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Butterflies & Bulldozers on the Silver Trail

by Murray Lundberg

The Stewart River in April 2001. Photo by Cathy Small. Click to enlarge it.

    For most of the last 120 years, the region along the Stewart River in the central Yukon has been a land of secrets. Thirteen years before the Klondike gold was discovered, men were quietly working the gravel bars of the Stewart in search of riches. In 1898, while the worldís attention was focussed on Dawson City, gold in substantial quantities was being brought down the Stewart from unknown locations by a handful of men. And today, while tour buses and RVs zoom up the Klondike Highway, only a few adventurers turn at Stewart Crossing and head east up the broad glacial valley on a road known as the Silver Trail.

    This is a visually peaceful land, and yet a powerful one. Rather than soaring peaks and tumbling, glacier-fed rivers, there are broad valleys, rounded mountains and meandering rivers, all on a grand scale. The majority of people who live here seem to fit into that landscape nicely. Quiet and independent, these are people with a strong sense of community who, each in their own way, feel a connection with the land. Several artists share this world through their work. Among them, the watercolours created by Lillian Loponen, one of the 20 or so residents of Keno City, are well-known in the Yukon for the way the quiet power of the country is conveyed. Susan Stuart, from Mayo, spins the hair shed by one of the Northís strongest symbols, the wolf, into yarn that she uses in her weaving and knitting.

    Though peaceful in appearance, this is also a land of extremes. Mayo holds the Canadian record for the greatest range of temperatures, from -62.2 degrees Celsius (-79.9 F) on February 3, 1947, to 36.1 degrees Celsius (97 F) on June 14, 1969. The region not only experiences the greatest range of annual mean temperatures of any place in North America, itís also one of the places most heavily impacted by global warming, and is closely monitored by biologists, hydrologists, permafrost experts and other researchers.

The former equipment yard of United Keno Hill Mines, in April 2002. Photo by Murray Lundberg. Click to enlarge it.     Although gold was only found in fairly small pockets, silver discoveries in 1918 led to Mayo becoming world famous for the richness of the regionís mines. In 1930, the Mayo dock was the shipping point for 14 per cent of all the silver produced in Canada. The shallow-draught sternwheeler Keno was built by the British Yukon Navigation Company in 1922 to haul silver down the Stewart River - loaded with 50 tons of ore, she only drew 21 inches of water. By 1932, though, low world silver prices combined with extremely high transportation costs had closed most of the mines, and mining has been sporadic ever since. The last large operator, United Keno Hill, closed in January 1989, but that property may yet be reopened. Although the project has now stopped, in 2001-2002, the ghost town of Elsa, which had been partially disassembled in 1995, was being revived by Advanced Mineral Technology. One of the people working on Elsaís future during that time, Keith Hepner, looks like he would be at home working at the end of a drift in a gold mine, but he also pays homage to the regionís past by carving silver jewelry, often inlaid with gold, in his Keno City studio.

An old mining camp near Keno City, Yukon. Photo by Wayne Roberts of Yukonbikes.com. Click to enlarge it.     The population of Mayo has been stable at just over 400 since the mines closed, but the community still attracts new residents. Ryan Pozzo, the 27-year-old owner of the Silver Trail Cafe, returned to the Yukon from Ontario last September, drawn by memories of the territory from his high-school days, opportunity and a chance to raise his family in a "clean and safe" place. Although business was slow during his first winter, the summer traffic booosted his optimism.

    Nature and mines have an uneasy relationship at best, both during operation and after. Mayo and Keno City are luckier than many former mining towns that are looking for a new economic base. As well as having provided a few decades of varying levels of prosperity, the mines that operated in the Silver Trail region pushed well over 1,000 miles of trails and roads into the wilderness that surrounds the communities. That wilderness is rich in both natural and historic attributes, from alpine butterflies to antique bulldozers.

Choices, choices - Keno area backroads in April 2002. Photo by Murray Lundberg. Click to enlarge it.     Although nature may never be able to hide the human intrusions completely, the grizzlies, pikas, marmots and other animals have returned, and flowers are slowly but surely covering the tailings piles, even in the high alpine. Government-dictated mining reclamation, described by a speaker at the Yukon Geoscience Forum a couple of years ago as "the destruction of our mining heritage," is virtually unknown along the Silver Trail. Except for winter-only roads such as the 380-mile-long Wind River Trail that was built in 1959, most of the mining trails and roads into the backcountry are still passable, if not by car, then by four-wheel-drive vehicles, mountain bikes, pack horses or on foot. Along them, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of buildings and equipment remain scattered through the boreal forest and across the alpine tundra, often providing homes for birds and animals, and always posing questions about who worked there and when.

