The Yukon River: America’s Most Underrated River

The Yukon River: America's Most Underrated River 1

While traveling through Alaska on the Dalton Highway, I got to cross the only bridge over the Yukon River in the United States.

It was huge!

As a lower-48er who orients everything American in relation to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, I felt completely disoriented and embarrassed. I thought I knew all the quirks that Alaska throws at American geography (like what’s America’s 3rd ocean? – the Arctic Ocean), but I did not know that Alaska had a claim to fame with rivers.

I’m pretty sure that if the Yukon River wasn’t in, you know, northern Alaska, it would absolutely have massive cities and farmland all along it. As it is, it is one of the last, wildest rivers in the world. The only people living along the river are several Alaska Native and Canadian First Nations communities.

At the Yukon River truck stop, we picked up a bunch of Norwegians who had successfully completed a 600 mile river trip down the Yukon. We asked why on Earth would you come all the way from Norway to Alaska just to do a river trip?

They said that, well, there are only a couple of places on Earth where you can float for 600 miles along a major river and not encounter any large human habitation. A couple options are in Russia…and the other is the Yukon in Alaska. Needless to say, the US is a lot more welcoming & doable than Russia.

I had no idea!

Here are a few other Wikipedia-style facts I learned.

  1. Length and Size: The Yukon River is the third-longest river in North America, stretching approximately 3,190 kilometers (1,982 miles) from its source in the coastal range of British Columbia, Canada, to its mouth in the Bering Sea at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
  2. Historical Significance: The river was central to the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, serving as a key transportation route for thousands of prospectors heading to the goldfields near Dawson City, Yukon.
  3. Cultural Importance: The river has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The name “Yukon” is derived from the Gwich’in word “Yu-kun-ah,” meaning “great river,” and it remains an important cultural and subsistence resource for many Native Alaskan and Canadian First Nations communities.
  4. Biodiversity: The Yukon River supports a rich array of wildlife, including one of the world’s longest salmon runs. Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon travel upriver to spawn, providing a vital food source for indigenous communities and wildlife, including bears and eagles.
  5. International River: The Yukon River crosses international borders, starting in Canada and flowing through the U.S. state of Alaska, making it one of the few rivers in North America to do so. There’s even customs & immigration there!
  6. Unique Phenomena: The river experiences a natural phenomenon known as “ice push” or “ice shove,” where sheets of river ice are pushed onto the shore by wind (?!?!), creating spectacular ice formations.
  7. Climate Impact: The Yukon River Basin is feeling the effects of climate change, with observations of earlier spring melts, changes in ice formation, and impacts on fish populations and other wildlife.
  8. Recreational Use: The Yukon River is a popular destination for outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, particularly during the annual Yukon River Quest, one of the world’s longest annual canoe and kayak races.
  9. Economic Role: Historically, the Yukon River was an important transportation route for goods and people. Today, while less central economically, it still supports commercial and subsistence fishing.
  10. Protected Areas: The river flows through several protected areas, including the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska, which helps to maintain the pristine nature of the river and its surrounding ecosystems.

Now, even though the Yukon is way up in Alaska. It is still vulnerable and under threat. There have been plans to mine all along it (and dump the tailings in the river) for a very long time. The fish are not doing well. There’s a lot going on…just not much that we hear about in the lower 48.

I definitely recommend reading Kings of The Yukon by Adam Weymouth for a natural history / travelogue book about the river and more information.

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