it under a storm of snow flurries on the last day of August made it quite surreal!
Driving down the Top of the World Highway toward Dawson City, the only access to Dawson City is by a short ferry trip across the Yukon River. This makes for a perfect introduction to its origin: a good landing spot at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, capable of harboring the river boats which would bring gold seekers and supplies to the area. In the months following the summer of 1896 when gold was discovered nearby, 60,000 people had passed through Seattle and Alaska's Chilkoot and White Passes on their way to the Klondike, thus making it one of the most populated areas in Northwest Canada and Dawson, the largest city west of Winnipeg. By 1904, Dawson's population of 40,000 was in line with its gold production, the country's largest and the fourth in the world. As a result and along with its new status of capital city, Dawson was gentrified through a collection of impressive public buildings such as the Commissioner's Residence, the Territorial Administration Building or the Federal Reserve still standing today. But a view down Dawson City's Second Avenue renders a more prosaic image of the town center, its colorful facades reflecting a different version of its flamboyant past... So Dawson City might have lost to Whitehorse its role as Yukon capital city since 1953 but it has preserved its charm intact for the many visitors passing through, most of them coming from or going to Alaska, and a much smaller proportion heading further north.
The Dempster Highway, which begins north of Dawson City, stretches its 732 km northbound to Inuvik, on the Arctic Ocean. It is made of gravel and shale with some clay sections which are slippery when wet. Flying gravel and broken windshields are a frequent occurrence, while gasoline supply points are scarce and far apart. From a geological standpoint, the Dempster Highway mostly passes through Beringia, the Bering land bridge believed to have joined the area covering present day Alaska and North West Yukon with Siberia at various times during the ice ages. As glaciers receded and sea levels dropped due to climate change, it turned into the large, ice-free grassy plain it still is today.
To illustrate the muddy and slippery road conditions on the Dempster Highway when wet, take a good look at the color of the rear of our truck camper, a perfect camouflage! If further proof be needed of the risk of getting stranded on wet dirt tracks in the Great North, we present here a track we took and a service truck which operates in the region. Rainy weather offers worthy compensation though for all boletus lovers, but the difficulty, once picked, is how to keep and store them while travelling. Easy! Just mount them as necklaces with some fishing line and a needle and dry them on your dashboard with the help of your vehicle's heating system, a technique we had developed in Arctic Europe and perfected in the Snowy Mountains of Australia!
Located on the traditional territory of the First Nation Trondek Hwechin, Tombstone Territorial Park was established in 1999 as a result of the Final Agreement signed with the Canadian authorities. Covering an area of 2,200 square km, it is situated north of Dawson City and is accessed by the Dempster Highway, whose first portion mostly follows the course of the North Klondike River, which is part of the Yukon River watershed flowing westwards emptying into the Bering Sea. The Dempster Highway starts at an elevation under 500 meters, with white and black spruce, balsam poplar and trembling aspen covering much of the surrounding landscape. It then gradually rises through the sloping fringes of the North Klondike Range to the west of the highway. The highway then leads to the Ogilvie Mountains protected in the park, which derive their name from that of the first surveyor of the area, William Ogilvie. If the highest summit within the range is Mount Frank Rae at 2,362 m (7,749 ft), the most iconic features of the park are the much photographed jagged granite peaks of the Tombstone Range, with Tombstone Mountain and Mount Monolith, here viewed from the Goldensides Mountain.
From Goldensides Mountain, eyes turning to the north of Tombstone Territorial Park look in the direction of the Blackstone Uplands, a landscape of high rolling lands covered in willow and birch shrubs. The name refers to the stone found along the banks of the Blackstone River flowing through before joining with the Ogilvie River further north.
Evidence of the Tombstone Range glacial history can be pointed out in the steep walled ridges, triangular-shaped peaks and U-shaped valleys such as the Hart Valley pictured here from Foxy Creek. Other characteristic evidence of the glaciers that cloaked these mountains until 12,000 years ago are the visible mounds of rubble and abundant gravel from moraines transported out of the mountains by ice and runoff. Past North Fork Pass summit, which is the highest point on the Dempster Highway at
1,400 m and a continental divide, the rivers flow into the Beaufort Sea via the Mackenzie River system. Small isolated stands of spruce trees are now scattered, like islands of trees in a sea of tundra, as we enter a land of near-continuous permafrost, a feature here located hundreds of kilometers further south than most high Arctic tundra areas of the world.