The Binet House Museum in Mayo as seen by a local quilter. Photo by Murray Lundberg. Click to enlarge it.     The Binet House Interpretive Centre in Mayo, and the Keno City Mining Museum offer glimpses at life the way it used to be, give some concrete suggestions for places to drive and hike, and answer some of the questions posed by the mining artifacts. Even though the "Closed" sign was on the door of the Binet House when I arrived on my last visit in late April, Margret Wozniak from the Village office opened it up and she and Mayo councilor Shanon Cooper showed me through the collection and the grounds and discussed some of the options for exploring. I always find it reassuring to get backcountry advice from people who look like they could hoist a pack and head out with me, and I have no doubt that Marget and Shanon could.

There are interpretive signs at some of the most important locations along the Silver Trail - this one describes the Duncan Creek Road. Photo by Murray Lundberg. Click to enlarge it.     Mayo as a whole is a rather nondescript town, but if you do some wandering, particularly with the "Historic Mayo" brochure in hand, youíll find some gems. While many of the most interesting buildings are listed on the brochure, some such as the private home on the waterfront with "Royal Bank of Canada" on the front door, have to be discovered on your own.

    The published lists of places to drive or hike are quite short. The road that climbs Keno Hill is the most frequently visited - in just 15 minutes, it takes you from a forested valley to a mountain top carpeted with alpine flowers, where the permafrost is 135 meters thick! For the more adventurous, there is a six-hour hike to the summit of Mount Haldane - the endless daylight in June and July allows for a different definition of "overnight hike" than most people are used to, and even for a Yukoner, hiking back to your vehicle at 3:00 AM is an experience to be savoured.

    This region is an explorerís paradise, and talking to locals is the way to get pointed in the most interesting directions. Iíve driven for hours without seeing another vehicle, and you can hike for days with little chance of seeing another person. Few trails are marked, and although it isnít a problem yet, the people working on tourism development plans are well aware that as more people head into the backcountry, search and rescue will become an issue.

An April snowstorm in Keno City, Yukon. Photo by Murray Lundberg. Click to enlarge it.     Another important issue is the short summer season - many people donít come prepared to wake up to snow in April, as has happened on both of my last trips to Keno City. The climb along the gravel road from Mayo to Keno City is so gradual that it isnít obvious that youíve gone from 504 meters (1,653 feet) elevation to just over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), but the change in weather, particularly in the spring and fall, can be dramatic. Snowfall does an impressive job of enhancing the Wild West look of Keno City as you drive in, though! Most of the high country, even Keno Hill, isnít accessible until at least mid-June.

    It surprises most people to learn that Keno Hill and Sourdough Hill are among the most easily accessible places in the world to see northern alpine butterflies. A study during the summers of 1999 and 2000 found 20 species, including the Eversmannís Parnassian, a member of the Swallowtail family that is very popular with butterfly collectors (lepidopterists). Collectors were coming in increasing numbers 3-4 years ago, particularly from Japan, and local residents became concerned that the harvest could reach damaging levels in populations with very limited ranges. The Keno City Butterfly Project, a local initiative, has made impressive strides in protecting their delicate charges. As a result of their work, the Yukon Heritage Branch instituted a policy requiring commercial collectors to have a Yukon Scientists and Explorers Licence, and residents are monitoring collecting activity and talking to visitors on the main peaks. A new facility, the Keno City Alpine Interpretive Centre, opened in 2002 to expand on the residentsí informal education program.

An old mining camp near Keno City, Yukon. Photo by Wayne Roberts of Yukonbikes.com. Click to enlarge it.     Secrets still abound along the Silver Trail. Itís only two years ago that a long-time resident of the region stumbled across an ancient cabin and small mining operation, deep in the forest, far from any recognizable trail. Although part of the roof had caved in, it was furnished exactly as it was the day the owner walked away to join the Army in 1915. His journal, found under the bed in a chest full of personal items, records in a fine hand and in perfect English his mining, hunting and other activities for several years, then stops abruptly. What happened to him? We may never know, as the location of the cabin and even the ownerís name, are clearly questions that are not to asked twice. "One of these days when Iím in Whitehorse, Iím going to see who this guy was," ends the discussion. If I ever need another excuse to go wandering, finding that cabin will do nicely.

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Photos are ©2007 by Cathy Small or Wayne Roberts as indicated in the mouseover text