Fall Colours and Yukon History – by Floatplane

Yesterday morning I was cooking up a storm, getting some chili and meatloaf in stock for an RV trip that was to start today. Then I got a call about finding some historic sites along Lake Bennett by floatplane. That led to an invitation to go flying to check the sites out, and 5 minutes later I had gotten changed, grabbed some aerial photos of the area, and was on the road, headed for the Whitehorse Water Aerodrome (CEZ5, a.k.a. Schwatka Lake).

There are 42 photos in this post – sorry! 🙂

At 11:20, Kyle Cameron was doing the final get-ready stuff on his beautiful bird, a 1957 Cessna 180A on floats. Kyle’s Dad, aviation historian Bob Cameron, and Tracey, a friend and history fan from New Zealand, were also coming.

Getting the floatplane ready to go
This gorgeous Turbo Otter turned out to be particularly interesting once I checked it out online. Formerly C-GCQA with North Star Air in Pickle Lake, Ontario, she’s a 1955 DHC-3 model (serial number 77) and has just been rebuilt by Recon AirCorp for Rainbow King Lodge. Newly registered as N947RK, she was passing through Whitehorse on a ferry flight to Alaska with pilot Virgil Peachey.

1955 DHC-3 Turbo Otter, N947RK
We lost our sunshine within minutes of leaving Whitehorse, but the ceiling was high with a bit of ragged low cloud. With at least 3 of us in the plane very interested in aircraft wrecks, which the Yukon has a lot of, we first had a look at the wreckage of a United States Air Force C-119 Flying Boxcar which crashed just off the Annie Lake Road on November 23, 1961 (the wreckage is marked by the arrow). Seven men died in the crash – see a newspaper article written 2 days later.

Plane wreck near the Annie Lake Road
Looking up the Watson River, with a light rain starting. A rough mining road runs up the right (north) side for about 5 miles, crosses the river then goes another 5 miles or so. It’s spectacular country with a fascinating history.

Watson River, Yukon
Heading down the Wheaton River. Even opening the window, the mist made it tough to show how brilliant the Fall colours are – we’re pretty much at peak colours now.

Wheaton River, Yukon
Looking down the Wheaton River to Lake Bennett, with Millhaven Bay on the right.

Looking down the Wheaton River to Lake Bennett, with Millhaven Bay on the right.
I’d sure love to canoe the Wheaton!

Wheaton River, Yukon
The sandy head of Millhaven Bay. The initial call from Kyle had been about the location of Otto Partridge’s lumber mill on Millhaven. I think that there have been 3 mills here, and that one was near the head of the lake, but from the air we could see no signs of any of them. Sometimes the forest canopy can hide sites that are fairly obvious when you’re on the ground.

The sandy head of Millhaven Bay, Yukon
Brilliant Fall colours on the west side of Millhaven Bay.

Brilliant Fall colours on the west side of Millhaven Bay, Yukon
With no luck at Millhaven, we landed on the main arm of Lake Bennett, close to the location of a Gold Rush boat-building yard, just before 12:30. Here in 1898, the Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company built 3 small sternwheelers – the Ora, Nora, and Flora.

Float plane on Lake Bennett, Yukon
While Kyle and his Dad got the plane secured, I walked up the lakeshore in search of the boatyard, which I hadn’t been to in 10 years or so. Up close, some of the colours were quite spectacular.

Fall colours on Lake Bennett, Yukon
I expected to find the site very quickly, but the further I walked, the more confused I became. Nothing looked familiar, and the heavy erosion that’s occurred made me start to think that it had all been washed away.

I spent almost an hour walking to the mouth of the Wheaton River and back to the plane. Either everything had been washed away, or I’d walked in the wrong direction.

All 4 of us scattered along the beach and into the forest to the north of the plane, and very quickly found the first signs that this was the right way.

Within 15 minutes, Kyle found the grave that’s at the south end of the boatyard. When I was here 10 years ago, I lightly stabilized the fence and headboard – the headboard was still leaning against the post I sunk then, so it will at least rot slower.

1899 grave of R. Saunders on Lake Bennett, Yukon
The inscription carved into a piece of marble inset into his headboard states simply that R. Saunders died in May 1899, at the age of 39. Mr. Saunders is, so far, largely a mystery man – all I’ve been able to find out about him is a brief mention in the 1899 North West Mounted Police report, stating that he died of natural causes on June 21, 1899 (contrary to the headboard’s date). Several years ago, I got an email from a man who had met Mr. Saunders’ son some 40+ years ago in Calgary, and he believed that his father died in a boating accident. Saunders clearly had either some very good friends or a family wealthy enough to afford to hire this level of grave construction. At the bottom of the photo, you can see a steel rod that was put through the board to prevent it from warping and popping the marble out.

1899 grave of R. Saunders on Lake Bennett, Yukon
The view from Mr. Saunders’ final resting spot.