This landscape of tundra seen from Foxy Creek has been unchanged for thousands of years, insulated by a thick layer of moss and lichens, with the exception of ponds such as this one. These thermokarsts or thaw ponds filled with fresh meltwater are a growing feature of the Arctic world due to a global increase in temperatures. Because of the thin active layer of soil — which thaws only during brief summers, —roots cannot penetrate deeply enough to support a tall tree. Vegetation has adapted to drying winds and the short growing season by staying low to the ground. We read somewhere that the word "tundra" was derived from the Finnish word "tunturi" which in reality means "mountain" and as such can hardly describe a treeless plain...
The colors along the Demspter Highway, and particularly on its portion bisecting Tombstone Territorial Park, put on their most spectacular appearance after the first hard frost announcing the end of summer, somewhere around mid-August. This is a fleeting display which is at its best only for a couple of weeks at most! Upon leaving the park though its northern end, we are also leaving behind the North Ogilvie Mountains.
Subranges of the Ogilvie Mountains located northwest of the Dempster Highway when heading north, the Nahoni Range followed by the Taiga Range consist mostly of light grey limestone. These long slopes of broken rock, steep rich crests adorned with palisades and spires were not sculpted by ice. They are the result of erosion by water and fracturing by frost, causing rubble to form long straight slopes. Once they reached their angle of repose, their condition has been fairly stable and lichens have slowly grown over their surface, giving it a dull brown colour. But where there has been recent removal of surface rock, the light-colored, lichen-free rock underneath is revealed, such as here.
The Ogilvie and Blackstone Rivers meet the Peel right before the road rises again from 500 m to 750 m and above, at a marker named "Seven-Mile Hill" in a landscape of grey rock and taiga turned golden in early fall. The Dempster Highway enters here the area of the Eagle Plain plateau, whose base is formed by nearly horizontal sandstone.
Although permafrost dominates all aspects of life and landform on the Dempster Highway, one of its most striking features is to be found in these "drunken" boreal forests. Due to their shallow root systems which spread on active soil, shifting as it freezes and thawing just below the shrub-insulated ground, the spruce trees are tossed around, seeming to stagger and lean. Mineral-bearing creeks and ponds add color as well as odor to the forest air.
This sculptural form is called an "inuksuk". A symbol of the Inuit and the North American Arctic, it acquired international recognition by the general public when it was chosen as the basis for the logo of the Winter Olympics held in Vancouver in 2010. Inuksuks are stone landmarks, often but not exclusively in human shape and composed of several rocks balanced on each other, and serve a variety of purposes. They can be navigational aids, with arms or legs pointing towards an open river channel, indicating a migration route or a good fishing or hunting spot. They can also mark a memorial for a beloved person or a place of power or respect and are always considered a welcoming sight by the tired traveler running into them at the end of a long day.
In the early morning fog, this inuksuk seems to be floating on the cliff edge, its arms open to point out the Continental Divide below: water on the right hand side of the road flowing to the Beaufort Sea, while courses on the left join the Bering Sea.
As the fog gradually clears, appears one of the best panoramas on the northern fringe of the Ogilvie Mountains, with the valley of the Ogilvie and Peel Rivers continuing eastward and passing between the south end of the Richardson Mountains and the Ogilvies. On the northern side spreads the Eagle Plain, gently rolling hills formed of undulating layers of sandstone and shale, incised by tributaries of the Ogilvie and Eagle rivers and lightly covered with forest and shrubs. The Eagle River has a slow-moving, meandering course which joins the Bell, becoming the Porcupine before flowing into the Yukon River west of the Alaska border.
