Why Five Finger Rapids is a Must Stop on Your Way to Dawson City, Yukon

A great barrier looms up a mile ahead – five great irregular blocks of reddish rock ranging across the river like the piers of a bridge – making two principal channels.  That on the left is growling ominously over the shallow rocks, so we turn to the right….We turn our prow squarely for the middle of the cleft; a drop, a smash, a few quarts of water over the sides, and we are shot through into the fast current, without even looking back.
(E.T. Adney, The Klondike Stampede of 1897-1898)If you spend any time at all exploring the Yukon, you will learn about the historical importance of the sternwheelers in maintaining the supply line to the communities along the Yukon River.  They were of particular importance in supplying the miners during the Klondike Gold Rush.But there was one spot along the river between Whitehorse and Dawson City where it was thought to be unnavigable.  That spot was Five Finger Rapids.

Initially after gold was discovered in the Klondike, the sternwheelers delivered passengers only to Five Finger Rapids, after which they would have to hire pack horses to take them the rest of the way to their destination.  However, it was soon discovered that even the largest of the sternwheelers could navigate the near channel at low water.  But at high water, the falls created a two-foot drop, so when the sternwheelers worked up over the rapid, they lost power once the wheel itself left the water.  So they devised a system of cables to help pull the sternwheeler through.

Five Finger Rapids - S.S. White Horse in Five Fingers Rapids, Yukon River, Y.T. c. 1928

Notice the cables being used by the sternwheeler in this historical photograph. [S.S. “White Horse” in Five Fingers Rapids, Yukon River, Y.T. c. 1928, Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-044681, original photo can be found here]

This system worked well, except that some sternwheelers were still being damaged by hitting the rock wall.  So, as a final solution, over a period of years, the rapid was blasted away and the rock removed, thereby widening the channel by six meters.

Given its historical significance and easy accessibility, Five Finger Rapids is a must see on your historical journey through the Yukon.

FIELD NOTES:
• Five Finger Rapids is now a recreation site.  It is located between Whitehorse and Dawson, 331.6 kilometers south of Dawson, or 21.0 kilometers north of Carmacks along Highway 2.  The rapids can be accessed by foot via a staircase (229 steps…yes, I counted them) and there are excellent interpretive kiosks along the route.  The trail provides you with about a two-kilometer round-trip hike, uphill on the way back.  Good leg workout.
• Although I saw a couple of people wearing sandals on the trail, there are a lot of tree roots.  There is also some loose rock near the terminus overlooking the rapids.  I would recommend proper hiking footwear.
• This place is a fabulous spot for a picnic, with lots of parking space.  And it’s FREE!

Five Finger Rapids 2

Five Finger Rapids from the trailhead. Only the nearest channel was navigable by the sternwheelers.

 

Five Finger Rapids 3

Part of the 229-step staircase leading down to the rapids.

 

Five Finger Rapids 4

The trail. Hiking footwear recommended.

 

Five Finger Rapids 5

The near channel from the trail.

 

Five Finger Rapids 1

I was fortunate to have arrived at the trail’s end just as a couple was about to shoot the rapids in their canoe. Well done, you two!!

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