Exploring the Lewes Dam

I was going to entitle this post “Icy Fog Spells the End of Motorcycle Season”, but it’s more about the dam.

It was -15°C when I woke up this morning, so when I went into town I took the car. The fog seen in this photo was sitting in the bottom of the valley over the Yukon River but had been much higher and had laid ice on the road.

It is beautiful, and I made a detour over to Schwatka Lake to get the photo below. While I had been determined to get one last ride on the motorcycle today (which is my 60th birthday, the reason for getting the bike), coming home it was clear that there were just too many places where the ice wasn’t going to melt off (the high today was minus 2 and many places will be in shade now until March or so).

Luckily, I’d taken the bike out for a couple of hours yesterday, into town and then out the Alaska Highway to the Lewes Dam (a.k.a. the Yukon River or Marsh Lake Dam). The bridge behind me in this photo carries the Alaska Highway across the Yukon River between Marsh Lake and Whitehorse.

The little dam isn’t a very photogenic subject, and most people, even first-time visitors, no doubt roar by without giving it a second glance. Both its history and its current functions are quite interesting, though.

The British Yukon Navigation Company built the first dam at the site in 1922. It was designed to allow the company to release a great deal of water all at once in the Spring to flush ice out of the river and Lake Laberge so their steamboats could get to work earlier. In this photo, the sternwheeler Gleaner, which served the Southern Lakes from its base at Carcross, is seen on the upriver side of the new dam.

A wooden dam takes a beating from the ice, and by 1943 when this photo was taken the dam was barely functional. The demands of the war effort (BYN sternwheelers assisted in the construction of the Alaska Highway) made some degree of maintenance and rebuilding necessary, though.

In 1952, the Northern Canada Power Commission built a new dam with a new purpose – it would regulate the flow of water behind a hydro-electric dam being built at Whitehorse.

In 1975, this new steel-framed dam was built.

Under the rules laid out in Yukon Energy’s water license, all the control gates must be open by May 15th. They are left open until peak water levels are reached in August or September, then are gradually closed through the Fall. In another couple of weeks most of these last few gates will be closed. What that means at the hydro dam is that there isn’t enough water flowing to produce the amount of power needed, and diesel generators are gradually brought on line, at a much higher cost.

One of the coolest features of the dam is the boat lock (there’s also a fishway at the other end of the dam, to allow fish free access up and down the river).

It works exactly like the locks on the Panama Canal and Suez Canal except that the gates are opened and closed with hand cranks operated by the boat owners. Going upstream you open the bottom gate, sail in, close the gate, then open the top gate slowly to allow the above-the-dam water to enter and raise the boat. When the maximum water level is reached, you open the top gate fully and sail out :)

So that was the end of the 2010 motorcycle season for me (there have been very few bikes on the road in recent weeks – apparently I’m one of the last hold-outs!). Tomorrow I’ll put it into proper storage – I’ve got to get my kitchen-renovation stuff put away, then the bike goes into a back corner after a bit of prep work, and the 2 cars fit nicely in front.

This entry was posted in History, Motorcycles, Photos, Travel, Winter, Yukon-Alaska Stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Exploring the Lewes Dam

  1. Susan Hamilton says:

    Thanks Murray for another interesting and educational blog.

    Happy Birthday, hope it was a good one!

  2. Bruce says:

    HI Murray Many Happy Returns on your 60 th birthday. Have a good trip. How long will you be gone? Is the kitchen finished ? I always appreciate seeing your photo’s and dialogue. thanks.

  3. explorenorth says:

    Thanks for your comments and birthday wishes :)

    This is a fairly major trip, Bruce – we’ll be gone from November 1st until the 25th. The posts during that time will be from Toronto, Florida (Miami and Fort Lauderdale) and 9 Caribbean islands. Most of the work is done in the kitchen now – just a bit of trim to finish off, hopefully this weekend.

  4. Giles says:

    Hi Murray,

    Many Happy Returns on your 60 th birthday, I turned 61 this month as well. Great pictures and commentary on you posts as usual.

    I have your page as a feed to my home page at Yahoo so I see all the new posts. I know the feeling of having the last ride for the year when I was in Canada. Now I am back living in Australia I could ride all year round. I have been looking at a Trike from Oz trikes but they are very expensive here.

  5. Yukon Energy says:

    That’s a great history lesson. Send us an email and we’ll arrange for you to receive a ball cap or toque for your troubles.

  6. Patsy says:

    Happy Birthday Murray

  7. Rejeana in Alabama says:

    Happy Birthday and great pictures. I’ve wondered about dams in icy waters, so the education is appreciated. The locks are similar to those in the Tennessee Valley also.

  8. John in Biloxi says:

    Murray, seen the weather lately?

    Stay safe, Happy Birthday!!!

  9. explorenorth says:

    That’s a great site – thanks, John. I’m not watching the weather since there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. It’ll just be whatever it’ll be – I’m going to have fun regardless. :)

  10. Bruce says:

    Hi Murray will you be in Toronto ?

  11. explorenorth says:

    Hi Bruce. We’re in TO right now – got here at 10:30 last night and catch the shuttle back to the airport to catch our flight to Fort Lauderdale at 07:30.

  12. Happy Birthday! Very nice pics and awesome posts. LIke I told you before, keep posting gorgeous pics and the O’Shea clan might show up at your door. :-)

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