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The Alsek River

The Alsek is a mighty river, and not one to be challenged by the faint of heart. It's fed by the massive glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park. Here lies an incredible landscape of towering mountains, active glaciers and broad valleys. The Alsek is one of the park's most precious jewels. Like a lot of places in the Yukon, it had many names. Its native name was first reported by Russian explorers in 1825. As early as 1786, a French explorer, LaPerouse, called it the Riviere du Behring. In 1886, Frederick Schwatka named it the Jones River after one of his expedition's sponsors. Schwatka had a habit of honoring those who paid his way and seldom cared if a geographical feature had another name. At one time, the U.S. geographical survey called it the Harrison River after a U.S. president. The Canadian government finally got its act together and officially restored the original name, Alsek, in 1891.

From its origin as a meandering stream at the confluence of the Kaskawulsh, Dust and Dezadeash rivers, the Alsek flows for 250 km across the Yukon, the northern top of British Columbia and the Alaskan panhandle, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay in Alaska. This is a region of big-water rapids, canyons, glaciers and floating icebergs. On its way through the park, the river passes through a remote wilderness area, an undisturbed natural habitat for species of both Pacific Coast and Arctic plant life. The largest population of Grizzly bears in the world lives here.

The Alsek River contains many significant natural features which have resulted from the action of water, wind and glaciers on the landscape. Many areas of exceptional natural beauty and some of Canada's most important northern ecosystems are found here. The Lowell Glacier, one of the largest in the world, forms a large section of the Alsek Valley wall and calves, with tremendous force, into the Alsek below.

Small numbers of native people have inhabited the Kluane region for perhaps 10,000 years. Ancestors of the Southern Tutchone arrived in the vicinity about 4,500 years ago.

Yukon History Hougengroup Alsek River
Alsek River, as seen from summit of Mt. Kelvin 5000 ft. above it, July 3 1898.
Yukon Archives. Joseph B. Tyrrell fonds, #27.
Click for larger view.

Some of the traditional hunting, fishing and trading camps, such as the village of Klukshu, just outside the park, have been used for more than 1,000 years. In the 1890's, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the first white men came into the area from the south, travelling over the Dalton Trail to Dalton Post and other points north. Some stayed to prospect and mine the Kluane Ranges for a period at the beginning of the century.

In 1986, a 90-kilometer section of the Alsek River was designated a Canadian Heritage River. A plaque commemorating the dedication is located in Haines Junction.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin



Expo '86

It was a magical time - a time during the endless Vancouver summer to showcase the sights, sounds and pleasures of the Yukon. They called it Expo '86, a six-month world fair about transportation and communications. It featured exhibits from fifty-four countries and countless corporations.

Expo '86 was opened by Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on May 2, 1986. The largest single-day attendance was a whopping 341,806 on Sunday, October 12.

As someone lucky enough to spend time on the False Creek fair grounds, I can say the Yukon Pavilion was among the most colourful and accessible. The front of the dramatic Yukon Pavilion formed an open-air theatre with a brilliant 3-D northern sky backdrop designed by famed Yukon artist Ted Harrison and looking every bit like a colourful Harrison painting.

Mirrored panels helped capture the magical qualities of the Northern Lights. Surrounded by artefacts from the Klondike Gold Rush, the entranceway also served as a stage for entertainers.

Overhead hung a replica of the sister plane to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. The bush plane "Queen of the Yukon", owned by aviation pioneer Clyde Wann, was a striking symbol of the role played by aircraft in opening up the Yukon.

Inside, the Yukon's transportation story unfolded. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 came alive with the tales of the men and women who laboured to locate the gold in the valley of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks. Visitors could pan for gold nuggets and, as I did, obtain a passport to take part in the Great Yukon Treasure hunt of 1986. Nope, I did not find the treasure, but that's another story.

Exhibits also showed the awesome story of building the Alaska Highway. The pavilion's main attraction was a stunning eighteen projector audio-visual show. From the ice-covered peaks of Kluane National Park to the wilderness of Dempster Highway, the Yukon's history and natural splendours unfolded to the delight of countless thousands of potential Yukon visitors.

The Yukon's native culture and history was highlighted through ancient artefacts from Old Crow. Also on display were traditional and modern dog sleds, including high-tech, long-distance racing sleds.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Galloping glaciers

News that glaciers in Greenland are surging from their landlocked base to the sea brings to mind a similar phenomenon that has shaped the ice fields in the St. Elias Mountains. The Steele, Hubbard and Grand Pacific are glaciers known for erratic behavior.

From its source at Mount Logan in the Yukon, the Hubbard Glacier extends 76 miles to the sea, at Yukutat Bay in Alaska. In 1986 it advanced so rapidly that it trapped seals, porpoises, and other marine animals when a new lake was formed by the blockage of the bay. Hubbard’s surge was unprecedented in modern times, and is still underway. The glacier had been moving slowly for years. Now scientists say its current surge pattern was set off by the movement of other nearby glaciers. The Steele glacier is located on the north side of Mount Steele in the Yukon. It galloped for several months in 1966, and moved more than 1.5 billion tonnes of ice at about 50 feet a day. The Lowell is another surging glacier which usually ends at the edge of the Alsek river. Ice burgs calving off the glacier tumble into a wide spot in the river called Lowell lake. But every so often this glacier rushes forward dramatically. In the distant past it completely blocked the Alsek River, creating a massive glacial lake. In 1852 Lake Alsek was 100km long and about 100 metres deep, making it bigger than Lake Kluane. When the ice dam finally broke, it sent a wall of water down the Alsek River. Native stories tell of a group of people camped at the confluence of the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers who were drowned in the flood. If the town of Haines Junction had existed back then, it would have been either under water, or people living there would have had lakefront property. About 15km of the Alaska Highway would also have been submerged.

Studies have shown that surging glaciers seem to go for regular gallops regardless of whether the climate is cooling or warming. Surging, or for that matter receding, glaciers may also have geopolitical repercussions. For example, in the 1960s, the 25 mile long Grand Pacific Glacier, which flows into tar inlet just 70 miles from Skagway, began receding almost far enough to put its nose in British Columbia. I recall a local bush pilot and entrepreneur Leo Proctor stirring up a lot of excitement in the local business community by pointing out that if the glacier receded into B.C., Canada would then be able to claim a freshwater port in the Alaskan panhandle. At the moment the Grand Pacific still ends in Alaskan territory, but who knows what the future holds…


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin