Yukon River - a waterway with a unique history

The Yukon River is the fifth longest river in North America at some 2,000 miles long. It rises on the border between British Colombia and the Yukon Territory and flows north-west towards Alaska and into the Bering Sea. What I hadn't realised, until our recent trip to Alaska, was its role as a major navigable waterway and its economic importance, if but for a short period of time.

In July 1897 a small steamship called the Excelsior brought a small group of men back to San Francisco with gold they had just discovered in the Klondike. This was shortly followed by another ship bringing more miners and a ton of gold. The newspapers went crazy and men from all over the world flocked to Dawson City seeking their fortunes. Of course, very few did.

The route to the gold fields for those seeking their fortune was not simple. There was the difficult sea route to the mouth of the Yukon River at St Michael in the Bering Sea and then an upstream journey by paddlesteamer, but it was expensive, long and difficult. Those with less resources travelled a more direct route by sea to Skagway, a small port on the Inside Passage. They then trekked over the coastal mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon. It was then downstream by steamer to Dawson. The route was arduous and many died in the mountains despite the Canadian authorities demanding that stampeders (as they were called) only entered the Yukon Territory if they had a ton of suppliers. But born out of such difficulties came a business opportunity - a narrow-gauge (3 ft) rail route was built over the mountains joining up to the river. This is the White Pass and Route which still exists today and which we travelled on last month. It is a fascinating railway and truly spectacular. The connection to an historic river transport system also fascinates me.

White Pass and Yukon Railway

Route the original stampeders took

An original trestle bridge 
(now retired from use!) 

At the summit

On our visit to the Yukon we left our cruise ship at Skagway, Alaska and joined a train pulled by two historic diesel locomitives up a series of tight passes, over trestle bridges and through tunnels to the summit at Fraser where crossed into the Yukon Territory, Canada. It was an unforgetable ride. We moved from the train onto a coach and travelled through the upper reaches of the Yukon stopping at various tourist spots that included spectacular views, but the place I will not forget is Carcross which was originally known as Caribou Crossing. It is now a small community with only a population of 301 but back in 1889 it was an important staging post during the goldrush. It is here that there are the remains of SS Tutshi, one of the mighty stern paddlewheelers that used the travel along the river between Whithorse, Dawson City and St Michael.

The tiny community of Carcross now relies on summer tourism but it doesn't take much to visualise the "town" during the Goldsush and its immediate aftermath. The size of Tutshi is impressive and its characteristic design must have appeared awe inspiring at the turn of twentieth century. I certainly impresses me today. Tutshi was 167 ft long and displaced 1041 tons. The sight of one of these wood burning steamers navigating through Five Finger Rapids using winches, and the annual spring races to be the first steamer to Dawson City following the ice-melt must have been something to behold. Unfortunately as Tutshi was being restored when she was heavily damaged by arson in 1990. Some idea of the steamer in her prime can be seen here in 1987. It was common to see the Yukon sternwheelers on the river bank because they were often hauled out for the winter.

Remains of SS Tutshi

Replica of Tutshi's Sternwheel

Tutshi's Boiler

Interpretation Board Image of Tutshi on the River Bank

Bennet Lake Beach, Carcross

Railway Bridge, Carcross

Bennet Lake

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Sternwheeler negotiating the Five Finger Rapids using Winches

If you want to find out more about the river boats I can recommend the excellent well-illustrated book by Graham Wilson "Paddlewheelers of Alaska and the Yukon". There are some also some helpful websites for visitors such a Destination Carcross Yukon. If you are near Skagway a trip along the White Pass and Yukon Route into the interior  just has to be a must.

Another Albert Blog

We spent a week in September cruising the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska on  MV Volendam, a Holland America Line ship. It was a brilliant cruise and part of a trip of lifetime.  We stopped at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchican and had a cruise into Glacier Bay. With visits to glaciers, waterfalls, whale watching and a trip along the White Pass and Yukon Route railway into the Klondike it was full of memorable events. Later I will post about some of our experiences, but this post is essentially about the ship.

Volendam at Juneau

Volendam in Skagway

At around 60,000 tons, 780ft length and 105ft beam, Volendam is not a large cruise ship, by modern standards but she does carry around 1400 passengers and 650 crew. I was impressed how she was navigated into some of the tight channels in the Inside Passage and spun arround at the head of Glacier Bay. This led me to explore the Holland America web site for details about the ship and crew, particularly our captain who had the distinctive name of Captain Friso Kramer gezegd Freher.

It was then I discovered that their senior captain Albert Schoonderbeek, blogs under the tag Captain Albert's Blog about his colleagues, their backgrounds and his role in the company's safety procedures.

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What is particuarly fascinating, to me, is his description of navigating the Canadian part of the Inside Passage. Just how you take such a large vessel around some of the "tight bends" is impressive . When the Volendam went through this section, in not very good weather, I was as able to watch navigation from the "Crows Nest", an area directly above the bridge. On occasions I was mystified as to the direction the channel took and the "bank" appeared not that far away.

I can recommend a look at our namesake's blog. I aim to check it our regularly to see how their voyages progress.

Leaving Glacier Bay