During the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors navigated their homemade boats and rafts 1300 kilometres (800 miles) from Bennett Lake to Dawson City. Five Finger Rapid was a major obstacle along the route and more than a few stampeders ended up in the water after choosing the wrong channel.
“… a great barrier looms up a mile ahead – five great irregular blocks of reddish rock ranging across the river like the piers of a bridge – making two principal channels. That on the left is growling ominously over shallow rocks, so we turn to the right and drop into a small eddy a few hundred feet above the great wall. We climb up and look at the rapid. It seems by no means dangerous. The opening is about one hundred feet wide, with vertical walls, through which the river drops a couple of feet, the waves rising angrily in a return curl, then dancing on in rapidly diminishing chops until lost in the swift current below.” “ We turn our prow squarely for the middle of the cleft; a drop, a smash, a few quarts of water over the sides, and we are shot through into the fast current, without even looking back.” Tappan Adney, The Klondike Stampede. Vancouver: UBC Press.
The Chilkoot and White passes were the best known and shortest routes into the interior, but the coastal Chilkat followed an easier, but longer, trail from what is now Haines, Alaska.
Jack Dalton first used the trail in 1894. Over the next four years, he improved the trail and built caches and a trading post and then started to charge a toll even though he had no authority to do so. The Dalton Trail was the best way to get livestock into the interior and Dalton had a plan to supply Forty Mile, the first Yukon gold rush town, with fresh meat.
When gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, the Yukon River was thought to be unnavigable above Five Finger Rapid.
Captain E. Barrington and some backers invested in some small river sternwheelers to deliver passengers to this point on the river where they would be able to hire pack horses and guides and even cooks, if they wished, for the trip out along the Dalton Trail.
It soon became evident that even the largest Yukon sternwheeler had no difficulty in reaching Whitehorse. The completion of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway from Skagway to Whitehorse in 1900 meant that cattle could now be loaded on the train and the Dalton Trail reverted to bush.
The trailhead of the Dalton Trail was located between Five Finger Rapid and Rink Rapids, below. It grew to be a little community that included a sawmill, store, a North-West Mounted Police post and telegraph office, a way station for the Klondike and Bennett Lake Navigation Company and Jack Dalton’s buildings and corrals.
In 1898, the tiny sternwheeler Ora was the first commercial Yukon River sternwheeler to come downriver from Bennett Lake to Dawson City. This was the precursor to a great fleet of sternwheelers that plied the Upper Yukon River from 1898 to 1953.
Only one of the Five Finger channels was deep enough for the sternwheelers, but the current remained very strong. At low water, the boats could steam right up and through it. At high water, the falls created a 30-60 centimeters (1-2 feet) shelf. A sternwheeler ascending the rapid could only move up over the shelf until the wheel lifted out of the water and then the vessel lost power.
A cable was attached to the rocks so sternwheelers could winch themselves up stream. It took 15 - 20 minutes for a power-capstan on the deck to pull the sternwheeler through the channel.
In 1903, the sternwheeler Mary F. Graff touched bottom at Five Fingers and cracked several hull frames. In 1911 there were complaints that nearly every season there was an accident caused by a steamer striking the rocks at Five Finger.
Blasting work started at Five Finger in 1900 and continued until at least 1927. Rock was removed and the channel widened by 6 metres (20 feet).
A little less than 200 million years ago (Early and Middle Jurassic period), this area was tidal flats and river deltas at the edge of an inland sea that geologists now call the Whitehorse Trough.
Over a long period of time, the river sediments were buried and turned to rock. The area was uplifted when the plate holding the oceanic floor, inland sea and islands tectonically converged with the crumpled western edge of North America.
Until 3 million years ago, rivers draining this area flowed southward to the Gulf of Alaska. During the ice ages, expanding glaciers in the coastal mountains plugged the passage downstream, causing the river to back up. Now the relatively young Yukon River flows northwest to the Bering Sea.
The Five Finger islands and riverbank are composed of conglomerate rock (pebbles and boulders embedded in a sand-to-mud matrix) that is more resistant to erosion than surrounding mudstone layers.
Wood Cutters Range
The hills in front of you were named the Wood Cutters Range to honour the woodcutters who, between 1898 and 1955, worked tirelessly to stockpile wood for the fleet of sternwheelers on the Yukon River and its tributaries. The highest peak in the Wood Cutters Range is named Mount LePage.
"Happy” and Pauline LePage started a wood camp at Rink Rapids, just downstream from this point, in 1928. Over the next 15 years they owned and operated a network of camps at several spots along the Yukon River including Yukon Crossing (1929), Lakeview (mid-1930s), Lower Yukon Crossing (1936), Carmacks and Myer’s Bluff (1944/45), and Stewart River (summer 1946). Pauline ran the business and purchased supplies, while Happy managed the camps, bought the equipment and hired wood cutters, most of whom were First Nation.
In the 1940s, Happy supervised the construction of several Yukon airstrips at Snag, Braeburn and Whitehorse. When the Mayo Road (Klondike Highway North) was built in the early 1950s, Happy oversaw the construction of the Carmacks Bridge. The sternwheelers stopped running when the highway reached Dawson in 1955. The wood camps were no longer needed and the LePages abandoned the river life they had lived for so long.