The famous Whitehorse rapids, the toughest stretch of water on the Yukon river, lies beneath a large man-made lake. Schwatka Lake bears the name of an American army Lieutenant who named many of the geographical features along the entire length of the Yukon River.
Lt Frederick Schwatka was born in Galena, Illinois in 1849. He graduated from West Point military college in 1871 where he obtained degrees in law and medicine. But it seems Schwatka was born to be an explorer. In 1879, he led a Canadian expedition to the Arctic in search of the missing Franklin expedition.
Like many others who searched for Franklin, Schwatka was unsuccessful. But it established his reputation. Thus in 1883, he was put in charge of an American expedition to map and name the entire Yukon river system. The Canadian government was not aware of the expedition and Schwatka was probably not aware that much of the region was in fact Canadian territory.
He and his party of American military personnel climbed the Chilkoot and headed down the string of lakes into the Yukon River system making fairly accurate maps of the region. Schwatka seemed to realize not only the value of publicity but also the need to honour important Americans of his day. Thus he named and renamed many of the geographical features... like Miles Canyon which he named after his boss, General Nelson Miles.
The maps produced during this three-year long expedition were the best of the day until they were updated by a Canadian Geographical survey in 1888 under George Dawson. Schwatka quickly published lively accounts of his work, often emphasizing the hardships of his journey.
Frederick Schwatka died in Portland Oregon in 1892. In 1959, the newly built Whitehorse power dam created a large lake where the famed Whitehorse rapids once flowed. It was named Schwatka Lake.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin