July 17, 2013

I love this panorama shot from 1899 of the White Horse Rapids that were rapids of the Yukon River, near to and the namesake of what is now the town of Whitehorse. According to Wikipedia, the rapids were named because they resembled the mane of a charging white horse.


I assume that the rapids were named after the Eurasian domestic horse by prospectors and not after Equus lambei, the smaller and pudgier original horses of the Yukon that lived here 1.2 million years ago during the time of Beringia but disappeared around 10,000 years ago. (A horse bone was just found in a gold mine south of Dawson City that yields the oldest genome ever.)

Skull from the Late Pleistocene, when Arctic horses were pony-sized. (CBC / D.G. Froese/University of Alberta)

I knew that there were wild horses in North America and especially in the Chilcotin, BC that were descended from the horses brought by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s but I did not know that there used to be horses in the Yukon.

The rapids were one of the greatest dangers on the Trail of ’98 but before that, for thousands of years, the Kwanlin Dün who call the place, Kwanlin or “running water through canyon” and the Ta’an Kwäch’än had lived, fished, hunted and travelled in the area. For three years during the gold rush, there was a town called Canyon City at the site of the rapids, the remains of which are in a tin can midden scattered among the roots of lodgepole pine and white spruce.

Tin Can Middens at Canyon City.

The rapids are now under Schwatka Lake which was created with the building of the Whitehorse dam in 1958. The dam also disrupted the migration of Chinook salmon from the Bering Sea to their birth streams around Whitehorse, a journey of 3000 km, one of the longest salmon migrations in existence. A year after the dam was built, after what I can imagine as a horror of desperate spawning salmon trying to find their way home, the hydro company built a fishway.

Schwatka Lake is named after Federick Schwatka, an American military explorer who was part of the US Cavalry’s war on the Sioux and who searched for the remains of the Franklin expedition in the Arctic. In 1883 he led an expedition that went over the Chilkoot, built rafts and floated down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea, naming features probably after famous white people who had never touched the land as explorers tended to do (and in fact he named every landmark after influential men trying to gain their favour). Close to ten years later he was found dead in Portland, Oregon, possibly from a morphine overdose or laudanum.

I imagine now the rapids, the old Yukon horses, the salmon, and maybe even the morphine-high American military explorer fighting them all, are still flowing and running as ghosts deep under the damned lake.


More photos of the White Horse Rapids are online at the University of Washington Digital Collections.