The Carcross Desert is affectionately known as the world’s smallest desert.
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by Ed Readicker-Henderson
The end of the world has a vibe. It always does, because you have to work to get there. You earn these places, you can’t simply get onto a cruise ship and sip mai-tais along the way.
Rarely is that end of the world feeling as good as it is in Keno, the end of the Silver Trail. This 111-kilometer road in the middle of Canada’s Yukon territory runs out of road at a huge outdoor display of farming and mining tools which seems to take up about half the town. The streets are so quiet it would seem perfectly normal to have a moose wander past, and Keno itself feels like one of those places where directions all have as their reference point the dog sleeping in the middle of the road—if there were any reason for directions at all in a place this size.
And everybody who gets here looks for a reason to linger as long as possible.
Where the trail begins, in Stewart’s Crossing, I buy gas and a cookie the size of a hubcap. Hey, I was a Boy Scout for many years. I believe in being prepared. A lot of new territory lies ahead.
Most people think of gold when the Yukon comes up in their travel dreams, and it’s true, the people who first came here were looking for gold. The Stewart River was completely staked long before the 1898 Klondike gold rush. It wasn’t a rich river, but you could always pan out enough color to cover another season of hunting for something better.
Then newspapers all over the world filled front pages with stories of nuggets the size of poodles, just waiting to be picked up at the Klondike. The essential gold rush picture is that line of men on the Golden Stairs, a snow-covered mountain slope. Each man had to move a ton of supplies up that hill, backs breaking the whole way, which makes my enormous cookie seem pretty paltry.
But by the time most of those stampeders finally it to the Klondike, though, the prime land had already been staked. A party of Swedes started wandering back south, dipping their pans into every river they crossed. And it paid off: they found gold on Duncan Creek, just west of where Keno is today. In the next two years, every inch of ground along Duncan, Minto, and Highet Creeks were staked, and yet another rush was on.
However, like gold rushes everywhere, things didn’t work out quite as planned, because gold wasn’t the big deal here, silver was. And so a different kind of rush began: on Galena Creek alone, the 1913 Silver King strike turned out over 2,500 tons of high ‑ grade ore in just 10 years.
Now, let me admit, those first few miles on the Silver Trail, the sugar rush from my cookie starting to kick in, I wonder if I have time for this side trip. I’m due in Whitehorse tomorrow, and so I speed through the early stretches of the trail, muttering under my breath: beaver pond, beaver pond, moose meadow, beaver pond, porcupine tree.
And then the landscape gets to me: the mountains off to the east, quiet reflecting ponds (I start making up song lyrics about beavers and dam building), the trees shaking in a light breeze. The road parallels the wide and calm Stewart River, which flows more than 500 kilometers long before emptying into the Yukon, but is nothing more than a big tributary of the Yukon.
By the time the pavement runs out in Mayo, I’m pretty sure I won’t make it to Whitehorse on time. I’m having too much fun; the big city can wait.
Mayo started off as a transportation hub. And it’s still a hub, but now for people looking to get into the wilderness beyond town, or maybe put into the Stewart for a canoe trip to Dawson. I stop in the Binet House Interpretive Center to brush up on silver mining history, and discover that mining silver makes mining gold look fun. For every ounce of silver, figure you were going to end up with three or four pounds of lead and two or three pounds of zinc. Good side products, both, but a rich gold miner could keep his fortune in a suitcase; a silver miner was going to need something rather larger.
And that’s why the river boats thrived here. The paddle-wheeled steamships that tied the Yukon together could make it this far up the Stewart, so everything was carried this far by mule or shoe leather, and then loaded onto a ship for the trip downstream.
The last survivor of the many paddle-wheelers that plied the river is the Steamer Keno, now drydocked in Dawson City. The ship is 40 m long, and in a single year carried over 9,000 tons of ore out of Mayo. These ships could burn a cord of wood an hour, but fully loaded, they could navigate in streams as shallow as three feet.
One of the major suppliers of all that ore was the town of Elsa, a place I fall for at first sight. I simply love the name, which came from the sister of the man who first staked a claim here. But even more, I can’t resist towns whose population is smaller than the line at an average New York City hot dog cart. Today, maybe 10 people call Elsa home, but in the 1930s, Elsa was the fourth-largest silver producer in the world; the mineworks didn’t close until 1989. Right now, the town doesn’t look much different than it did in its heyday, just emptier, but year by year, the wild landscape will claim back just a bit more.
It’s only another 15 kilometers to the end of the road at Keno City; the road ends, appropriately enough, directly in front of the Keno Mining Museum, where I spend a couple hours looking at what my life would have been had I been born in a different era and with ambition. The hard work the miners went through is a given; more touching are the signs of home and comfort—tins of favorite food, a comfortable pillow, something simply decorative and useless that you know was carried here from very, very far away at great effort—that make it real. These miners, always on the lookout for the next big thing, sat around their campstove at night and dreamed of the homes they were going to make when they finally struck it rich, but never forgetting to make the place where they were right that minute home, as comfortable as possible.
A narrow side road twists up the mountain at the edge of town. Up at the top, the view stretches away past endless fields of tundra flowers and a boulder-strewn landscape that is seeing the first touches of afternoon fog. I try to count how many mountain ranges I see, but it’s impossible, there are too many.
The end of the world is a very, very beautiful place.
A signboard tells me I’m 185 km from the Arctic Circle and 4,100 km from London. As for me, I can’t think of anywhere else at all I’d rather be.
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