Yukon Nuggets

1883 Yukon Nuggets

Haeckel Hill

You have to hand it to Frederick Schwatka. There was hardly a geographic feature in the Yukon that he did not notice and name. In the summer of 1883, he led the Alaska exploring expedition down the entire length of the Yukon River from Lake Bennett to the Bering sea. He and his seven-man crew did not venture very far from the Yukon River itself.

So the fact that Schwatka saw and named distant landmarks near present-day Whitehorse is nothing short of remarkable. The purpose of the American military expedition, which, by the way, did not ask Canada for permission to travel through the Yukon, was to acquire information about the countryside and its "wild inhabitants".

By the time the Canadian government was aware of Schwatka’s journey, it was too late to disapprove. But the expedition alarmed Ottawa , which in 1887 sent noted Canadian geographer George Mercer Dawson to explore the Yukon. He was so successful that famed Dawson City is named for him.

But back to Schwatka and that hill a fair distance from the Yukon River that he saw and named. We know it today as Haeckel Hill and it was, indeed, officially named by the American - Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1883.

Why did Schwatka give the obscure hill the name Haeckel? His expedition was a scientific one and had sponsors in the scientific community. Many of the features he named were to honour noted scientists like the Rink Rapids, Marsh Lake and Bove Island. So who was Haeckel? Ernst Haeckel was born in Germany in 1834. After college graduation, he practiced as a medical doctor in Berlin. He then became a professor of anatomy and worked on sponges and segmented worms.

Haeckel was influenced by the works of Charles Darwin. After he read Origin of Species, Haeckel became a supporter of evolution. He believed that the environment acted directly on organisms, producing new species. This was called the "law of recapitulation" and was later discredited.

No matter. Haeckel did leave his mark on the European scientific community and today a prominent feature in the Yukon bears his name. As for the American who immortalized the German, Ernst Haeckel, in the Yukon, Schwatka did OK too. Schwatka Lake, above the Whitehorse hydro dam, is named for this American Lieutenant who left his mark all along the Yukon River in the form of foreign names that will live forever.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.