Exploring the Aishihik Road

There aren’t too many roads in the Yukon, or even in Alaska, that I haven’t driven at some point over the last 23 years, but there’s one fairly close to Whitehorse that I hadn’t seen completely yet – the Aishihik Road (that’s pronounced ay-shee-ack). The furthest I’d been up the road so far was last July, when I made it about 70 kilometers up before a storm chased Bobbie and I out. Last Wednesday, though, I was determined to get to the end. Monty and I were away from the house at 08:35, with the temperature sitting at 4°C (39°F) and with a decent weather forecast for the day.

The Aishihik Road meets the Alaska Highway right at Km 1546, which is 142 km west of home. I stopped at the lodge at that junction to top my gas tank off, and by 10:15 had reached this sign at Km 2.2 of the Aishihik Road
Aishihik Road, Yukon
The view to the west at Km 13.0, across the Aishihik River, at 10:30. The river is also known as Canyon Creek because it drains Canyon Lake, but Aishihik River is the official name.
Aishihik River, Yukon
Looking north at Km 25.1 – one of the many culvert and bridge repairs done in the past 2 years.
Culvert repair on the Aishihik Road, Yukon
Most people who head up the Aishihik Road are going just to see Otter Falls, at Km 27.9. It may not be very high, but it is beautiful, and I’ve see a photo of it used as an example of a classic boreal forest waterfall. I was very surprised to see it at full flow – normally by late August there’s not much water flowing. Last July, I shot a 35-second video of it with a bit less water flowing – you can see it at Youtube.
Otter Falls, Yukon, at full flow
Right above Otter Falls is Yukon Energy’s small Canyon Lake Dam. As you can see, there was so much water the dam’s control pipes couldn’t handle it and the excess was flowing over the top of the dam. That’s apparently okay, part of the design.
Yukon Energy's small Canyon Lake Dam
Looking back to the south across Canyon Lake at Km 36.3. This steep hill provides the best view on the entire road.
Canyon Lake, Yukon
The road wanders around through the boreal forest, with a few open views, a few glimpses of broad views through a screen of trees, and lots of short views such as this one to the north at Km 41.3.
Aishihik Road, Yukon
At Km 42 you come to the end of the maintained road, and the turnoff to the Aishihik Lake Campground.
Aishihik Road, Yukon
The Aishihik Lake Campground has 16 sites, some very nice, and this boat launch that was rebuilt last year.
Boat launch at Aishihik Lake Campground, Yukon
Yukon Energy’s Aishihik Lake Dam can be seen at the lower end of the campground, by the boat launch.
Aishihik Lake Dam, Yukon
The spillway of the dam appears to be a popular fishing spot, judging by the well-worn trail down. The dark square of concrete on the far side is a fish ladder to help fish get past the dam.
Aishihik Lake Dam, Yukon
Crossing a marsh at Hopkins Lake, Km 46.7.
Hopkins Lake, Aishihik Road, Yukon
Another look at Hopkins Lake, one of the prettier spots along the road. I imagine that the bugs could get quite bad here on a still mid-summer day, but there were none when we passed through.
Hopkins Lake, Aishihik Road, Yukon
At about Km 73, we stopped to check out some bison tracks and spots where several bison seem to have bedded down very recently. Monty was very intrigued – he’d never smelled bison before. Once you pass the campground turnoff, there are no more kilometer posts along the road, and I know that the odometer in the Tracker didn’t quite agree with the posted mileages anyway, so now I’m using the term “about Km xx”.
Bison tracks along the Aishihik Road, Yukon
Looking north at about Km 74.
Aishihik Road, Yukon
At about Km 93, a well-used bison trail led up into the forest.
Bison tracks along the Aishihik Road, Yukon
A wonderful broad view of the north end of Aishihik Lake, at about Km 96.
Aishihik Lake, Yukon
At about Km 125, you enter the old air base property, and apparently also Champagne-Aishihik First Nation settlement land. It had been a long haul to get to this point – it was now 2:15pm, so I averaged about 30 kmh (19 mph). Even with no stops you’d be hard pressed to average over 40 kmh (25 mph) without risking serious damage to your vehicle.
Champagne-Aishihik First Nation settlement land on the Aishihik Road
This is mostly what I came to see – the abandoned Aishihik air base from World War II. Very little information about the base has been published – it was just one of the airports along the Northwest Staging Route for pilots flying Lend-Lease aircraft to Russia. There is a good Web site, though, created by O. Ernie Brown, who worked at the base in 1943. The Life in the Yukon part of his site has a few photos and lots of stories. I wrote to Ernie as soon as I got home from the base, but haven’t heard from him.
The abandoned Aishihik air base in the Yukon
What Ernie terms the Operations Building was the control tower for directing aircraft. It’s changed little since he took this photo in 1943.
The control tower at the abandoned Aishihik air base
The garage appears to be the only other remaining original building at the air base. There are roads wandering everywhere around the base, but I saw nothing else of interest along the ones I explored.
The garage at the abandoned Aishihik air base
The garage at the abandoned Aishihik air base in the Yukon
The base shows up well on Google Maps, but on the ground today, there’s no hint that the flat area of willows used to be a runway. The airport was officially closed and taken off air navigation charts in 1968.
Aerial view of the the abandoned Aishihik air base