The Dempster Highway is the only public highway in North America which crosses the Arctic Circle. Located about 400 km from its start, an interpretive display tells the story of how permafrost has been an important factor in the construction of the Demspter Highway, which was completed in 1979. Built mostly in winter, a thick blanket of rock and gravel was dumped on top of the moss-covered permafrost, with shrubs and other plants buried in it. This technique was meant to keep it stable by preventing the underlying permafrost from warming. This was supposed to compensate the fact that the roadbed would conduct more heat than its surrounding vegetation. In spite of these precautions, climate warming has created a growing challenge and as a result maintenance efforts have intensified in the last few years.
The Arctic circle display also features the summer months' Midnight Sun, during which vegetation explodes with life when spurred by long hours of sunlight, carpeting the ground with a colorful patchwork of shrubs and smaller plants. In the fall, lichens and berry bushes -- viewed here are blue and cow berries -- turn from green to an array of yellows and reds while the cottongrasses and sedges disperse their fluffy ends at the first frosts.
Approaching the Richardson Mountains, the Dempster Highway leaves the Yukon boreal forest one last time. Widely scattered groups of black spruce and tamarack trees are interspersed with dwarf birch and willow shrubs among the cottongrass, lichen and mosses. Mixed with the black and white spruces, the deciduous, brushneedled tamarack becomes abundant. As summer ends, their needles turn gold before dropping off by the first frosts. Named after Sir John Richardson, a naturalist who accompanied Sir John Franklin on his voyages of exploration to the Arctic, the Richardson Mountains are composed of dark shale and sandstone deposited in a deep basin about 450 million years ago. During the last 50 million years, this mountain range was formed when tectonic forces caused the sedimentary rocks to buckle and uplift between faults. Together with the British Mountains, the Richardson Mountains form a unique eco-region containing the largest extent of unglaciated mountain ranges in Canada. The climate being simply too dry here for glacial formation, this mountain range stopped the tip of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the last ice age, marking the eastern edge of the unglaciated area.
One of the largest herds of barren-ground caribou called Porcupine caribou migrate through this area, heading 300 km to the northwest to the Beaufort Sea coastline in the spring, and returning to the Dempster Highway region in the late summer or early fall, when they use the mountain ridges to maximize wind exposure and gain relief from biting insects. During the summer months they eat greenery, such as sedges, horsetails, herbs and deciduous shrubs, while in the winter time they use their hooves to dig in shallow snow and reach for lichens. Even during the months when caribou are absent from this area, many signs of their presence can easily be identified in the tundra: old tracks in muddy spots along the road edge, chunks of caribou skin, old droppings, bones or shed antlers such as here.
Although the Richardson Mountains are characterized by steep V-shaped valleys in their higher ranges, they feature gently sloping pediments where the valleys are broader as viewed here from Wright Pass. These pediment terraces, which have been partly glaciated by the Laurentide Ice Sheet, present a mottled texture on their slopes characteristic of solifluction, a periglacial landform due to the sliding of an active layer over underlying permafrost. The solifluction lobes, shaped like rolls several meters wide and 2 meters high, are composed of a mix of mineral soil, organic matter and rock fragments. Wright Pass marks the border between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories and the entry to Gwichin First Nation territory.
On the other side of Wright Pass, the Dempster Highway cruises through the gorge and crosses the North Vittrekwa River, one of the last hilly landscapes before descending towards the Mackenzie River Delta and entering the region of the Mackenzie Lowlands.
Replacing the ice bridge in service from November to late April, the cable ferry is the only way to cross the Peel River and continue northbound from June to about mid-October. Twice a year during the spring breakup and fall freezeup, the Dempster Highway is simply closed for about two weeks. This site is nicknamed "Eight Mile" by the locals in reference to its distance from the township of Fort McPherson. The Peel River flows from the Mackenzie and Richardson Mountains through its tributaries — the Snake, Blackstone, Bonnet Plume, Hart, Wind and Ogilvie Rivers.
737 km after having started our journey on the Dempster Highway, this sign welcomed us to Inuvik, "the living place" in Inuvialuit language. It is located less than 100 km south of the Arctic Ocean which in winter can be reached by ice road across the Mackenzie Delta. Canada's largest community north of the Arctic Circle -- home to about 3,500 people -- Inuvik was founded in 1957.
