Between 1901 and 1953, the British Yukon Navigation Co. (BYN), a subsidiary of White Pass & Yukon Route, operated a fleet of sternwheelers on the Yukon River and its tributaries.
The fleet originally concentrated on delivering passengers and freight up and down the river to Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Fields. Starting in the 1920s, bags of valuable silver ore concentrate were stockpiled at Mayo awaiting passage on the river steamers. Ice in Lake Laberge often remained firm for two to three weeks after the rivers were clear. The navigation season was very short as ice on Lake Laberge often remained for two or three weeks after the rivers were clear.
The BYN tried to hasten the spring thaw by spreading a trail of lamp black on the lake but this was a cumbersome process and not very successful. Construction was started on the first of three Lewes River dams in 1922. You can still see some of the old structures downriver especially in the spring when the water is low. The dam would release a rush of water in the spring to break up the lake ice, accelerating the start of navigation.
The Lewes Dam is currently used to control the water level in Marsh Lake and the southern lakes system and is operating according to rules laid out in Yukon Energy’s water license. All the gates must be opened by May 15th and the gates left open until the water reaches peak height in August or September. Yukon Energy starts to close the gates in the fall and by the time the hydro dam is no longer spilling water in early November, all of the gates are closed.
Témil Shó: Head of the Yukon River
Before the Lewes Dam was built, John Joe used to trap muskrat in the ten mile stretch between the Yukon River bridge and M’Clintock Bay at the top of Marsh Lake. The Tagish Kwan would catch lingcod and pike in the spring at Témil Chidle, “little fishnet,” the first slough below Marsh Lake. The Tagish name for this is Témil Shó, “big fishnet.”
John Joe used to fish below the dam at a camp where people would come to dry salmon for the winter. If not enough fish were cached for the winter, the people would talk to the swans before they flew south, asking them not to be away too long. People from all around Whitehorse, namely the Tagish Kwan, Kwan’lin Dun, and Ta’an Kwach’an, would come here to fish. Those who do not have traditional rights to fish in this area must be very polite when travelling here. If they are disrespectful, the water will be dangerous for them.
“… the big Yukon flowing, like threaded quicksilver, gleams to the eye.” Robert Service
The Yukon River was called Kweek-puk (great river) by the Alaskan Inupiat and Kwitchpak by the exploring Russians. In the Yukon Territory, it is Takämbo (wide open waters place) to the Kwanlin Dun at Whitehorse and Tage Cho Ge to the Selkirk people at Pelly Crossing. Robert Campbell, a trader for the Hudson's Bay Co. (H.B.Co.), travelled to what he called the Lewes River in 1843 via the Liard and Pelly rivers. John Bell, also of the H.B.Co., first saw the Youcon River in 1845 when he explored the western Mackenzie drainage and travelled down the Porcupine River. In 1852 Campbell confirmed that his Lewes and Bell's Youcon were the same river.
At various times the source of the Yukon was thought to be the Teslin, the Lewes or the Pelly rivers. After the Klondike Gold Rush, the riverboat pilots distinguished parts of the river by name: the Fiftymile River from Whitehorse to Lake Laberge and the Thirtymile River from Lake Laberge to the Teslin River. In 1964, “Yukon River” was applied to the entire watercourse from March Lake to the Bering Sea. By whatever name, the Yukon has been a major transportation route and a bountiful source of food since the last ice age.
Jessie Shorty's cabin, near the Lewes River Dam has been around for many years. The cabin was built by Jim Shorty's, Jessie's husband, at Fish Lake north of Whitehorse. Fish Lake had a dependable supply of whitefish during the winter and was an important resource area for the First Nation's people. Jim Shorty moved the cabin, log by log, to Whiskey Flats, the present site of Rotary Peace Park in downtown Whitehorse. The Shorty's house was a gathering place for those needing comfort and rest or for a holiday dance and Christmas dinner. When the inhabitants of Whiskey Flats were encouraged to leave in the 1960s, Jessie Shorty had her cabin moved to the Lewes Dam area. Jim Shorty was known as a good storyteller and many of his children and grandchildren have become influential politicians and supporters of programs to strengthen First Nation languages.