Yukon Nuggets

  • Alsek River, as seen from summit of Mt. Kelvin 5000 ft. above it, July 3 1898. Yukon Archives. Joseph B. Tyrrell fonds, #27.

1986 Yukon Nuggets

The Alsek River


The Alsek is a mighty river, and not one to be challenged by the faint of heart. It's fed by the massive glaciers of the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park. Here lies an incredible landscape of towering mountains, active glaciers and broad valleys. The Alsek is one of the park's most precious jewels. Like a lot of places in the Yukon, it had many names. Its native name was first reported by Russian explorers in 1825. As early as 1786, a French explorer, LaPerouse, called it the Riviere du Behring. In 1886, Frederick Schwatka named it the Jones River after one of his expedition's sponsors. Schwatka had a habit of honoring those who paid his way and seldom cared if a geographical feature had another name. At one time, the U.S. geographical survey called it the Harrison River after a U.S. president. The Canadian government finally got its act together and officially restored the original name, Alsek, in 1891.

From its origin as a meandering stream at the confluence of the Kaskawulsh, Dust and Dezadeash rivers, the Alsek flows for 250 km across the Yukon, the northern top of British Columbia and the Alaskan panhandle, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay in Alaska. This is a region of big-water rapids, canyons, glaciers and floating icebergs. On its way through the park, the river passes through a remote wilderness area, an undisturbed natural habitat for species of both Pacific Coast and Arctic plant life. The largest population of Grizzly bears in the world lives here.

The Alsek River contains many significant natural features which have resulted from the action of water, wind and glaciers on the landscape. Many areas of exceptional natural beauty and some of Canada's most important northern ecosystems are found here. The Lowell Glacier, one of the largest in the world, forms a large section of the Alsek Valley wall and calves, with tremendous force, into the Alsek below.

Small numbers of native people have inhabited the Kluane region for perhaps 10,000 years. Ancestors of the Southern Tutchone arrived in the vicinity about 4,500 years ago.


Some of the traditional hunting, fishing and trading camps, such as the village of Klukshu, just outside the park, have been used for more than 1,000 years. In the 1890's, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the first white men came into the area from the south, travelling over the Dalton Trail to Dalton Post and other points north. Some stayed to prospect and mine the Kluane Ranges for a period at the beginning of the century.


In 1986, a 90-kilometer section of the Alsek River was designated a Canadian Heritage River. A plaque commemorating the dedication is located in Haines Junction.


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.