Atlin, BC : Hardship and Hope

You have to really want to go to Atlin.  It is British Columbia’s most northernmost community; but it is an end-of-the-road stop that can only be reached from the Yukon. The road leaves the Alaska Highway and dips south for 94 kilometres – one way in and one way out. Until 1951, there was no road at all – residents travelled to their homes by boat.  It is well worth the drive – this is one of Atlin’s many jaw-dropping views:

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No-one lived here, other than the nomadic Taku River Tlingit people, until discoveries of gold at nearby Pine Creek in 1898.  Ten thousand gold-seekers arrived and set up camp in nearby Discovery. At the height of gold fever there was this little town, but like so many gold rushes in the north, once the gold left, so did the residents.

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What remains today are a few fallen structures and a single intact cabin.

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Photos and a plaque tell the desperate story of the James family trying to survive in an uninsulated cabin during a winter that hit a record-breaking -83 degrees.

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Beth and her little brother Tommy standing on the cabin porch.

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A winter scene that would otherwise be so beautiful, but without adequate housing, clothing and food, caused great suffering and death.

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Atlin’s Pioneer Cemetery tells a fascinating story about those difficult early days. I know it sounds ghoulish, but I love visiting cemeteries – I find it informative and oddly peaceful.  You can often figure out a part of the history of a place by strolling among the tombstones and Pioneer Cemetery has a lot of stories to tell.

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The cemetery was opened in 1899 until 1990. So many buried there died young, under tragic circumstances. Many of the headstones state nationality and the cause of death.

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Sadly, a number of infants and young children did not survive the isolation and hardship.
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Can you imagine dying of starvation? Others died in mining accidents or drowned.

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This one intrigued me – no faded wooden headstone for the “Gentleman Adventurer.”  I’m imagining pith helmets and porters – and a ripe old age as the reward for a gentlemanly life well-lived.

A glimpse into the lives of the hardy souls that paved the way for adventurers yet to come.

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Today’s Atlin has a population of 400 artists, entrepreneurs, and assorted characters. You get the feeling that anything can happen here.

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This was the sight that greeted us as we pulled into the provincial campground. A burned-out truck festooned with police crime scene tape felt all the more menacing due to the recent murderous events in British Columbia. We wouldn’t have stayed but the one other camper there (a relaxed Arizonian) told us it was an accident, not foul play.

A couple from Colorado was just beginning their trip to Alaska, when a jerry can of gas in the back of their truck ignited and exploded into flames. Their trailer was unharmed (as were they), but it was a bit hectic bringing the fire under control. They then had to deal with having their trailer towed and flying back to Colorado to sort out everything else. Handling those logistics from a remote location with no cell service and being highly stressed over a freak accident – I can’t imagine it.

After one night there, we found another campground in town that overlooked the lake and spent the remainder of our visit there very happily enjoying the view.

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Atlin is unincorporated, which means there is no government and it is largely run by volunteers. This is a town of restless souls, tough survivors and resourceful and enterprising residents who are all in it together – firefighting, search and rescue, ambulance service, recreational activities, historic building upkeep, Meals-on-Wheels, campground upkeep, etc. etc. – all unpaid work done by residents who love their community and work hard to keep it running well.

Naturally, there is gossip! Not everything meets with unanimous approval and where there are 400 residents, there are likely 400 opinions. We took a guided walk with Patricia, a 25-year resident with a photographic memory and a sly take on the town’s activities.

This unusual structure, now owned and occupied by a New Zealand man, began as a “healing centre” (Patricia’s quotes). The original owner built in the pyramid style to draw on the earth’s energy that is apparently abundant in Atlin, but after a little controversy, the centre closed.

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As we travelled through the Yukon, we were surprised to see that many uninhabited but historic buildings were left intact; they had not been torn down. We found the same “living museum ” quality in Atlin. This town suffered through two disastrous fires, one in 1914 and again in 1916. Perhaps that is part of the reason for hanging on to their history.

The old morgue.

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The old jail was once in Discovery, but moved to Atlin.

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Otherwise, there are a number of historic buildings that are now private residences or re-purposed for other businesses.

The old hardware store is now a private residence. You can’t beat the view, but would you want people like us peering in your windows  every day?

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A former storefront that is now a colourful little home that uses the heat and sun from the front window to grow tomatoes.

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The old Globe Theatre. It was built in 1917, as part of a great tourist boom that lasted until 1936. The stage was also used for school plays and dances, but when the “talkies” came out, a hand-cranked projector was installed. Today, it serves as an event venue and shows movies twice a week.

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There is a limited amount of alcohol available at the general store, but until 1999, Atlin had their very own handsome Tudor-style liquor store. It opened in 1931 and served for 70 years, but then, in a droll understatement,  “the government decided to close it in 1999, over strong protest from the towns’ people.”

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John Garrett, a prominent cricket player from England, came to Atlin in 1910 to mine gold and in 1917, he opened this dry goods store.
Today it is operated by a young couple; part of a group of young entrepreneurs who are finding ways to make their living in Atlin.

