Most northwesterly administrative division of Canada, bordered by the Beaufort Sea to the north, the Northwest Territories to the east, British Columbia to the south (below the 60th Parallel), and Alaska, USA, to the west; area 483,500 sq km/186,631 sq mi; population (2002 est) 29,900 (including 5,530 American Indians). The capital is Whitehorse. Gold, silver, lead, coal, and zinc are mined, and oil and natural gas extracted. There is lumbering, fur-trapping, and fishing.
Archaeological sites date human activity in Yukon to about 20,000 years ago. The Athapaskan culture was established by about 1000 BC. Russian and other European explorers were active in the 18th century and began trading with the native American population. By the 1840s, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) had established trading posts along the River Yukon, but despite reports of gold in the 1860s, the region remained virtually uninhabited. It became part of the Northwest Territories in 1870, and was formally incorporated as one of its districts in 1895. The following year, the discovery of placer gold on Bonanza Creek, a short tributary of the Klondike River, sparked a furious gold rush. Suddenly, the insignificant settlement of Dawson expanded to a town of over 25,000 inhabitants, the largest Canadian city west of Winnipeg. Adventurers arrived from all directions, but especially from the southwest (from Skagway, Alaska, via the perilous Chilkoot and White passes), from the northwest (also from Alaska, up the Yukon River), and from the southeast (up the Liard River, via the ‘all Canadian’ or ‘back door’ route). The Yukon Territory became separate from the Northwest Territories in 1898, with Dawson as its capital (until 1951). In 1903 Yukon lost its coast when a boundary dispute with the USA was settled and Alaska took the panhandle area. The gold rush reached its height in 1901, when the population of the Yukon peaked at 27,219. The early phase of the rush, when individual prospectors panned for gold in the rivers, was over by 1905, supplanted by organized companies undertaking large-scale dredging
operations. By 1911, the rich deposits were exhausted and the population had fallen to 8,512.
The population of the Yukon continued to dwindle until the early years of World War II, when construction of the Alaska Highway caused it to increase once more. Others arrived in the region at this time to build the Canol Road to the oilfield at Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories, and to staff bases on the Northwest Staging Route, along which aircraft bound for the Pacific war passed to airfields in Alaska. From just 4,914 in 1941, the population grew to around 15,000 by the end of the war. In the 1950s, the strategic importance of the area brought another influx of military personnel and construction workers, as early warning radar stations were erected to counter the Soviet nuclear threat. Stimulated by road construction, mining also experienced a revival at this time and, in the 1970s, oil was discovered in the Arctic. Population peaked at 31,500 in 1996.
Whitehorse, which succeeded Dawson as the territorial capital in 1953, houses almost all the commercial and institutional establishments in the Yukon, along with 74% of the population in 2001. Yukon residents elect an assembly and a representative to the Federal House of Commons; the central government appoints a territorial commissioner and a representative to the Senate.
The Yukon Territory occupies a roughly triangular area, 1,045 km/650 mi north-south, and 930 km/580 mi east-west, within the Cordilleran mountain system. The southern and central parts of the region consist of high intermontane plateau regions, 1,220-1,830 m/4,000-6,000 above sea level. These plateaus are edged by the Northeastern Mountain and Basin System to the north and east; the Mackenzie, Selwyn, and Richardson ranges to the northeast, the Mackenzie forming much of the Yukon-Northwest Territories border; and the St Elias Mountains to the southwest. The Northeastern range is part of the Rocky Mountains system, while the St Elias range belongs to the Coast Mountains system. In the St Elias Mountains and the Kluane National Park on the Alaskan border stands Mount Logan, at 5,959 m/19,551 ft Canada's highest peak and the second-highest mountain in North America. The Ogilvie Mountains mark the northern edge of the plateau region; to the east, deep valleys have been cut into sedimentary rocks laid down in the Palaeozoic period, and plains to the north and northeast drop towards the Beaufort Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean. Soils are highly acidic and only of marginal agricultural use.
The principal river of the territory is the Yukon, which is fed by the Pelly, Teslin, White and other tributaries. The Porcupine rises in the Ogilvie Mountains and flows north and then west to join the Yukon in Alaska. The Liard River in the southeast and the Peel River in the northeast both flow east into the Mackenzie (in Northwest Territories).
Towns and cities include Dawson and Watson Lake.
Minerals provide the Yukon's main source of income. Gold, silver, lead and zinc are mined at Mayo and Faro, southeast of Dawson, and oil and gas fields are exploited in the Arctic. The dependence of the Yukon economy on these few commodities makes it vulnerable to periodic market fluctuations. Other industries are tourism, brewing, forestry, and fishing, both commercial and subsistence (for the American Indians), especially salmon and trout. The traditional industry of fur-trapping is carried out mainly by the American Indian population. Mixed farming occurs around the mining communities, and on the floors of river valleys, where alluvial deposits offer more fertile soil. Crops are limited to the hardy cereals, oats and rye, and root crops and hay, plus some market garden produce, grown around the settlements. Most farms here have a small herd of beef and dairy cattle.
The climate is subarctic and extreme, with average winter temperatures of −34°C/−29°F, falling as low as −51°C/−59°F. Summer temperatures only exceed 0°C/32°F for a few months and seldom exceed 15°C/59°F. Annual precipitation is low, less than 250 mm/10 in, but there is little loss of moisture through evaporation.
Transport and tourism
The main roadways are the Alaska, Klondike, Campbell, and Dempster highways. These were all built between 1940 and 1980; before their construction, the only modes of transport were riverboats up the Klondike or charter flights by bush pilots. The Dempster Highway, constructed in 1978 from Dawson to Inuvik to gain access to the newly discovered Arctic oilfields, is the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle. Whitehorse and Skagway, Alaska, are connected by a 180 km/113 km-long railway that crosses the White Pass; this line was resurrected as a tourist attraction. The expansion of land and air transport routes have diminished the use of the navigable stretch of the Yukon River.
The Alaska Highway greatly facilitated travel to this remote region, and tourism has been on the increase since the 1960s. Visitors are drawn by the outdoor recreational activities available here, primarily hunting and fishing. The Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park, which extends into Alaska, reconstructs Dawson's gold rush period. There are national parks at Kluane (in the extreme southwest) and Northern Yukon (in the far north).
People and culture
The Yukon in the early 20th century was home to small indigenous Dene groups, long resident at settlements such as Old Crow, on the Porcupine River. In addition, there were small groups of miners, trappers, and others who made their living in the woods. The region was greatly despoiled by the 1896-1911 gold rush and subsequent commercial and military activities. In the late 1980s, a land-claims settlement was reached between the territorial government and the Council for Yukon Indians, under which the Yukon's 13 remaining American Indian groups would receive about 41,400 sq km/16,000 mi of land and a financial settlement.
The territory is governed by a resident commissioner appointed by the federal authorities, and a legislative council of 17 members elected for terms of four years. It is represented in the Canadian Parliament by a senator, and in the House of Commons by one member.
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