The Yukon Territory, or just “the Yukon” as the residents call it, is both the smallest of the three Canadian territories and the least populated. Although it is ranked 9th by area, it has less than 39,000 residents. Of those, 28,000 live in the city of Whitehorse, its capital. With so few people in the Yukon, there is a significant amount of land that remains uninhabited. This is obvious when you drive along the Alaska Highway as there is mile after mile of wilderness and no sign of civilization. It makes for some wonderful unobstructed views of the forests and the snow-capped peaks. Their apt tourism theme is “Larger than Life”.
There is only one city in the Yukon, its capital, and the others are towns. The first town that we encountered after crossing over the border from British Columbia into the Yukon was Watson Lake. It has a population of under 1500 people but there is a great Visitor Center in the heart of the town and the people with whom we spoke were extremely helpful. In the Visitor Center, there has a small museum about the construction of the Alaska Highway and a short 15-minute orientation video, too.
Just outside of the Visitor Center is one of the main attractions in Watson Lake: the Sign Post Forest. There are signs that travelers from all over the world have left there. The first sign was tacked up there in 1942 while the Alaska Highway was being built. It was common practice during the construction of the highway for the engineers to place directional signs at their camps indicating distances to different destinations. Private Carl K. Lindley was injured during the construction and was taken to Watson Lake to recover and his commander told him to repaint the directional post. Because he was homesick, he added his hometown of Danville, Illinois to the directional post. Since then, people have left their own signs there and it has become a tradition that, if you are traveling the Alaska Highway, you stop by there and add your own sign to Watson Lake’s Sign Post Forest. There are now over 75,000 signs in this “forest”. We plan to leave ours on our return from Alaska.
After staying overnight in Watson Lake Provincial Park, we left the Liard River valley and drove through the Rancheria and Swift River valleys to the town of Teslin. Our day begin with some drizzle and was overcast but soon cleared and it turned into a beautiful day as we drove alongside the rivers and saw the Cassiar Mountain range in the distance.
The town of Teslin sits on the shore of the pristine Teslin Lake. Teslin Lake is one of “the Southern Lakes” that lie along the border between British Columbia and the Yukon. This area also has the largest Native populations in the Yukon. The Tlingit tribe live close to Teslin and they have a Heritage Centre on the Teslin Lake. David and I stopped by the Centre even though it was not technically open for the season yet. One of the docents was there, however, and she allowed us to view their museum and we also walked around their complex. We got to talking to the docent and asked her about the winters there. She shrugged and said, “This past winter was really not bad, it only got down to 43.” She meant minus 43 degrees Celsius. For us, that’s really, really cold but she did not find it to be a bother. She also told us that the ice on the lake had just broken up the week before.
There were still chunks of ice near the lake shores where we camped that night. She also told us that they have a big festival there at the end of July. We were disappointed that the Tlingit Cultural Heritage Centre was not in full swing because they usually have lots of exhibits, performances, and artisans working on site. We hope to stop by there on our way back from Alaska in August.
Marsh Lake was the next stop on our journey through the Yukon. One of the reasons that we wanted to stop here was because there is a government-run Interpretive Center called Swan Haven on this lake. Swan Haven is only open during the month of April but you can still visit it any time of the year. During April, thousands of trumpeter swans, tundra swans, and other waterfowl come to M’Clintock Bay on Marsh Lake to rest on their way farther north. The water along the shallow part of the bay is warm enough not to freeze while the rest of the lake does freeze over. The birds come there because there is water, abundant food, and the ice provides protection from predators. Many visitors and photographers flock to Swan Haven to view and photograph the birds from the observation decks. Some more adventurous souls even hike out onto the lake to get a closer look.
Although most of the swans had already left, we were able to see some while we were there. We really liked Marsh Lake and the provincial campground so we decided to stay another day and I got to paint some. While we were there, we also had a small fox come by for a quick visit.
The Yukon has many other lakes that we wish we had the time to visit and explore because they are so picturesque and unspoiled. We are glad that we will be traveling through this area again later in the summer.