There is a precise and exact spot on the Alaska Highway between Watson Lake and Teslin, a little way northwest of Rancheria, where you cross the Continental Divide for the last time on your long journey to the northern hinterlands of our continent. At that point, which has a terrific signboard explaining it all, the water behind you flows east and north to the NWT’s Mackenzie River and eventually reaches the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean.
All, or most, of the water in front of you finds its way to the headwater lakes of the Yukon River system, which begins a 3,185 km journey through most of the Yukon and Alaska to the Bering Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. It is the second longest river in Canada, fifth longest in North America and 23rd longest in the world, yet is only crossed by four vehicle-carrying bridges, two of which are in Whitehorse between its source at Llewellyn glacier, above Atlin Lake, and the terminus on the western edge of Alaska. The name comes from Yuk Han, a contraction of the words in the Gwich’in phrase chųų gąįį han, which means “white water river” and refers to the pale colour of glacial silt in the river, most of which comes down the White River from the St. Elias mountains, out of Kluane, although it starts colouring almost immediately past Whitehorse from the Takhini.During the riverboat days, which ended in August 1954, with the last voyage of the SS Klondike, Hootalinqua, the confluence of the Teslin and Lewes rivers above Lake Laberge, was considered the technical start of the Yukon River but, nowadays, after further scientific review, the “Blue Bridge” at the north end of Marsh Lake, where it meets the Alcan, is considered to be the unofficial transition or the place where the headwater lakes conclude and the river begins to be joined by the Teslin and Takhini, north of Whitehorse.In a nutshell, it works like this: Atlin empties into Tagish as do Tutshi, Nares, Lindeman and Bennett, which all flow into Marsh to start the river joined downstream by Kusawa and Teslin. All nine of those lakes and rivers, and many smaller ones, form what has become known as the headwater lakes or Southern Lakes, which has its own unique identity as a tourism destination for fishers, boaters, campers and sightseers. All of the lakes are surrounded by big mountains to the point where they start to look like each other, at least from a distance. Some, notably all of Lindeman and most of Bennett, are not accessible by road; but the rest—especially Atlin, Tagish and Marsh—are a veritable playground for RV travellers with an interest in fish, scenery or relaxation. There really isn’t anywhere else in all the North, including Alaska, quite like the headwater lakes of the Yukon River.There is a bridge across Tagish Narrows (a.k.a. Tagish River, a.k.a. Six Mile River), originally built by the U.S. Army in 1942 as a temporary detour of the Alcan, which serves as an autobahn for any wandering fish travelling between Atlin and Whitehorse. It’s like a giant fish funnel with a campground alongside, with a boat launch and a short walk to the bridge if you want to fish without getting your feet wet.While Carcross has always had a good campground, there was a gap in the coverage south of town on the road to Skagway, known today as Klondike Highway South.Until this camping season (2018), there was nowhere to legally camp between Carcross and Canada Customs at Fraser, B.C.; nor are there any campgrounds in Alaska on the black diamond downhill ski run to Skagway. Enter Conrad CG at km 90 (Skagway is 0, Carcross 106), the first new campground in the Yukon in 30 years, which is located on and named for the old hardrock town of Conrad that flourished in the first decade after the Klondike Gold Rush, although not much remains today other than a couple of old cabin shells and the towers of an old tramway for bringing the ore down to the lake steamers on Windy Arm.
Tagish is a long north/south lake shaped like a slingshot with two arms, Windy and Taku. Taku is the bigger of the two, which runs due south from Carcross to Ben-My-Chree and passes the old Engineer Mine site. It was also the lake route to Atlin via Graham Inlet to the east. Taku Arm was always busy with sternwheelers in the old days, but Windy Arm didn’t attract much recent attention until the road was built in the late 1970s on the east side of Montana Mountain. The road is pretty high up the mountain at Conrad, so there is a dramatic drop to the campsite down on Windy Arm and no cell service down there but you can locate a couple bars up on the road and pick up the Carcross signal as you move north.Your reviewer loves this new campground, especially the location, and has heard only one complaint about it during its first full year: “It’s too windy.” Considering the name of the body of water, that should have been anticipated but on both of our visits, it was calm. And don’t forget that mosquitos hate windy campgrounds.It’s a nice place to camp, which comes with a minor history lesson about hardrock gold mining and, so far as we know, the only Yukon campground that has a zipline in the playground. It also has a bouncy rubber raft on chains, to simulate whitewater rafting for the kiddies. It’s perfectly located for tourists to overnight between Skagway and Whitehorse, but will also prove popular for Whitehorse campers to day trip or do single nighters or weekends, whether the wind blows on Windy Arm or not.It’s a welcome addition to the Yukon family of campgrounds but should have been named “Windy Arm” rather than “Conrad,” in one writer’s opinion, but will prove to be a popular spot by either name.The construction of it was a co-operative effort between the territorial government and the Carcross/Tagish Indigenous community, hopefully the pilot project for many more new Yukon campgrounds in the future. Summer tourism is never going to slow down and more campgrounds are needed, throughout the Yukon, to supply the demands of the 21st century.Conrad, on Windy Arm, is just the first of a new wave of Yukon campgrounds with eyes to the future.