North of 60 – Surprising Carcross

Carcross, Yukon

June 9th, 2015

We decided on a day trip that would take us on a loop along the Marsh Lake, over to Carcross and then back up to Whitehorse.

We drove into Carcross around two in the afternoon just as the White Pass & Yukon Railway train was set to leave. The parking lot by the train station was full of tour buses and RV’s. There were a lot of people milling about and taking pictures of the train. About 30 minutes later the train pulled out of the station bound for Skagway and the streets were literally deserted!

Miners who had reached this junction point of the Tagish and Bennett lakes en route to the Klondike gold fields at Dawson named the village Caribou Crossing.   They named it Caribou Crossing because twice a year large herds of caribou migrated across the shallows of the lake east of the townsite. The name was changed to Carcross in 1902 through lobbying by Bishop Bompas, who had established a school for First Nations children the year before. Bompas was infuriated that mail addressed to the school was being redirected to other Caribou Crossings in British Columbia and Alaska.

In 1900, Carcross  became an important stopping point for the White Pass & Yukon Railway. Today the station is still used during the summer months for scenic rail excursions to Skagway, Alaska.   I chatted to the train conductor for a few minutes. He told me the train picks up back-packing hikers too- they just wait by the side of the tracks and the train stops for them to get on.

We walked around the town site. A lot of it is abandoned but you could get a real feel for what the place would have been like during the gold rush days. Life would have been harsh indeed in a tiny one room log cabin, a wood stove for heat and a small outhouse off to the side.

There is a long sandy beach along Bennett Lake and from there we had a splendid view of the White Pass train as it snaked its way along the lake with those snow-capped mountains in the background. The view was as evocative as it gets of life in the last century.

One kilometre north of Carcross is the world’s smallest desert at just one square mile in area. Carcross Desert is commonly referred to as a desert, but is actually a series of northern sand dunes. The sand was formed during the last glacial period, 10,000 years ago when large glacial lakes were formed.  When the lakes dried, the sand was left behind.  The Carcross Desert is significantly drier than the surrounding region, receiving less than 50 mm of rain per year.

I asked about going for a walk on the dunes at the Tourist Information Office. The woman answered right away – yes she loves to go walking there.  I asked for a trail map and she looked at me with surprise. She said – just park your car at the pull-out and go for a walk. So that is what we did. There was literally a long hill of sand. It was rippled like water from the blowing wind. We walked up the huge sand dune to it highest point our boots raising little clouds of dust. The sand was deep, very fine and soft.   We felt a little like Lawrence of Arabia surveying the dessert when we reached the top and turned to look at the view.   Off in the distance were the blue waters of Lake Bennett with the snow-capped mountains beyond.

A thoroughly surprising and enjoyable gita – day trip!


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