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Klondike Gold Rush (part 2) : Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids


Version française de ce texte.

To read Part 1 of the series : Klondike Gold Rush : following the footsteps of gold diggers

Let’s continue our journey trying to follow the footsteps of the tens of thousands of prospectors who flocked to the Klondike during the Gold Rush era.

From Lake Bennett where they built rafts/boats to transport their goods and materials, here they are now on the Yukon River. But, before arriving in White Horse (back then the name was spelled in two words) , prospectors had to face one of their biggest challenges of the journey : getting through Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids (the rapids take their name from the fact that the evoked the mane of white horses). In his diary, Arsène J. Simard, a prospector from the Charlevoix region in Quebec, wrote :

The White Horse Rapids is a place that makes our hair stand up as well as makes us feverish.

Lorenzo Létourneau in his June 29, 1899 diary entry (published in17 Eldorado : Le journal d’un chercheur d’or au Klondike 1898-1902) gives a more detailed account of their experience :

A Northwest mounted police officer took charge of our barge to get it to the bottom of the White Horse Rapids. He ordered us to disembark five or six mules to lighten our weight. Four men on the shore offered to help us and we gave them an oar each. Rousseau and I were rowing at the front – a total of 8 on board. A few minutes later we were facing the entrance of the canyon which seemed to be just a few feet wider than our boat. The water engulfed in a swirling sound that chilled my blood. The officer shouted loudly and we entered the canyon as fast as lightning and were tossed in all directions. We had to try to stay in the middle of the canyon otherwise we would have hit the walls and would have been torn into pieces. This canyon is a mile and a half long and I do not think it took us more than two minutes to cross it.

The White Horse Rapids were still ahead, a couple of miles down the canyon. They’re a bit less impressive, but they are even more dangerous due to the fact that in the most difficult section there is a rock awash in the middle of the channel. The officer told us that many had drowned by hitting the rock. Several loads of provisions were lost and two barges loaded with debris can still be seen on the shore.

Lorenzo traveled to the area more than a year after the herd of 7,000 rafts came by. Of the first ships to have arrived at Miles Canyon at the end of May 1898, no less than 150 were destroyed in the canyon and five men lost their lives. Quickly, the Northwest Mounted Police intervened to ensure that only safe boats with competent pilots crossed the canyon and the rapids located a few miles down the river. We have to keep in mind that the construction of these boats was rudimentary and the boats came in all shapes and sizes. In addition, because the wood used to build them had not been dried or treated, the majority, if not all of them, leaked.

Several prospectors opted to portage their goods around the canyon but by June 1898, a new alternative presented itself: a tramway was to transport their material while the prospectors waited for an experienced pilot to take them and their boat through the canyon. The cost of transport by tram: $ 0.03 a pound. Canyon City, now abandonned, grew on the banks of the Yukon River at the starting point of the tramway while White Horse grew at the tramway’s arrival point.

The shores of the Yukon River just before the entrance of Miles Canyon. Prospectors parked their boat along the shore waiting for a pilot to take over.

General view of Miles Canyon

View of Miles Canyon and its basalt cliffs

Nowadays, when looking at the canyon, there are no indication of yesteryear’s fury. In the 1950s, when the Whitehorse hydro plant was built, the rapids were submerged and Schwatka Lake (located between the Miles Canyon and the White Horse Rapids) appeared.

Schwatka Lake (looking towards Miles Canyon)

Here is a photo taken on May 5, at the beginning of my stay, while Lake Schwatka was still very much frozen.

View of Schwatka Lake (just before arriving to the Whitehorse hydro plant)

The lake was named in honor of Frederick Schwatka, a U.S. Army lieutenant and explorer. In 1883, he was sent on a reconnaissance mission on the Yukon River. Fifteen years before the Gold Rush, Schwatka and his team crossed the Chilkoot Pass, built a boat and traveled down the Yukon River on its entire length to the Bering Sea. Along the way, Schwatka mapped the river and named many geographic features which to this day still bear the name he gave them.

At the northern end of the lake, we now find the Whitehorse hydro plant where the White Horse Rapids used to roar.

Whitehorse hydro plant built by the par Yukon Energy back in 1958

Once past the rapids, prospectors could finally enter White Horse. In 1898, it was a city of white tents located on the east bank of the river – where the Riverdale neighbourhood is now located.

In closing, here is a photo of the Yukon River as we approach Whitehorse as well as a view of the city.

View of the Yukon River near the the hydro plant (looking towards the city of Whitehorse)

View of Whitehorse

To be continued…

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