Skip to content

Bust and boom in Atlin

For two years, Gary Heisler had this town's restaurant market cornered. His burgers and crabcake sandwiches were the only dishes people could get here. It was a boon for Heisler, but it also meant visitors from Whitehorse and Skagway avoided Atlin because of the lack of options.


For two years, Gary Heisler had this town’s restaurant market cornered.

His burgers and crabcake sandwiches were the only dishes people could get here.

It was a boon for Heisler, but it also meant visitors from Whitehorse and Skagway avoided Atlin because of the lack of options.

Now Heisler is struggling to stay open, competing with four new restaurants that have started up in the last year.

It’s a lot of restaurants for a town of only 400 to 500 people, he says.

With the economy flagging in every other part of the country, is it possible Atlin is experiencing its own mini-boom?

Not if you ask the average person on the street or look at the collection of ‘for sale’ signs dotting the outside of Atlin’s historical buildings.

But entrepreneurs are gambling that the cozy Gold Rush community hugging the banks of spectacular Atlin Lake will attract enough tourists to prop up their business.

Matthias Lexow and Jonathan Peterson pulled the plug on their high-end Whitehorse restaurant, Henriette’s, this spring so they could open a new restaurant in the Atlin Inn Hotel.

The business duo have been pining to live in Atlin ever since they moved to the Yukon, said Lexow.

When they saw the Atlin Inn was up for sale last year they jumped at the chance to manage it.

“Atlin has so much to offer - the nature is amazing and pristine,” said Lexow, looking out over Atlin Lake.

From his patio, still bare and unfinished, he can take in a wide panoramic view of the lake.

“Some days it’s like watching National Geographic live,” he said. “I recently watched an eagle try to get a duck out of the water then get chased by a group of seagulls.”

To spruce up the inn, Lexow and Peterson have slapped on a new coat of paint (forest green) and are in the midst of renovating the restaurant, the lobby and building a patio for the bar.

It’s all about raising the profile of the town, said Lexow.

“It’s so close and people often don’t realize what’s here.”

This Monday afternoon few tourists are in sight. Only pickup trucks rumble down the street winding around the few pedestrians that are out.

Step inside the Pine Tree Restaurant mid-afternoon, however, and the room is bursting with locals, most of whom sport silver hair.

It’s oft talked about that young people are disappearing from Atlin’s streets.

A decade ago, the Atlin school had about 80 students. Now it has just over 30.

It’s an older population that lives in Atlin, said Atlin Historical Society member Katherine McCarthy.

About 75 per cent of the Caucasian population of Atlin is made up of seniors, she said.

With such a lopsided demographic, Atlin’s economy is heavily volunteer-based with not much room for young workers to squeeze their way in.

Much of that has to do with the town’s constant boom-and-bust cycle.

Kathryn Taylor moved to Atlin in the late ‘80s to get her jewellery business, Simply Gold, off the ground. She remembers there being so many tourists in town that people would be jockeying for parking spaces in the summer.

Now, there are fewer visitors and less mining in the area.

“Every year I say it can’t get worse than this and it does,” she said.

She recently overheard a group of people in Whitehorse talking about Atlin.

“I heard this lady speak loudly to a group of her friends saying, ‘I drove around Atlin and there was nothing open - I couldn’t even get a cup of coffee - It’s just a terrible place to go,’” she said.

People have this perception that there’s nothing going on here, she said.

She rambles off a list of amenities the town has to offer: fishing guides, boat charters, heli-skiing, a marina, an art gallery, kayak tours, several campgrounds and hotels and great hiking, she said.

Atlin Inn and the other new high-end restaurant in Atlin, My Table, also offer catering. This means people can more easily host weddings and functions in town, she added.

People move to Atlin and try to find a sustainable business to support themselves, said Taylor. But it can be a challenge when tourist numbers are dwindling.

Artist Shirley Connolly noticed a shift after 9/11.

“There’s less Americans visiting now,” she said. “We still get a lot of Europeans though.”

McCarthy pins the downturn on the recent global recession and the “horrors” of dealing with new passport restrictions, she said.

But there are more tangible reasons too.

Insurance regulations for people taking out tourists in boats “went nuts,” as did the health restrictions for people owning restaurants, said McCarthy.

The past owner of Pine Tree Services shut down their restaurant because of the cost of upgrading their kitchen to code, she said.

“These things stifle the tourism industry.”

“It’s always a roller-coaster here,” said George Holman, while dropping a load of fuel off for Heisler’s hamburger stand.

When the two large mines in town, Adanac and Tulsequah Chief, closed down a couple years ago, “all of a sudden the chopping block came down,” he said.

It doesn’t help that the provincial government has practically forgotten about the community, he added.

British Columbia pulled $5 million in funding for road repairs near Atlin, saying it needed the money elsewhere.

It also recently cut the library’s $1,800 budget.

The government isn’t helping the little town to attract tourists, said Holman who is the president of Atlin’s board of trade but is better known as the “mayor.”

But he’s hopeful the new restaurants popping in town will attract visitors.

Meanwhile, Heisler is wondering if he’ll have to keep his hamburger wagon open until Christmas just to make ends meet.

“There’s too many restaurants for the amount of people in town,” he said, explaining he’s competing for customers, “big time.”

He’s not as optimistic as the other residents in town.

Atlin will never become a big tourist hub because it’s so out of the way, he said.

The town has been pushing for a road from Atlin to Skagway “since Christ came off the cross,” he said.

Until there’s better access to Atlin it won’t be growing any time soon, said Heisler.

But that hasn’t stopped the entrepreneurs in town from trying anyway.

Contact Vivian Belik at