The big boats get all the glory.
Impressive sternwheelers have become a symbol of the early transportation system along the Yukon’s waterways. But it’s the smaller boats that kept things moving, scouting the routes and clearing the way ahead of their bigger brethren.
Now one of those work boats has been restored and is a permanent exhibit in the backyard of the MacBride museum in downtown Whitehorse.
The Woodchuck was built not far from where it sits today, at the British Yukon Navigation Company’s (BYN) shipyards. That land is now Shipyards Park.
“What we say is that it had this life on the river, it had some other lives in between and now it has come back to the river,” said Leighann Chalykoff, MacBride’s manager of museum services.
The Woodchuck is a 37-foot tunnel stern riverboat. It was gas-powered and had a propeller that could be retracted.
“So it was made to navigate the difficult Yukon River which is very shallow and has narrow channels and gravel bars all that good stuff,” Chalykoff said.
The boat would have been used at the beginning of the warmer season every year to travel the Yukon River and its tributaries clearing the way for the larger ships, explains Chalykoff.
The Woodchuck was part of a group of work boats, with names like the Loon or the Owl, all charged with hauling smaller loads down the river or navigating the more narrow passages where other boats could not fit.
It was common for the boats to be named after small animals, Chalykoff said.
“I don’t know exactly why. But I think it’s because it’s small and tough.”
But one of the perils of being so small is that it’s easy to go unnoticed.
While documentations and photographs of boats like the S.S. Klondike are relatively plentiful, very little paperwork and even fewer photos exist of the Woodchuck.
As the era of the sternwheeler winded down in 1958, the smaller boats were pulled off the river and sold.
According to research done for the Yukon government’s historic sites unit, Ollie MacDonald, who ran a wood camp in Pelly Crossing, purchased the Woodchuck in Whitehorse in the 1960s. The plan was to use it on the Pelly and Yukon river system, but that never happened.
As far as anyone can tell, it has been on dry land since then.
The remains of the boat were moved to a shelter next to the interpretive centre in Pelly Crossing. Around 2012 the decision was made to move everything to the museum.
“The hull was intact, the bottom part of the boat was intact, and you can still see, sort of, the old wood if you go outside,” Chalykoff said.
“But other than that, it was in pieces. The top part was in pieces.”
A local carpenter rebuilt what was missing based on photos and other historical information.
All the work was done onsite over the summer of 2014.
“It was kind of neat because people could actually see it transform,” Chalykoff said.
The official opening was last month.
Back home to the river where it all started, Chalykoff calls the Woodchuck a jumping off point for the exhibit that talks about all of the territory’s history on the water.
“It has been a lifeline for the Yukon. It was the transportation corridor for decades and now it’s still important in terms of the people who use the river for sustenance and recreation and it’s a key part of our life in the Yukon.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at