Perhaps Inuvik's most emblematic building is this igloo church which was completed in 1960. Because of permafrost, Inuvik struggles with one of the worst construction conditions in the world. To cope with the effects of ground shifting, most buildings sit above ground on pilings made of wood or steel posts which were drilled through the active layer and into the permanent permafrost layer underneath. The open space between the earth and the building floor creates a ventilation designed to evacuate heat away from the ground. Another interesting feature of this Arctic town is its "utilidor system", a network of pipes installed above ground to prevent the heat given off by water and sewer pipes from melting the active layer of permafrost which would otherwise cause slumping if these lines were underground.
Moose Creek Lodge is located south of McQuesten on the portion of the North Klondike-Highway 2 running between the junction with the Dempster Highway and that of the Silver Trail. It is one of the most famous roadhouses of the Great North, with its funky decor composed of burl and log sculptures, antique gas pumps and other oddities.
The Silver Trail, or Yukon Highway 11, is a dead-end spur and interesting side-trip off the North Klondike Highway for the history inclined. Many geographical names refer not to the early prospectors who arrived in the area in the late 1880's but to the investors who provided them with supplies. For instance, the Mayo River viewed here, along with Mayo Lake and the town of Mayo, were named after Alfred Mayo, a long-standing partner in trade of the very successful Jack McQuesten.
North of the mining hub town of Mayo, the mysterious waters of Halfway Lake lie on both sides of the road. Their ridge is composed of moraine deposited by a glacier as it retreated north towards the valley of the McQuesten River.
At an elevation of 1,839 meters, Mount Haldane towers over the Stewart Plateau. Except for small alpine glaciers on the higher peaks and glaciers in valleys, the most recent Pleistocene glaciation did not cover much of the area. As a result, outcrop is scarce except on ridge tops and along creek and stream gullies. The first recorded exploration activity on Mount Haldane took place at the turn of the 20th century, when silver was discovered on what is now referred to by geologists as the Mount Haldane Vein Fault System, which is part of the McQuesten Mineral Belt.
The McQuesten River is a tributary of the Stewart River, flowing west to join with the Yukon River. Its calm open waters make it a popular and easy canoeing destination. It is named after Jack McQuesten, who was nicknamed "the Father of the Yukon". The most successful of the Yukon River traders, in fact a multi-millionnaire by the end of the 1800's, he also left his name to a small settlement located on the North Klondike Highway, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers where he had founded a trading post in the 1875's, six miles from the future site of Dawson City.
The less than 300 people community of Pelly Crossing lies where the North Klondike Highway intersects with the Pelly River. Robert Campbell had established Fort Selkirk in 1848 as a trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company at the nearby confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers on the site of a fishing and trading camp long used by the natives. First referred to as "Gens des bois" ("People of the Forest" in French), it is the fort that left its name to the local band of Northern Tutchone, the Selkirk people. With the construction of the Klondike Highway in the 1950's, the sternwheelers ceased to run on the Yukon River, the store at Fort Selkirk closed, and the Selkirk people gradually relocated to Pelly Crossing. Big Johnathan House is a replica of a Fort Selkirk cache used today as a cultural center displaying artefacts relating the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Selkirk people.
The community of Ross River is located near the junction of the Campbell Highway and the Canol Road, across from the Campbell River. Originally a First Nations people seasonal fishing and hunting camp, a trading post opened near the present location in the early 1900's to supply prospecting and mining activities in the area. In the early 1940's, the American army built the Canol Pipeline to connect Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories to Whitehorse, and the accompanying Canol Road. This vehicle carcass, a souvenir from WWII, welcomes visitors to the town.
The Campbell Highway, on its segment between Ross River and Watson Lake, offers spectacular views on the nearly 100 km-long Logan Range, a long granite intrusion of pinnacles rising above 1,500 meters in the middle of the rolling limestone hills of the Mackenzie Mountains. The wet weather coming from the west has created a series of interconnected icefields along the western flanks of the range.
If the origin of the Watson Lake sign-post forest connects it to the history of the construction of the Alaska Highway -- it was started by a homesick GI in 1942 who planted here a roadsign with the name of his hometown -- it has long since taken on a life of its own and grown into an impressive sight: nearly 75,000 in 2009 and the forest reportedly grows with about 2,000 added each year by visitors!