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 The trail, quickly destroyed because of overuse, had ultimately been replaced by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad whose construction, financed by British investors, had commenced in May of 1898 and had extended to the White Pass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 Deck installation Cherry Hill NJ 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.