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Yukon River

Route of the Gold Rush

Original Gwich'in name: Yukon meaning 'great river'
Current official name: Yukon, from the Gwich'in original
Source: Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia
Mouth: Bering Sea at St. Michael, Alaska
Direction of flow: northwest
Length : 3,185 kilometres
Main Characteristic: aboriginal resource and Gold Rush route

More on the Yukon River:
Yukon River:
Route of the Gold Rush

North to Alaska:
War brings a highway to the Yukon

Bonanza - The quest for Klondike gold

Staking a Claim:
A First Nation's right to the land

Cold Rush:
Stampede up the frozen Chilkoot Trail

Scaling Fish:
Salmon spawners get over a dam

Heal and Purify:
A First Nation recovers from cultural suppression

Spreading the Word:
Yukon storytelling tradition welcomes the world

Losing Track:
The White Pass and Yukon Route

Of all Canada's great rivers, the Yukon is the one that has most retained its natural glory, while still being visibly marked by great human events.

The Yukon's wide valley descends gently from the mountains of northern British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory and across Alaska to the Bering Sea. Boats can navigate all the way from the Alaskan coast to Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory.

The valley of the Yukon is believed by some anthropologists to have been the main immigration route for North America's first human inhabitants. According to this theory, the ancestors of today's aboriginal peoples arrived across a now-submerged isthmus joining present-day Alaska with Russia's Siberia. Some aboriginals dispute this theory and believe in their own traditional teachings that their ancestors originated in North America.

In 1896 gold was discovered in a stream feeding the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon. Word spread around the world and would-be prospectors rushed to the Yukon River valley in what was called the Klondike Stampede.

The Klondike Stampede of 1897 was a severe shock to the cultural and physical health of the Yukon First Nations. Earlier contact with outsiders had been very limited and Yukon Native peoples had not yet suffered the epidemics of European diseases and addictions to tobacco and alcohol that had already devastated Natives living further south.

The rush to the goldfields caused the very rapid development of a transportation system in the Yukon. Seeing an eager market in the Stampeders struggling up the Chilkoot Pass towards the Yukon headwaters in British Columbia, investors rushed to build a narrow- gauge from the Alaskan port of Skagway to the heart of the Yukon Territory.

The White Pass and Yukon Route reached Whitehorse in 1900, two years after the gold rush ended. But the end of the gold rush was just the start of industrial mining in the Yukon and the railway company prospered.

Mining equipment and other freight taken by train to Whitehorse were still a long way from the goldfields radiating out from Dawson City.

To move people and freight from Whitehorse to Dawson City, the railway company built a fleet of steam-powered, sternwheeler boats. These tall, white riverboats were similar to those made famous on the Mississippi River in the United States.

The steamboats burned tremendous amounts of wood to produce the steam that powered their wide, shallow paddlewheels. At their peak, about 200 sternwheelers were running on the Yukon River. Wood camps were set up every 50 kilometres along the river, employing many woodcutters who were aboriginal peoples.

The White Pass and Yukon network of narrow-gauge steam trains and sternwheeler riverboats continued to be the only practical way to move goods into the Yukon until World War II. Fearing an invasion of Alaska by their enemy, the Japanese, the United States then decided to build an inland road that would be safe from attack by warships.

Thousands of Americans bulldozed a rough highway from northern Alberta, through the Yukon, into Alaska. The United States Army pushed the Alaska Highway into the Yukon in 1942, crossing the Yukon River at Whitehorse. For many aboriginal communities along the route, this was their first contact with diseases against which they had no immunities. Measles, dysentery, jaundice, tonsillitis and meningitis invaded the aboriginal population.

To supply their Alaskan defences with gasoline, the Americans also built an oil refinery at Whitehorse and a pipeline over the mountains to oil wells at Norman Wells, on the neighbouring Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories.

Peace ended the need for a local source of gas. The pipeline and refinery operated for less than a year. Today, the route of the abandoned Canol pipeline is now overgrown with vegetation and provides a challenging trail for strong, experienced backpackers.

Meanwhile, the Yukon continued to be the last waterway in North America whose riverside settlements depended on the proud sternwheelers. Once an all-weather highway linked Whitehorse and Dawson City in 1955, the riverboats were forced out of business.

Today, most of the river traffic on the Yukon is for pleasure. Canoeists come from all over North America and may parts of the world to enjoy the Yukon River. Tourism has replaced mining as the Yukon's most important business.

Today, outside of Whitehorse and Dawson City, the banks of the Yukon are home to aboriginal communities gradually recovering ownership of land, self-reliance, health, and protection of the natural environment. While non-Natives still dominate government, police, and courts, the concerns of Natives are no longer simply ignored.

Concern for the health of the Yukon River and the territory's environment is shared by Yukoners of every origin to an extent unmatched anywhere else in Canada. The economic and cultural needs of nearly all Yukoners now depends upon the river's health and beauty.

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