Tag Archives: Yukon

The opening of the Al-Can

The first truck through, November 1942

The anniversary of the first truck to travel the Alaska Highway was on Saturday, 20 November. The truck was the first to drive from Dawson to Whitehorse, and then from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. In 1942, that must have been one chilly ride.

The Alaska Highway Guide; 1948

In 1948, The Alaska Highway Guide was published, which listed the scant accommodations and services along the route. The Milepost, which today is the bible of Al-Can travel, would be published for the first time in 1949.


Frozen Load

October is American Archives Month:

October 1942

The building of the Alaska Highway. Even in October, the load of dirt has frozen to the bed of the dump truck.

Photo is from the National Archives


The Gold Fields of 1897

Map source: University of Alaska Archives

An interesting map, showing the two routes into the “Klondyke” Gold Fields of “British America” and the “40 Mile” Region in Alaska. One could go overland via the Chilkoot Trail, or by water using the “Youkon” River.

The only established community marked on the map along the Yukon River within Interior Alaska was Fort Yukon, which started as a trading post under the Hudson Bay Company.

Circle City was a mining town that popped up with the discovery of gold in Birch Creek, which is a great float, by the way. Circle, was so named, because the miners thought they were on the Arctic Circle, but they were actually about 50 miles south. Circle City was a major jumping off point for both miners and supplies that had come up the Yukon and were heading out to the gold camps.

Intriguing that Dyea makes the map, but Skagway is left off. Dyea was the start of the Chilkoot Trail, and at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, was a thriving community with a large wharf. Today, only a few pilings are left of the wharf, and minimal signs of any structures, although it is home to the “Slide Cemetery”. Regardless, “Soapy” Smith would not be impressed with Skagway being MIA. Stampeders would hike the trail over the pass into Canada from Dyea to Lake Bennett. Most would then build boats to carry them to the famed Lake Lebarge and finally the Yukon River. All for the lure of gold.


An actual thunderstorm

Image from the National Weather Service – Fairbanks

An honest to goodness thunderstorm is rather rare in Alaska. We get lightning by the bolt load, but nothing like a midwestern U.S. hill shaker. We just do not have the humidity to drive impressive, tornado birthing, cells. Still, what developed just across the northern bank of the Yukon River near Beaver, AK actually brought out the official Severe Thunderstorm Warning call from the Fairbanks office of the National Weather Service on Wednesday evening.

It was noted that it has been over two years since the NWS from Anchorage or Juneau has issued such a warning. Who knew such competition existed within the NWS?

Definitely not a normal occurrence.

On another note: Last night was the final night of the year for a post midnight sunset in Fairbanks. Summer is going by so fast.


Chum lookin’ Glum

Salmon strips

We already knew that the King Salmon run for the Yukon River was going to be dismal, but now word is coming out that the chum run looks to be equally bleak. This is a real blow to subsistence users throughout the Yukon basin and all its tributaries.

At the end of June, only 31,000 chum salmon had passed the Pilot Station sonar. The historic average for that date is 500,000 chum salmon. The count is the lowest on record.

Not surprisingly, the Chinook and chum salmon fisheries have been closed throughout the Yukon River system due to the low returns.


Steamer Yukon

The steamer Yukon

The steamboat Yukon was the first paddlewheeler to venture up the Yukon River. It was July 5, 1869, shortly after the Alaska Territory was bought by the United States from Russia. In part, the trip was a reconnaissance mission, but it was also a supply mission for the Alaska Commercial Company, which took over the trade route from the Hudson Bay Company.

By 1885, when gold was discovered on the Fortymile River, there were three steamers working the river. With the discovery of gold in the Klondike, as many as 100 steamers entered the Yukon River at St Michael to make the trip to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.


Burning Increase

Graphic credit: IARC

It may seem like an odd time to think of the fire season here in Alaska. After all, we officially had 29 inches of snowpack at the end of March, and have been adding to that steadily during this first week of April.

