If you flew into Whitehorse, you may have been fortunate enough to have seen the Yukon River from aloft. If so, you’d have noticed that much of the river forms a braided, meandering look as it wends its way through glacial silt, sand and gravel. However, Miles Canyon offers a different view of Earth’s geology, for over time the water has carved its way through an ancient lava flow. Here, five-and-six-sided basaltic columns rise like fingers – and it’s the clefts forming the columns that the river is eroding.
You can get a great look at the chasm on the 1922 Robert Lowe suspension bridge.
A sign here explains that Lowe came to the Yukon in 1899, worked in the Whitehorse Copper Belt and operated a successful cartage business.
He was both a local and Yukon Territory politician.
The suspension bridge sways as you walk, echoing the movement of the river below.
Miles Canyon history
It’s useful to cast our mind’s eyes back to 1896.
That’s when Skookum Jim, Tagish Charlie and George Washington Carmack found gold in the Klondike, a discovery that started the Klondike Gold Rush.
Throughout the world, adventurers and fortune-seekers travelled often by poorly constructed boats and shank’s mare (walking), seeking their fortunes.
Many would die en route.
Indeed, many would perish here at Miles Canyon because they knew nothing about boat building, navigation, or swimming.
Soon it became imperative to follow First Nations’ wisdom and create a land-based portage: but how?
Enter Norman Macaulay.
During the winter of 1897-98 he constructed a tramway which extended about 8 km along the east bank of the river, where he charged three cents per pound and $25.00 per boat to transport goods along log rails.
Not only did he build a wooden tramway, he also operated a roadhouse in what became known as Canyon City.
Not to be outdone, along came competitor John Hepburn. He built a second tramway along the western embankment.
Eventually, after the Gold Rush, Hepburn sold his venture to Macaulay, who sold to the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in 1899.
This railway still extends from Skagway, Alaska, to Carcross – being one of the world’s great train trips.
Take it and, like me, be wowed.
Incidentally, Miles Canyon extends longer than a mile so… why the name?
US Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka named the canyon in 1883 for his commanding officer, Gen Nelson A. Miles.
Truly, whether you walk, bike or drive these trails, the Yukon River introduces us to many natural wonders and colourful characters.