Caribou to herd tourists toward Carcross gift shops

Carcross wants you to follow the giant, metal caribou. That's because the tiny, historical village is the victim of a long-standing highway construction nightmare.

Carcross wants you to follow the giant, metal caribou.

That’s because the tiny, historical village is the victim of a long-standing highway construction nightmare.

The South Klondike Highway, completed in the late 1970s, wasn’t built to match the town’s Gold Rush-era urban planning.

The highway avoids the town’s main thoroughfares, cutting off its businesses from the tourists travelling between Yukon and Skagway, Alaska.

From the passenger seat of a car travelling along the highway, it looks like the Montana Mountain gas station is the only thing in town.

So two weeks ago, the village erected a giant, anatomically correct, one-ton iron caribou to grab travellers’ attention.

“The town’s original name was Caribou Crossing,” explains Daphne Mennell, the Carcross artist who designed the sculpture.

The tiny land bridge between Bennett Lake and Nares Lake once allowed caribou to migrate through the valley in large numbers.

It was also a meeting place for First Nations people, both Tlingit and Tagish, who fished in the narrows near the land-bridge site.

But the arrival of Europeans during the Gold Rush changed the gathering place irrevocably, and caribou numbers dropped.

“They were all over hunted,” said Mennell.

Carcross’ role as a corridor for travellers, both four and two legged, continued with the Gold Rush.

The town was one of the stops on the long and harsh route to the Klondike, said Mennell.

In 1900, railroad engineers drove the final spike in the White Pass and Yukon Route rail line in Carcross, connecting Whitehorse to the port in Skagway.

The company used a gold spike for the occasion, which is now rumoured to be kept in a museum in Seattle, Washington, said Mennell.

Carcross’ heritage as a route for travellers in the age of the railroad is ensconced in the giant caribou, she said.

Most of the metal comes from the White Pass and Yukon Route’s scrap pile in Carcross, she said.

The caribou’s ruff is made of railroad spikes.

The sheet metal comes from old rail car parts.

Even the plumbing fixture used to denote the bull caribou’s gender comes from the scrap pile.

Mennell, who competed against one other artist in town to build the sign, is a popular landscape painter who arrived in Carcross more than 30 years ago.

For this sculpture, her first, she hired local welder Roger Poole and gave him directions on the caribou’s design.

“He seemed like he would be patient enough to work with an artist,” said Mennell.

Carcross’ history during the Gold Rush era provides the bulk of the town’s look and feel.

The White Pass’ railway station is a nationally-recognized historical building, and many of Carcross’ homes and business’s look as if they haven’t changed for a century.

But sadly, the arrival of the highway put a damper on Carcross’ wealth as a historical gem.

Its businesses suffer from the low numbers of tourists who know about Carcross, or who get confused by the once-poorly marked street into town.

So Carcross is receiving $6.75 million to revitalize the town’s infrastructure from the Canadian Strategic Infrastructure Fund between 2007 and 2013, said Kirn Dhillon, program manager for infrastructure development with the Yukon Department of Community Services.

The fund is split half and half between the territorial and federal governments, and $40,000 went toward the Carcross sign project.

Carcross has also rebuilt its footbridge and renovated a dock for boaters with the fund.

Mennell is hoping the sign, by tapping into the town’s history as a traveller’s corridor, will bring back past glories.

“(The sign) is a combination of the town’s original name and the fact that it’s been a White Pass town,” she said.

Contact James Munson at