Many know Kwanlin/Miles Canyon, the ancient rift in volcanic rock near Whitehorse’s southern fringe where the Yukon River surges through.
They may know the way the water in the canyon below turns an emerald green in the summer sun, or the way the suspension bridge spanning the river bounces beneath their feet or the thrill of surfing its eddies in a canoe.
There is much to learn even for those who have already walked the canyon’s trails or marvelled at the mossy basalt columns of rock beneath their feet. The Yukon Conservation Society is offering free guided hikes throughout the summer that will provide those who come along for the walk with more information about the natural and human history of the Whitehorse area’s crown jewel.
The guided hikes for the 2023 season have been running twice a day since June 13. The program will be wrapping for the season on Aug. 26. The meeting point for all the hikes is the suspension bridge below the Miles Canyon parking lot and hikes run at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. The hikes run about five kilometres over mostly gentle terrain.
One such walk, guided by Andrew Smyth and Danial Kosarifar on July 13, drew more than a dozen walkers keen to learn more about the canyon. Among them were locals and Alaska Highway travellers from southern Canada and the United States. Some discussion in German could also be heard as the group wound through the conifer and aspen forest on the canyon’s east bank.
There was little time for idle chatter among the hikers as Smith and Kosarifar spun tales and offered facts about history, botany, geology and more. The hikers learned how to tell the various coniferous trees apart as well as traditional uses for a variety of plants, including the use of a powder formed by aspen bark as a mild sunscreen.
Along with what grows through the surface, the trail-side talks dealt with the rocks and earth below the hikers’ feet. The guides told the hikers that the canyon was created when lava vented up from the earth eight kilometres south of the canyon’s present site cooling into a mass of rock 8 million years ago. The canyon was later carved by runoff from melting glaciers and other potent geological forces. Also shown in the earth and rock record is the remains of an enormous volcanic eruption 1,200 years ago. When Mount Churchill blew its top, it blanketed swathes of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alaska beneath thick ash. White powder in patches of exposed topsoil along the Miles Canyon trail is a leftover from the eruption.
A guide pamphlet allowing people to learn about the area even when the guided hikes aren’t running suggests the coat of ash lead to a mass migration to more southerly latitudes, possibly explaining the close linguistic link between the Indigenous languages in northwestern Canada and the southwestern United States. Languages indigenous to the northwestern interior of North America, areas that are now part of the Yukon, Alaska, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, belong to the Athabaskan language family. The languages of Arizona and New Mexico also fit within this family.
In one of those languages, Southern Tutchone, the canyon is called Kwanlin, meaning “running water through the canyon.” The area’s other name, Miles Canyon, is drawn from the name of United States Army General Nelson A. Miles, who commissioned Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka’s pre-gold rush journey down the Yukon River. Miles had no connection to the area bearing his name besides his authority over the expedition that named it.
The guided hike through the area turned around at a place called Canyon City, but not before the guides explained the area’s history both as a key fish camp for the Kwanlin Dün people and a briefly-booming stopover for the stampeders who had to carefully negotiate the treacherous Whitehorse rapids en route to the Klondike gold fields.
Smyth spoke about all the methods employees in the Canyon City saloon were said to have used to get as much gold as possible from the returning stampeders, and how gold residue was even found by archaeologists more than a century later. Present at the site, along with the remains of building foundations, are discarded food cans and a reconstruction of the tramway once used to bypass the canyon.
Smyth, a university student guiding the canyon tours as a summer job, said he has enjoyed learning all the facts about the canyon and passing them on to the hikers. Although he is a born and raised Yukoner, Smyth did not know a lot of the information he now offers on the guided tour.
“I knew a little bit about, like, the history of Canyon City and things just from reading some books and just being in the territory for so long and people talking about it,” he said.
“But especially all the plants and things like this. I had no idea about until just recently.”
Smyth said every day is different doing the tours, from the size of the group to where the hikers are from. He said his favourite fact to pass on is how ill miners misinterpreted instructions from local First Nations and made tea using lodgepole pine rather than White Spruce, thus making themselves even sicker.
Among those on the July 13 hike was Rose Banday, a Yellowknife resident who was briefly in Whitehorse. She said she had visited the canyon on her own earlier in the trip but found the guided tour much more informative.
Also along for the hike were Holly Volk and Darcy Braun.
Braun learned a lot about the lodgepole pine that he wasn’t aware of, despite it being common in Alberta, where he lives. Volk found the techniques for “mining the miners,” or making money off the gold rush without ever actually hoisting a pick and shovel, of particular interest.
“There was a great balance of nature and then history together in the presentation,” Volk said.
“What a great thing to have for free.”
Along with the guided hikes, the Yukon Conservation Society sponsored an event called Created at the Canyon on July 14 and 15. The event gave local artists an opportunity to create their works outdoors while sharing the process with the public as they walk the trails around the canyon. An exhibit at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre featuring works created at the canyon is expected to be unveiled in August.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com