The Yukon River, at about 2000 miles, is one of the world’s longest rivers. It is also one of the most important salmon-breeding rivers. Each year Chinook or King salmon return to spawn in the river’s tributaries such as Michie, Wolf and other creeks near Whitehorse. Once the eggs hatch and the fish grow, they begin an incredible journey.
When juvenile salmon head down the Yukon River in the spring, they face a frightening ordeal. First, many have to pass through Marsh Lake, home to hungry pike. Then in the river itself, grayling, gulls, and more pike feast on the young fish.
These natural hazards make the journey tough enough, but the trip through or around the Whitehorse Hydro dam is daunting. The fish either go through the turbines over the spillway or through the fish ladder. It’s a crapshoot. About 30 percent of the salmon don’t make it. Those that survive the dam face a long and perilous trip down the entire length of the Yukon River.
Until 1959, the Yukon was a free-flowing river from its headwaters to the Bering Sea. The salmon had a relatively easy time swimming upstream and through the Whitehorse Rapids to spawn. The same can be said for the journey back to the sea.
That changed when the Whitehorse dam was completed in 1959. To help the fish reach the spawning creeks, the Whitehorse fishway was built beside the dam. Water from the fishway attracts the fish to the ladder. Once entering the fishway, the salmon jump over partitions which separate the steps that make up the ladder.
About halfway up, the fish enter a large chamber where their size and sex are recorded by fishway staff. A number of salmon are removed for use at the Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery.
The rest are removed from the viewing tank with nets and placed in the upper section of the fishway to complete their climb over the dam. By the time the salmon reach the fishway, they are in pretty rough shape. They have spent three months swimming up the Yukon without eating. The fish are exhausted with just enough energy left to carve nests in the gravel and spawn. Then, they die - but the young will hatch to carry on the historic cycle.
In 1983 and 1984, a salmon transplant program was started at the Whitehorse Fish Hatchery to increase the stocks. Each summer, about thirty percent of the fish swimming through the Whitehorse fish ladder are harvested and taken to the nearby hatchery.
There, eggs are squeezed from the females, while sperm is squeezed from the males.
The eggs are fertilized and hatched artificially in tanks. The following spring the young fish are released into the creeks upstream from Whitehorse. Artificial hatching of salmon eggs is needed to make up for the loss of naturally hatched fry that are killed by the turbines of the power plant as they try to make their way downstream to the sea.
Still, not many salmon hatched or released upstream of the dam ever make it back to their Yukon home after spending their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean. Most will be eaten by other fish or taken at sea by commercial fishers. Some years, only 150 salmon return to the fishway.
The biggest return since the dam was built was in 1996, when nearly 3000 salmon were counted. Biologists speculate that the large return was because the fish managed to escape the deep-sea fishing boats by returning two weeks sooner than expected that year.
But there are always some salmon coming home to their Yukon creeks. So, if you live permanently in Whitehorse, be a tourist. Take a trip to the Whitehorse fish ladder and hatchery and see how man and nature are trying to get along.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. They are four of the famous eight reindeer that take Santa Claus on his appointed rounds on Christmas Eve. But in the Yukon, when Santa came early, it was not always by sleigh and reindeer.
In the early 1950s, Hougen’s department store was growing and Santa Claus was going to play a big role - at least during the Christmas season. So during the weekends before Christmas, Santa would magically appear at the store where he’d listen to Yukon youngsters express their endless lists of coveted Christmas gifts.
By the mid-fifties, the White Pass train was still very much a part of the Whitehorse scene. So Rolf Hougen decided that Santa should arrive in town in a unique Yukon way - by train. The exciting event began at McRae, where the train – packed with kids it had picked up at the White Pass station in Whitehorse -- picked up Santa Claus, who emerged from the bush.
Then, on the journey from McRae back to town, Santa walked up and down the aisle, chatting with the carefree kids, while handing out candy and small gifts. When the train arrived in Whitehorse, a parade formed at the station featuring the Midnight Sun Pipe Band, air cadets, clowns, elves and kids – all marching in frantic fashion to Hougen's department store. Of course, there were some years when the pipe band could not perform - with Yukon December weather freezing their pipes.
Roy Minter, the creative public relations genius for White Pass, made sure the trains ran on time and that the price was right even though Hougen’s did pay part of the cost of running the train.
