The Ruby Range plateaus are home to the Kluane caribou herd, one of Yukon’s smallest and unusual woodland caribou herds.
Unlike barren-ground caribou, which travel great distances, woodland caribou migrate between a high summer range and a nearby low winter range. The Kluane herd is unusual in that it spends both summer and winter in the Talbot Arm and Brooks Arm uplands. Little snow falls on the sub-alpine plateaus so the herd can forage year round. The animals travel the Kluane River valley between the two plateaus.
Scientists are interested in the Kluane herd because it is a distinct population with high genetic diversity. They worry that the small herd size and wide winter range make it vulnerable to wolf predation and other natural and human-caused stresses.
Kluane First Nation elders Jessie Joe and Grace Johnson recall seeing many caribou on the hills across Kluane Lake around 1936. These caribou may have been part of the great barren-ground herds that occasionally roam out of their usual range.
Called chionophiles (snow lovers), caribou are truly built for life in the north. Their rounded hooves act like snowshoes in the deep snow. Widely spaced dew claws at the back of the foot make travel easier by preventing them from sinking deep into the snow. In winter, the wide hoof hollows out, creating a shovel to get lichens and other food beneath the snow.
Feast from the Ocean
Nowhere in the northern interior is such a concentrated food source as easily available as on salmon spawning grounds. Chum salmon that have gorged on the riches of the sea return to their natal streams to lay their eggs and die.
Decaying salmon carcasses provide a rich source of nitrogen to vegetation near spawning streams. The extra nutrients allow healthy forest growth that provides shade, filters sediments and produces woody debris. Together, these contribute to a better spawning and rearing habitat for salmon.
Grizzly bears converge at the Kluane River in September to fatten up on spawning salmon. Bears must store enough food energy to sustain themselves through their five-month winter hibernation. Salmon-eating bears tend to be larger than bears that depend on berries for their fall weight gain.
When people still travelled by dogsled, the plentiful chum or “dog” salmon served as a high-energy food for the teams. Salmon was air-dried and stored in caches to provide food throughout the winter. Kluane First Nation fishers still gather here each fall to fish and spend time with friends and family.
Imagine a female salmon at the mouth of the Yukon River, about 2500 kilometres (1500 miles) west of here. It is mid-July and four years have passed since she last swam these waters. Her incredible sense of smell will guide her home.
Her ascent up the Yukon River takes her safely past Alaskan gill nets and fish wheels. At the Yukon border she reaches a biologist’s fish wheel and is tagged with a radio transmitter.
She enters the sediment-laden waters of the White River, upstream of Dawson City, and her progress slows from 42 kilometres (26 miles) to 18 kilometres (11 miles) per day. She reaches her spawning area in the Kluane River by mid-September.
Ripe with eggs, she swims into the clear, upwelling groundwater of a slough. The biologist tracking her radio signal marks her location on a map. She finds a mate, digs her redd, or nest, and deposits her eggs which are quickly fertilized by a male. She and the male then linger and die.
Challenges on the River
River valleys of the northern boreal forest are biologically rich. When warm temperatures melt glacier ice in July and August, rivers and lakes rise to their highest levels of the year. Periodic flooding and silting can change the river channels. Plants survive periodic flooding, silting and soil removal as new habitat is created for wildlife.
Constant disturbance keeps trees from overtaking the willows in the river valley.
Moose eat twigs and leaves in the sloughs. Woodland caribou stop for a snack as they cross between the valley bottoms between ridges. You may have noticed that insects are plentiful in the moist micro-climate and this allows a surprising number of songbirds to make this area home.
Welcome to Asi Keyi — My Grandfather's Land
Kluane First Nation welcomes you and wishes you a safe passage through our traditional land.
For countless generations the land and the water in the valley before you have provided their gifts of fish, birds, and big game to the people of the Kluane First Nation. It was a time of harmonious co-existence.
During the short summer season the vast northern forest came alive to the sound of song birds and the piercing call of gulls, hawks, and eagles. The woods provided shelter for the silent passage of moose, caribou, bear, and other animals.
In sheltered mountain valleys, small community settlements were built along important waterways near abundant sources of large game, fish, and waterfowl staging areas. These settlements of log structures were a winter refuge for our semi-nomadic ancestors.
The Kluane First Nation has since adopted modern technology but continues to use the land and water around you for the necessities of life - food, water, shelter, and clothing. We work together to preserve our culture and heritage and to ensure that our resources and environment remain in the pristine state our ancestors entrusted us with.
Kluane River Viewpoint
In the spring, our Kluane First Nation ancestors would see and hear the return of geese, ducks, and swans.
After a summer of harvesting, drying, and storing food the Southern Tutchone-speaking people would travel down the Duke River to Tincup Lake and Tincup Creek gathering and storing berries along the way.
Salmon were caught, dried, and stored for the winter at fish camps on Tincup Creek. With the fall season fast approaching, the people would return to a camp in this region called The Ku (Chum Salmon Place - Salmon Patch) where chum salmon were harvested.