In a state that boasts some of the finest summers on this planet, one thing that can ruin a summer in a hurry is a bad wildfire year. Alaska has been trending upward in acres burned over the past 60 years. From 1.6% of the state seeing wildfires during the decade of 1961-1970, to 3.1% of the state going up in smoke in the most recent decade.

2004 was the worst year on record with 6.6 million acres burned. It was a nasty summer here in the Interior. I had hiked the Chilkoot Trail at the end of June, and had made it back to Skagway in time for July 4th, only to find out the embers had really hit the fan. Wildfires were everywhere between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in the Yukon. In Skagway, I called my Dad to tell him not to visit in a few days, because the smoke was so bad, but he came up anyway. We sat on my deck one evening and watched lightning start a fire a couple of valleys over. The next morning air tankers were dumping water over the fresh fire. We climbed to the ridge top in the evening to see a wall of flame across the valley floor.

I couldn’t count the number of dry thunderstorms we saw that summer. I remember standing out on my deck at 2am one morning, lightning was flashing down on the hills all around me, but all I could see was an eerie glow in the thick smoke, followed by the thunder crashing down, rolling across the land. If a fire had started close by, I would never know until the flames were roaring upon the cabin. The smoke was so thick that visibility was down to mere feet.


STR White Horse

Flashback Film Friday:

STR White Horse in Five Fingers Rapids, YT, circa 1904; Photo by Hamacher & Doody

The sternwheeler White Horse was built in 1901, and ran the Yukon River for 54 years. She had a length of 167 feet, a beam of 34.5 feet, and a gross tonnage of 986.65 tons. She accommodated 64 people.

The White Horse had an interesting history. Declared a “plague ship” in 1902, due to a 2nd Class passenger being suspected of having small pox. The sternwheeler was quarantined for 16 days, and the disease did not appear, so she returned to service.

In 1935, the White Horse was sent to rescue the passengers of the STR Yukon, which had been severely damaged by ice on the infamous Lake Labarge. Aircraft from the British Yukon Navigation Company, guided the White Horse through the ice to the beached Yukon.

In 1916, the White Horse took her first venture into the pure tourist trade, by making one of many Midnight Sun runs to Fort Yukon. The trips were a huge hit at the time.

The STR’s Casca & White Horse

The once proud White Horse came to a fiery end. She was passed up for restoration in 1955 in favor of the STR Klondike, which can still be seen in Whitehorse, YT. She was sold in 1960 along with the STR Casca and two other ships to the Canadian Government, but no restoration was attempted, other than to put them behind a chain link fence.

On 20 June 1974, both the White Horse & Casca caught fire in dry dock, and burned down to the gravel bed. No cause of the fire has ever been officially stated.

The sternwheeler White Horse

Sources: Alaska State Library, University of Alaska, CBC.CA


The shrinking of Alaska’s salmon

Salmon returning home to spawn

Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.

Graph credit: University of Alaska – Fairbanks

The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.

The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.

At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.

Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.

There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.

Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.

Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner


It’s Bat Week

Credit: National Park Service

Believe it or not, Alaska has seven species of bat. The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) is the most common. At only 3 to 4-1/2″ long, and a wingspan of 8-9″, the Little Brown Bat, lives up to its name.

Bats are not well studied in Alaska. Even the lifespan of the Little Brown Bat in the state is unknown, although they seem to average 10 years or so in the Yukon. One elderly Yukon Little Brown Bat was known to live 34 years.

Range of the Little Brown Bat

They range from the Yukon River south throughout Alaska. The total population is not known, although it is not thought to be large, considering the territory. I have seen bats sweep overhead at the darkest time of our summer days, but I can not say that it is a common experience. We certainly have the mosquitos to keep them well fed, however.

A Little Brown Bat

Bats usually hibernate from September until May, although it is not a continual hibernation. They seem to wake up on warmer days to hunt, then return to hibernation. They will roost in caves, but these are not common in Alaska’s Interior. Natural weather-protected areas will offer a place to roost, as will attics and out buildings. So the scratching one hears from the attic isn’t always a red squirrel in Alaska, but might be a Little Brown Bat.