One year, it was too cold and the train could not get through. So instead of hiring Rudolph, with his bright red nose, to collect Santa, Hougen's arranged for jolly old St. Nick to be picked up by helicopter and delivered to the parking lot behind the store.
Another time, the helicopter landed on Main Street. The annual event was a highlight of the winter season and the fond memory is deeply ingrained in the minds of youngsters who took part. Over the years, Santa arrived at the department store by many different modes of transport - snowmobile, convertible car, four wheelers, and the like. A couple times he even arrived in a sleigh pulled by real reindeer, thanks to the reindeer farm on the Mayo Road.
Through the years, Santa Claus continued to arrive in Whitehorse in late November or early December, until the 1990s when Santa breakfasts were held at the Hougen's coffee shop. However, the event grew too big, and was eventually hosted by Hougen's in the Travelodge.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
On January 3rd, 1959, Alaska officially became the 49th state in the Union. Like the continuing quest for Yukon autonomy, the road to Alaskan statehood had been long and winding. The United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars.
Alaska came into international prominence in 1898 when news of the Klondike gold strike flashed around the world. Of the thousands of gold seekers who trekked to the Yukon gold fields, most were American and almost all thought they were going to Alaska. Newspaper coverage of the day did little to dissuade the notion.
World War II brought further attention to Alaska when the U.S. decided it needed an all-weather land link to its far-off territory - a link that could only be made with a roadway through Canada. Thus, the Alaska Highway was built in short order.
After the war, the Alaskan population fell to less than one hundred thousand, but soon the "Cold War" with Russia resulted in yet another military buildup. The war years and the post-war troubles with the Russians irrevocably changed Alaska.
Southern newspapers soon began to write of Alaska as a "feudal barony" where the absentee-owned corporations left next to nothing behind in the form of social and economic benefits–except a "looted land." The anti-statehood faction in Alaska held a strong grip and might have squelched the quest for statehood were it not for two men - Governor Ernest Gruening and Territorial delegate Bob Bartlett.
Both argued against the lack of decent roads, airfields, hospitals, and dependable transportation at reasonable cost. They pointed out that the issue of aboriginal rights had not been settled. Therefore, homesteaders were not legally able to buy land from the federal government. The quest for statehood was on in ernest.
Alaska residents sent Christmas cards to friends in "the southern 48" which urged: "Make Alaskans’ future bright, Ask your Senator for statehood, And start the New Year right." After six days of debate, on June 30th, 1958, the United States Senate voted 64-20 to make Alaska the 49th state. The Anchorage Times summed up the news with the banner headline in letters six-and-a-half inches high. The newspaper proclaimed: "WE'RE IN."
In Skagway, residents paraded with buttons that read "Bigger than Texas, better than California--God's Country." The creation of the state of Alaska became official on January 3rd, 1959, when a ratification vote attracted the largest voter turnout in the history of the territory and won by a margin of five-to-one for statehood.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
1959 was quite the year. Tumultuous some might say. In January, Alaska became the 49th U.S. state. In February, a chartered plane carrying Buddy Holly crashed in an Iowa snowstorm. It was, to quote song writer Don McLean, "the day the music died."
In March, the 50’s final fad featured the Barbie doll. In April, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to ocean-going ships. In May, Volvo received a patent on a three-point seat belt which safety experts called the most significant invention in the history of the automobile.
In June, Queen Elizabeth began a cross-country tour of Canada with the Yukon on the list of stops. While in Whitehorse, a Royal tummy ache turned out to be the biggest news of the tour. The forty-five day visit began in Newfoundland on June 18th. A month later, on Saturday, July 18, the Queen and Prince Phillip arrived at the Whitehorse airport on a flight from Vancouver.
Elizabeth, said the newspapers, looked pale and drawn - perhaps worn out from the rigours of the arduous tour. A few days later, the world would hear the real story. From the airport, the Royal couple were driven downtown in a brand new 1959 Ford Fairlane convertible that was owned by a Cassiar miner named Vincenzo Caparell. It took some quick police work by the Mounties to find the convertible after a last-minute royal request for such a vehicle.
Half an hour after her arrival, the Mounties, who always get their car, had found the Fairlane, the Army polished it up and it was ready at the airbase for the drive that included a ride over streets coated with a new topping of old oil, the material of choice to keep the dust down in the days before pavement.