Even though it was getting late, I thought I’d have a look at Aishihik Village while I was up there. At the edge of the village, though, was a sign saying “Developed Settlement Land. No Public Access.” So at about 2:45, I headed south again.

I made a stop about 15 km back down the road to get some shots of what appears to be a Conservation Officers’ cabin, used during hunting season, which starts just about now.
Conservation Officers' cabin along the Aishihik Road, Yukon
One of the few long, straight stretches of the road, at about Km 100, at 3:20 pm. It was also one of the rougher pieces of road. Although I may have been able to get my Subaru up the road, I’m really glad that I took the Tracker. I never needed 4-wheel-drive, but having the extra clearance definitely increased my level of comfort that I wouldn’t break anything, as there was a lot of mud and some very deep ruts.
Aishihik Road, Yukon
I had expected the Fall colours to be quite good at least at the north end of the road, but they were just getting started – another couple of weeks, I guess.
Fall colours along the Aishihik Road
On a very steep slope above the road at about Km 96 is this pen. It was well constructed, and I have only a guess that it’s something to do with bison – perhaps just calves, as an adult could probably push through that wire.
Along the Aishihik Road, Yukon
On the way back to the highway, it took me a while to find a creek that I was comfortable letting Monty drink from, as the this is beaver country.
A map of Canyon and Aishihik Lakes and surrounding country – click on this section to see the entire enlarged map.
Topographic map of Aishihik, Yukon

Although I’m glad that I finally got to see the entire road, I may not be up again, even when we get an RV. It’s very pretty country, but there aren’t really any “must-see” sites (other than the air base for people like me). Once you get past the campground, there are few places to even get off the road, much less good places to camp.


Comments

Exploring the Aishihik Road — 9 Comments

  1. I spent a year out there ~ I built most of the fish ladder at the Aishihik Lake Dam and worked on the ‘diversion’ dam at Otter Falls. I felt guilty about that because it was the picture on our five dollar bill. (if you are a taxpayer, ‘cost plus’ is not a good way to go).

    • Thanks for posting, Graham. I didn’t know that there is a fish ladder – I’ve just sent a note to Yukon Energy, asking if they have a graphic showing all the Aishihik facilities. The first couple of times I went up to Otter Falls (many years ago), there was very little water coming over it. It’s an odd feeling to see it like that. Disappointing, but more than that – like we’ve injured it, “it” being not just a waterfall, but more a spiritual thing. Seeing that change happen to Pitchfork Falls at Skagway a few years ago was similar, though Pitchfork never has the power that Otter does.

  2. J and I had gone up that road while we were there in May. Only went a few kms past the campground though before I decided it wasn’t a road for the Elantra 😉

  3. The Otter Falls look great and your views of the Aishihik River and Lake are beautiful. Thank you for the pronunciation of Aishihik. Your talking of the ‘boreal forest’ prodded me to go and check on explanations of both the Zone and the forests, lakes and swamps in it. I had read and heard the term, ‘Taiga’, but for the first time I read that it is a Russian word, meaning ‘swampy moist forest’. So, you are stimulating your readers to further research. Your photos certainly illustrated the boreal zone to a ‘T’.
    Best Regards,
    Marie G.

  4. Very interesting and enjoyable. I looked at this a week or so ago but didn’t have time to leave a comment. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Good discription and information. I spent two winters inthe early 1950’s with a new tower. The shop remains much the same. There was a large powerhouse with two Budda diesel engines to supply power and pump water. Permafrost was 80 some feet deep. I experienced 74 below zero for one week. My job was to maintain the emergency strip and the road as far as Otter falls. Unknown to many people Otter Falls was the foto on the old $5.00 Canadian bill and was reserved for Crown fishing.

  6. Back in the summer of 1969, I worked as a geologist in the Yukon. One of our mining exploration camps was just to the east of the Aishihik Road. It truly was a beautiful area. My strongest impression is still the old facilities of the air base at the end of the road. Thank you for your photos and descriptions, it really took me back. As a kid, I remember the old $5.00 bill with Otter Falls, and was excited to visit the spot in 1969.

    • Thanks for posting, Doug – one of the things that I enjoy the most about what I do is hearing from people who have had good memories triggered by an article.