1899 grave of R. Saunders on Lake Bennett, Yukon
From the grave, the first debris from the boatyard is only 100 meters/yards or so. There’s all manner of metal, from food and gas cans to broken pieces of equipment, most of which we couldn’t identify.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
Bob looks over the main food-container dump. It’s hard to say how deep the material is, but it would have taken a substantial workforce to quickly build 3 sternwheelers.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
A lead-soldered tin can and a broken bottle. There’s very little glass among the debris, and I expect that “collectors” have removed it over the years.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
This was possibly a root cellar, but the small diameter makes me think that it was a well. It would be easier to get good water from a well than from a frozen or storm-lashed lake, regardless of how close it is.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
This was one of the 2 most interesting pieces of equipment we found, and we have no idea what either were.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
A piece of something from Boston, it appears.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
This is the view from the middle of the boatyard. Extremely high water levels are hiding the pilings which allowed me to positively identify the site as being the Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company’s, many years ago, by comparing the view to a photo of the dock in 1899.

Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company boat-building site on Lake Bennett, Yukon
Does that look like pretty much the perfect Yukon day? 🙂

Float plane on Lake Bennett, Yukon
This survey was done a few years ago to delineate the First Nations settlement land here.

Survey pin along Lake Bennett
The way water sorts sand and gravel always intrigues me. There’s about a foot of extremely clear water over those materials.

Sand and gravel on Lake Bennett, Yukon
Kyle, Bob, and Tracey discussing departure at 3:30. We decided fly a few miles south to get a high view of another site before heading back to Whitehorse.

Float plane on Lake Bennett, Yukon
If we would have looked at the right spot at the right second as we were landing, we could have walked right to the grave!

Grave on Lake Bennett, Yukon
Away we go again. It was amazing to see Lake Bennett calm, and then to stay calm – that’s not a common occurence.

Taking off from Lake Bennett, Yukon, in a bushplane
The view to the south, down the main arm of Lake Bennett. The Yukon/BC border runs across the lake just to the south of the island.

Aerial view of Lake Bennett, Yukon
Looking at the island from the BC side of the border. On that island are 2 Gold Rush graves, those of Luc Richard and Thomas A. Barnes who were drowned when they fell through rotten ice on Lake Bennett on May 10, 1898. See a brief 1898 report on that accident from The Caribou Sun, a newspaper printed at Caribou Crossing (now Carcross).

Aerial view of Lake Bennett, Yukon
The historic Pennington section house on the White Pass & Yukon Route rail line. Every time I see it, I wish that somebody would turn it into a B&B 🙂

The historic Pennington section house on the White Pass & Yukon Route rail line
Looking north on the lake towards Carcross.

Aerial view of Lake Bennett, Yukon
At 3:45, we crossed over Millhaven Bay again, and headed up the Wheaton River.

Millhaven Bay and Lake Bennett
Another little detour, through a notch in Gray Ridge. Mount Gilliam is on the left (north) side, the peak on the south side is unnamed.

Flying through a notch in Gray Ridge, north of Carcross, Yukon
At the bottom of that cliff is a cave that appears to be quite deep. Some of us are quite intrigued by the thought of making the tough hike up to it 🙂

A cave in Gray Ridge, Yukon
One the east side of that notch in Gray Ridge is another plane crash. The arrow points it out in the main photo, and the inset shows the upside-down Cessa 180 floatplane that 4 men were killed in. To non-pilots, looking for this sort of site may seem morbid, but when you’re flying in this country, it’s good to always keep in mind what can happen when you make bad decisions. During the years that I was involved with CASARA (and actively flying), I spent countless hours looking for tiny specks of metal like that, always hoping to see survivors waving at us.

Cessna 180 plane crash on Gray Ridge, Yukon
Looking east across the Watson River to Lewes (or Lewis) Lake and the Mount Lorne ridge.

Aerial view of the Watson River and Lewes Lake
My house is at the lower left in the Mary Lake subdivision, the model aircraft club’s airport is left of centre, and the abandoned stock car track (where I often fly my drone) is right of centre.

Aerial view of the Mary Lake acreage subdivision in Whitehorse
Turning onto the base leg of the approach to the floatplane area of Schwatka Lake, with Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport ahead.

Air North’s base of operations.

Air North's base of operations at Whitehorse, Yukon

When I got home, I got back to my cooking, but my departure in the motorhome has been delayed by a day. The weather is supposed to improve tomorrow anyway, so it’s all good 🙂


Fall Colours and Yukon History – by Floatplane — 10 Comments

  1. Amazing, after all the locations we worked along the Highway, hearing the “history” and reading a huge personal library I collected over that time, to not be able to see some of this. Thx. Had friends at 60 Mile used to tell a story of a miner who married Diamond Lil, visited her in Seatle once a year and just never showed up one Spring. Any info? Thanks again

  2. the crash site near the annie lake road is that of an aircraft called a Boxcar. there is a sad tale of its demise and the deaths of at least two crew members with it.
    i didn’t know you were once in CASARA. my husband and i have been active w CASARA for over 10 years. very rewarding but a demanding volunteer commitment

    • I found the crash – a C-119 “Flying Boxcar”. “23 November 1961: Seven men died 30 miles south of Whitehorse Yukon (Canada). Three men parachuted to safety with minor injuries. A seized brake drum had caught fire and flight crew was informed by control tower of danger. Witnesses working for WP and Yukon Route railway watched as the C-119 slammed into the ground near mile 79.5.”

  3. Thanks for sharing this trip with us!
    As a flight mechanic and airplane lover I understand how much joy this excursion must have brought to you. Especially gen having such a spectacular landscape like Yukon as the background. Man, once I get out of the military I’ll move somewhere up there! I could get lost in that landscape for months! Hiking, camping, canoeing, and so on 🙂