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Stephen was excited to find the Atlin Mountain Coffee Wagon on the lakefront. The owners have created a demand for fresh-roasted coffee – there is always a lineup, and every Thursday they drive two hours to the Whitehorse farmer’s market.
The young woman pouring coffee also works part-time at another business in town. Her partner is here for the summer to work in Atlin’s still-active gold mines; their story is typical.

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The old courthouse is now a combination art gallery and library. The library is only open four hours a week – from 2-4 on Saturdays and Sundays. There is, however, a huge pile of free books on the table in the hall. The art gallery offered a beautiful collection of local art for sale. We chatted with the volunteer, a Brazilian woman who moved here years ago, but admitted that she doesn’t stay for the winter.
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The Blacksmith shop is the original, but the current owner is trained as ferrier, but with an absence of work in that field, he turned his artistic hand to working with metals.

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Most Atlin homes have a healthy woodpile in front.

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A couple of idyllic northern scenes.

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Atlin Lake is the largest freshwater lake in British Columbia, at four miles wide and 85 miles long. Most of the lake and Atlin Provincial Park are only accessible by boat or plane.  The lake is deep and very cold as it is fed from Llewellyn Glacier. This was as close as we could get to the glacier.

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When we asked in town about buying drinking water, we were directed to a natural spring just outside of town. It doesn’t look like much, coming out of a rusty old spout, but oh boy.  If I was younger, I would say Best.Water.Ever.
But since I’m not, I will just say I wish I could drink water like this every day of my life. Sweet. Cold. Pure.

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These are some of the lake views that we were able to access from the road.

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And so our trip to the Yukon is over. As we drove out of Atlin, we saw a yearling grizzly by the side of the road, which I took as a sign.  We need to return again and for longer and farther – west to Alaska, north to Tuk. Now that we’ve seen a grizzly, we want to aim for a polar bear.

The Yukon was everything we had hoped for and more. The people were wonderful, the scenery beyond description and as for the mosquitoes? We’ve had way worse bug attacks in Ontario. We are reluctantly heading south, but I’ll leave you with one final image – something we did not see on our entire trip, as we couldn’t stay up until midnight.

In mid-August in northern British Columbia, the sun sets at 10:30.

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Thanks so much for joining us – it really means a lot. We look forward to meeting up again in the early winter – destination still being discussed!

Kluane National Park: where are the grizzlies?

I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed, but our trip to the Yukon is drawing to a close and we have not yet seen a grizzly bear. Kluane National Park and Reserve is home to a large percentage of the 6000 to 7000 grizzlies in the Yukon, and I figured that at least one of them would cross paths with us – preferably from a safe, photogenic distance. We spoke to a couple who watched from their car for over an hour as a big old bear crossed the road, posed for photos, rolled in the grass, grazed for a while and then lumbered off.

There are plenty of bear warnings, including ominous signs on some trails that read “Bear Frequenting Area”, but in spite of hours spent hiking, camping and driving in prime bear territory, we have seen nothing more threatening than a squirrel.

One of the campgrounds in the middle of Kluane is deep in grizzly territory and they have an electric fence around the tenting area. We gingerly opened the gate and wandered around inside, but did not see a single tenter. Perhaps it felt too much like being an animal in a zoo, or perhaps (like me), they would be overcome by curiosity and want to test out the wires. Common sense would dictate that park officials are not interested in electrocuting their visitors, but seriously, how much voltage is necessary to make an impact on a bear?

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Our campsite at Kathleen Lake Campground was far more civilized. We were told by the park ranger that although bears do wander through this campground, it is prime soapberry season right now and park officials have done a great job of clearing out the female berry bushes. The bears have had to move to more hospitable ground.

Lucky us, we got there early enough to nab one of the very few mountain-view sites – this is where we stayed for four nights.

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Kathleen Lake Campground is about 25 km. south of Haines Junction and on the road to Haines Alaska. Haines Junction was first established during the final construction of the Alaska Highway and today is a central hub in the park; providing groceries, gas, and restaurants.

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The setting is simply breathtaking, but  Haines Junction is not a fancy town. The Lucky Dragon Motel is typical.

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Our Lady of the Way Catholic Church was built in 1954 by Father Morisset and Father Tanguay, who were the first Catholic priests in the area. They converted an old Quonset hut into the church that still has services to this day.

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Our Lady of the Way may be “the most photographed church in the Yukon“, but it is impossible to forget the dark and lasting destruction that Christianity brought to First Nations communities.

Artist Mary Caesar expresses it well in her painting The Cattle Truck.

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It is also impossible to travel throughout the Yukon without being aware of how the Alaska Highway was built.

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This spot, overlooking Kluane Lake, is called Soldier’s Summit. It is marked by a plaque and the American and Canadian flags; commemorating their combined engineering efforts to bring the road to this point.

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The building of the Alaska Highway in just eight short months, under brutal conditions, was an astounding achievement. But the dark side of this story is how First Nations people were betrayed. They helped soldiers with food, water and guiding and in return had the rights to hunt and fish on their own land taken away from them.  It took decades for them to regain access to their land to reclaim their way of life.