The first stop was at the MacBride Museum where curator Bill MacBride told the Duke about Yukon wildlife while Mrs. MacBride told the Queen stories about the late Martha Louise Black. Patsy Henderson was there – resplendent in his leather leggings and beaded jacket -- regaling the Royals about that day in 1896 when - as a boy - he was with his uncle, Skookum Jim, and George Carmack when they discovered the gold that set the world ablaze.
Then it was off with Mayor Gordon Cameron on a walkabout to the nearby train station where White Pass railway engineer Charlie Rapuzzi unfurled the Royal standard and eased the diesel locomotive out of town for a quick trip to McCrae. The journey included a view of the Yukon River and the newly built hydro dam that had destroyed the historic Whitehorse Rapids.
When the thirty-five minute train ride ended, the Royal party returned to Whitehorse in Caparelli’s Fairlane. They were housed in the DOT’s VIP quarters at the airport, the house that now sits at Seventh Avenue and Alexander streets.
Chef for the Royal household was RCAF Cpl. Fred Johnstone from Moose Jaw, who had once been stationed in Whitehorse. Cpl. Johnstone prepared all meals in the VIP house, except for Saturday night when the power went off when a fuse blew in a nearby transformer. After cold cuts, Phillip went fishing and the Queen went to bed.
But the most important news of the Canadian tour leaked out next morning. A Sunday service was scheduled at the Old Log Church. At the appointed hour, the Queen was a no show. Prince Phillip arrived alone in the Royal convertible and read the lesson while Anglican bishop Tom Greenwood and a full house looked on. But why was the Queen not there?
Her personal physician announced to a galvanized press that she was exhausted from the grueling tour and had an upset stomach. Some news hounds were not buying the story and it was finally revealed that the Queen was suffering from morning sickness. She was pregnant with another Royal. They would name him Edward.
For the Queen, Sunday remained a day of rest while the Duke headed for Dawson in a four-engine de Haviland Heron military aircraft. Phillip piloted the plane to Dawson and back, taxing right up to the VIP house at the Whitehorse airport while the recovering Queen watched from a window.
It was the Queen Elizabeth’s only visit to the Yukon, though the Duke had been here five years earlier on a solo trip in 1954.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
Mining has been a crucial element in Yukon development since the gold rush. In the mid-1940s, mining men were reviewing the old Treadwell Yukon’s silver workings on Galena Hill near Mayo. What geologists found led to the opening of United Keno Hill Mines in 1947. As lead, silver and zinc prices skyrocketed by the mid-fifties, shipping the ore by the river boats from Mayo to Whitehorse and then by train to Skagway was hopelessly obsolete.
The mine was big. It could employ many Yukoners directly and even more in an indirect way. Thus the Federal and Territorial governments began a project that would put the river boats out of business. But it would create jobs even for a lowly high school student like me. A road from Whitehorse to Mayo was going to be built to help deliver Keno Hill ore to the White Pass Railway by truck. To do so would require three major bridges to cross the Yukon, the Stewart and the Pelly Rivers.
There was already a road of sorts to Mayo and Dawson but it relied on ferries and that would never do for a modern mining operation.
Thus work began on building the three bridges in 1958. By the summer of 1959, all were nearing completion and that’s where I come into the picture. The bridges needed to be painted. A Whitehorse contractor named Weldon Gorham got the contract. Since he knew my family, I was in line for a very good summer job. So for the summer of 1959, after graduating from Grade 12, I painted the Carmacks bridge. To be sure, I was not alone.
There were seven or eight of us teenagers - all acting like mountain goats dangling over the edge of the steel bridge, staring down into the fast flowing Yukon river many metres below. No safety gear. No rescue boats. No nothing except a paint can, a brush and orders to get the job done quickly,
But it paid fairly well and by end of the summer, the bridges were handling traffic even though the last of the three was not officially opened until September of 1960.
The Whitehorse-Mayo Road, the Yukon's original Highway 2, extended from Whitehorse to Stewart Crossing then turned northeast to Mayo, Elsa and Keno City.
Yukon's original Highway 3, the Dawson-Mayo Road, was opened in September 1955 between Stewart Crossing and Dawson City. The Dawson-Mayo Road became part of Highway 2 in 1978 and was named the Klondike Highway, while the road northeast from Stewart Crossing became Highway 11, and was later named the Silver Trail.
The Whitehorse – Mayo - Dawson roads and the bridges that crossed the rivers were built because of mining and they were instrumental in expanding the economy of the Yukon in the turbulent sixties.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin