White and black spruce dominate the Liard Basin forest. The spruce, and scattered stands of lodepole pine, willow, aspen, birch and larch provide critical habitat for woodland caribou and moose. Swamps and small lakes within the Liard River drainage support the largest population of breeding Trumpeter Swans in the Yukon. There are 33 species of fish in the Liard and its tributaries, more than in any other watershed in the territory.
Traditionally, the Kaska Dena of this region gathered to fish in the larger lakes during the winter and summer. In the fall they moved to the uplands to hunt caribou and sheep. An important Kaska fishing camp at Francis Lake (Tu cho) dates back 2,000 years.
The Liard River Canyon, near the British Columbia and Yukon border, slowed European exploration into the Yukon. Hudson’s Bay Company trader Robert Campbell explored the Liard River in 1842, looking for a new source of fine furs and willing trading partners. The Hudson’s Bay Company continued to use the dangerous Liard River route for many years to supply their trading posts at Francis Lake, Pelly Lakes and Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River.
You are standing on the continental divide – the ridge line that separates two of the largest river drainages in North America. The Alaska Highway crosses the divide at one of the lowest points. Only humps of sand and gravel separate the west-flowing Swift River from the east-flowing Rancheria River.
Drop a leaf into the Rancheria River to the east and it would float to the Liard River near Watson Lake, continue to the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories and eventually reach the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean); a long journey of 4,200 kilometres (2,650 miles) for our waterlogged leaf.
Drop a leaf into the Swift River to the west and the current would take it to Teslin Lake and the Teslin River. The Teslin flows northwest to the Yukon River which cuts across northern Alaska enroute to the Bering Sea (Pacific Ocean); a journey of 3,680 kilometres (2,300 miles).
Yukon River Basin
The boreal forest in the Yukon drainage is dominated by white and black spruce interspersed with unique sage grasslands and aspen parkland. Long, thin lakes straddling the Yukon and British Columbia border are the headwaters of the Yukon River - but this was not always the case.
Until 3 million years ago, the ancient Kwikhpak and Yukon rivers flowed west and south from the mountains in central Yukon and Alaska. The current drainage was created when encroaching ice, during the last ice age, blocked the river and backed up the water until a new channel was created in Alaska near the Yukon border. The now north-westerly flowing Yukon River is still adjusting to its “new” channel.
A portion of the Yukon River landscape, called Beringia, was never glaciated. The low rolling hills and plateaus in northwest Yukon are separated by broad, deeply cut valleys. In the unglaciated region, there is relatively little lake habitat and the streams have few natural obstacles to fish migration. Many fish species, including chinook and chum salmon, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike, burbot and several species of whitefish, occur in both the glaciated and unglaciated regions of the river.