First Nations were not the only people negatively impacted. African-American soldiers who were recruited to build the road suffered greatly. We listened to a short clip from an interview with a former soldier who described how they were segregated and denied the same food and privileges as white soldiers.

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And so little changes…
The Da Ku Cultural Centre featured this exhibit from the REDress Project. Artist Jaime Black began this project as a powerful visual reminder of missing and murdered aboriginal women; red dresses hang in public galleries all across Canada.  Red is a sacred colour, and it also symbolizes blood. Twelve hundred women are confirmed as missing or murdered, although many other sources estimate those numbers to be closer to 4000.

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The outstanding Visitor Centre at Haines Junction is an important stop, as it incorporates information about First Nations, Kluane National Park and Reserve and the Yukon all in one building.

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First Nations art is prominently displayed here. This installation, by Tlingit artist Don Smarch Jr.  is called Ice and Flowers. He was inspired by the first drops of water in spring and how they are reflected back at the faces that look at them.

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There were a number of quilts created by The Threadbearers hanging in the halls. This one tells the story of the Kluane area.

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We watched an excellent HD video of the natural history of Kluane, including Mt. Logan, the world’s largest massif. It has 11 peaks and covers over 20 km. of glaciated land. Fascinating stuff, since we will never hike several days back into the glaciers to have that head-back-arms-thrown-out Instagram moment.  Next time we’re here we will take a glacier flight.

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There are several hiking trails in Kluane – everything from a short interpretive 1 km. stroll to multi-day backcountry treks that require significant navigational skills.

The St. Elias Lake hike is a popular 8-km. hike with a bit of elevation, ever-changing scenery and a rest stop at a lake. First we had to hike through deep forest and keeping in mind that “grizzlies don’t like to be surprised“, we whistled, clapped and sang. For some reason I was stuck on show tunes and could not get Old Man River off my playlist.

We hiked through a few kilometres of this trail…

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…to a beautiful open meadow.

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We stopped for lunch at St. Elias Lake and had a chat with a young Swiss couple who were on “our last holiday before we have a baby in November.” She is a teacher and that of course opened up  the chance to share our astonishing coincidence of having a daughter-in-law who is also a teacher and now a new mother! What a small world!

We have met so many Swiss and German tourists – the wilderness beauty of the Yukon and Alaska are a huge draw, and more than a few are here with campers they have shipped over from home.

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Pretty lakes are a mainstay of Kluane National Park. Most of them are very deep and very cold, with good fishing but less appealing swimming. Kathleen Lake was no exception, but it did lure a few hardy souls in for a “refreshing” dip.  I don’t have a photo of Stephen fully submerged, but he did make it in for about one minute.

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I sat back here with the rest of the beach crowd.

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This was a calm day – the very next day the temperature dropped by about 10 degrees and the wind blew up and the lake took on a whole other character.

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You know those gorgeous creeks with gravel islands you find in the north? The water is so clean you can drink it and you want to pull over and have a picnic or at least stop for a photo? The Yukon is full of creeks and rivers like that.

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Kathleen Lake is at the southern end of Kluane so we headed north one day as far as Burwash Landing. This tiny village ( 109 people) was a seasonal fishing camp for the Tutchone First Nations and then grew during the construction of the Alaska Highway. The Jacquot brothers from France arrived here during the Gold Rush in 1904 and some of the businesses they started still stand, although they are no longer operating.  An entire section of Burwash Landing is filled with the structures from a more prosperous time. It is a bit eerie to walk around this part of town – the Closed sign is quite incongruous. The old resort stands as though it is expecting guests any minute.

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Remnants from the Kluane Lake Boats sit on the shore. These boats were used between the ’20s and the ’40s for delivering freight and mail.

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The Kluane Museum of Natural History was built in 1974 and first designed as a Catholic church but it was deemed too large and turned into a museum. The excellent exhibits show Yukon animals in their natural habitat, as well as displays of First Nations’ tools and clothing.

Interpretive panels outside the museum and charred stumps serve as reminder of how a fire in 1999 very nearly wiped out the whole community. Wildfires are a way of life in the Yukon and due to the determined efforts of the local residents and firefighters, the museum and other notable buildings were saved.
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Our visit to Burwash Landing was also a reminder of how most Yukon communities are isolated and tiny. As of 2019, the entire population of the Yukon was 38,000 people, spread out over 482,443 square kilometres. As of 2016, the population of Whitehorse was 25,085, so that leaves a lot of room for very few people to live in other parts of the territory.

What it means for tourists is having to plan between destinations – making sure to stock up on groceries and supplies in larger centres and being aware of distances between gas stations.

What it also means is  the driving experience is sublime. This is a typical day on the road.

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Glaciers lie just behind this mountain range.
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You’re never very far from a lake view

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Or a more pastoral scene.

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Our time in the Yukon is coming to an end. We are currently in Whitehorse and tomorrow will head south to Atlin Lake, B.C. The Alaska Highway dips in and out of British Columbia, and we will dip down to BC for a few days and then dip back up to the Yukon again before we begin our travels south. Still more adventures to report – see you in a few days.