The Yukon River

The breathtaking Miles Canyon (pictured) was formed from volcanic activity along the Yukon River.

5. Description

The Yukon River, a major North American River, drains a vast area of 832,700 square kilometers in northwestern Canada and the central region of Alaska in the United States of America. The river arises from its headwaters, the McNeil River in British Columbia of Canada, from where it flows through the Yukon province of Canada and into Alaska, before finally draining into the Bering Sea at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The total course of the river covers a distance of around 3,190 kilometers. Along its course, the Yukon River is joined by a large number of tributaries, including such rivers as the Teslin, Pelly, Klondike, Porcupine, Tanana, and Takhini.

4. Historical Role

The Yukon River was extensively explored in the 19th Century by Russian explorers and traders. While the Yukon Delta was known to the Russians by the 1830s, the headwaters of the river were not accessed until a decade later. By 1846, a 970-kilometer long course of the Yukon had been mapped by these Russians. Several trading posts, like Fort Selkirk and Fort Yukon, were built along the river and its tributaries to facilitate trade with the native Americans. Clashes between the Europeans and native tribes, however, slowed down the pace of European infiltration of the Yukon River Basin over the next few decades. The discovery of gold near the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon, in 1896 sped up navigation along the Yukon, and resulted in the "Klondike Gold Rush". In the later years, however, river transport in the Canadian section of the Yukon River lost much of its importance, as road and railway transport routes became more popular means of traversing the region as they became more available.

3. Modern Significance

The Yukon River can boast of hosting one of the longest salmon runs in the world, wherein Chinook, Coho and Chum salmon alike migrate long distances along the river and its tributaries for spawning. Yukon salmon are considered a delicacy as well, and form an integral part of the diets of the peoples inhabiting the Yukon River Basin. Subsistence fishing in the Yukon's waters also supports the local economy of the region. Mineral mining is another economically significant activity occurring in the Yukon River Basin, wherein lead, zinc, silver, copper, and base metals are mined at various points along the Yukon and its tributaries. The scenic beauty of the Yukon River Basin also draws a large number of tourists to the area, highly benefiting the regional economy. Agriculture is limited to the cultivation of coarse grains, fodder, and a few cold-tolerant vegetables. The practice of fur trapping, meanwhile, a traditional activity of the Native Americans of the region, is in a declining state.

2. Habitat and Biodiversity

The Yukon River Basin experiences an overall sub-arctic type of climate, characterized by short, warm summers, and long, bitterly cold winters. Average winter temperature at Dawson, a city on the banks of the Yukon River in Canada’s Yukon Province, are around -21° Celsius, while the average summer temperatures stand around 16° Celsius. Rainfall in the region is largely restricted to the four summer months, as precipitation in the rest of the year comes primarily in the form of snow. The Yukon River Basin has sparse vegetation cover, with coniferous forests restricted primarily to the river valley and lower mountain slopes. Denser forests of Alpine fir and Lodge-pole pine occur in the lower reaches of the river, such as in the Liard River Valley along the Alaska Highway. Grizzly bears, moose, Timberwolves, minks, martens, lynxes, muskrats, and a variety of birds, such as geese, swans, ducks, ptarmigan, and grouse, represent the fauna of the Yukon River Basin. The aquatic life of the river includes several species of commercially and ecologically significant fish species, such as salmons, whitefishes, pikes, and Arctic graylings.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

Though the Yukon River is a famous migratory route for salmon, recent data has revealed a drastic decline in the salmon runs, forcing the government to close down a number of commercial fisheries operating in the river. A combination of climate change and overfishing is believed to be responsible for the reduced salmon numbers in the river. As per World Wide Fund for Nature reports, habitat degradation and changes in the hydrologic patterns of the river triggered by climate change, are the major factors currently threatening the Yukon River's ecosystems.


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