The Kathleen Lake Campground has a day use area with spectacular views
All Yukon RV campgrounds were not created equal.
The territorial government operates and services 42 campgrounds from Watson Lake to Rock River on the Dempster, and Snag Junction on the Alcan, but the Feds (Parks Canada) have just one, Kathleen Lake, which is the only place in Kluane National Park you can sleep (legally) if you have rubber wheels for your mode of transportation (rather than flying machines, skis, hiking boots or birchbark).
It’s also the only public campground in the Yukon that charges $15.70 per night instead of $12, and the only one that makes Yukon seniors (65+) cough up to shack up, a federal oversight that must be corrected in the near future, before it’s too late. We are also a bit snake-eyed about the syrupy published tale of how Kathleen Lake was named, supposedly by a homesick and lovesick Scottish-born Mountie working on the Dalton Trail from 1900–02. Since Kathleen is the anglicized version of the Irish name Caitlyn and means “pure,” it is far more likely the lake was named for the purity of the alpine water rather than by a lovelorn Scottish lawman who missed his Irish girlfriend during the years right after the Klondike Gold Rush. But who knows with Yukon place names? Maybe it’s true.
One thing is undeniably factual: You can find it by driving 27 kilometres (17 miles) up the Haines Road from Haines Junction, uphill all the way in a series of steps, then more uphill travel into the park, lake and campground, which is also elevated and able to pick up cell signals (but only in the first four to six campsites on the high point of the 39-site campground) near the sign-in kiosk. That is a true rarity in the Kluane Country, which has great service in the Junction and good reception in all three directions out of town for about 25 kilometres before you re-enter the twilight zone in all directions except Kathleen’s.
Even Congdon Creek, a great lakeside campground between Slims River and Destruction Bay, is silent at the point where the park boundary goes due west while the Alcan continues on northwest to Alaska, up the Shakwak Trench. Being able to communicate with the rest of the world from the very top of the Kathleen Lake Campground is just a flukey perk of altitude from the Yukon’s most unusual campground.
For a roving travel writer, however, who values communicating with others from far and distant places, it was a pleasant surprise that allowed some serious research to be done on kokanee (silver) salmon, which has always been one of the main reasons to go to Kathleen Lake, where the whole story is told on many signboards in the day-use and parking areas.Kokanee, of course, are near-mythical Canadian game fish that began as landlocked sockeye salmon that got cut off from the ocean by one thing or another. They somehow learned how to survive their entire lives in freshwater. The Kathleen Lake kokanee, as the signs explain, were blocked by Lowell Glacier, while spawning sometime in the 1700s, and became trapped in the Kathleen Lake watershed. Rather than returning to the ocean for three to five years and becoming large, those sockeyes that became kokanees were known as “dwarf salmon” because they were smaller than many trout, 12–15 inches and one pound, and had to learn how and where to spawn so that the trout didn’t eat all their fingerlings.
It was a survival story of epic proportions and the biggest reason to visit Kathleen Lake, which was always better known for the fishing than the King’s Throne, the dramatic alpine cirque overlooking the lake, and a popular hiking terminus. It was even renowned as the “home of the kokanee,” a slight exaggeration but not inaccurate.
Deeper research has shown that kokanee salmon (long considered an oddball fish from mountainous Canada) can be found all over North America and the world. In fact, there are operative theories out there now that kokanees have evolved into a different species than their ancient sockeye ancestors, a process called speciation. While there seems little doubt the Kathleen kokanees were cut off by a galloping glacier, fairly recent parallel studies in Russia and Japan (himemasu no sake) have determined that the little hard-luck kokanees have been around at least 15,000 years in large worldwide numbers after becoming trapped in lakes during the melting of the last Ice Age.
In today’s Yukon, according to cumulative annual fishing surveys conducted by the government, the three most popular game fish in the territory are:
- Rainbow trout
- Arctic char and
- Kokanee salmon.
That’s a pretty good tribute to a forgotten little fish, which was dealt a busted flush by Mother Nature, yet survived to reach the top of the popularity list. They are even stocked in “pothole” lakes, which have no exit streams, and do well in them somehow. They are, indeed, survivors.There is a half-kilometre boardwalk constructed over a marsh alongside Kathleen Lake, called the Kokanee Trail, which is wheelchair-friendly to provide access for everybody. Kathleen Lake is the perfect destination for your first overnight in Kluane Country and your only opportunity to camp inside the park itself.
There are other great territorial campgrounds nearby, such as Pine Lake, just five kilometres outside of the Junction; and Congdon Creek, close to Destruction Bay—but Kathleen is the key to feeling the spirit of Kluane, which, ironically, means “lake of big fishes.” We would recommend at least a week to travel from Whitehorse or Haines, Alaska, to Beaver Creek or Tok.Kusawa Lake, which resembles an inland fjord, is another great place to stop and camp in the Kluane region, as are Otter Falls, Dezadeash, Burwash Landing (hot museum), Donjek, Pickhandle Lake, Snag Junction and Beaver Creek.
Don’t confuse Kluane National Park with a quick visit to Camp ’n’ Scamp.
It’s a huge beautiful area best enjoyed at a slow, relaxed pace. You can resume your hectic pace and lifestyle when you get south or west of the Yukon borders. And, if you have a hankering to lay an eyeball on Canada’s biggest mountain (Mount Logan), Icefield Discovery is located on the south end of the lake with their ski plane waiting to fly you up and over the largest non-polar glacier field in the world. They’ll even rent you a cabin up there somewhere if you want to wake up higher than you ever have.Next time, in Part four of “Grandpa’s favourite RV Hotspots,” we’ll introduce you to the Yukon’s newest RV campground, Conrad, as we explore the headwater lakes and the Yukon River.
Four contiguous national and provincial parks straddle the international border and protect different regions of the St. Elias Mountains:
- The Yukon’s Kluane National Park: 21,980 km2
- Alaska’s Wrangell–St. Elias: 52,600 km2
- Glacier Bay National Parks: 13,360 km2
- B.C.’s Tatshenshini–Alsek Park: 9,580 km2
- Total: 97,520 km2
Together they form the largest international protected area in the world and are recognized and protected under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as an outstanding wilderness of global significance.
It required a great deal of thought about a large number of camping and work trips between 1971 and 2018 to trim this wild turkey down to the following menu:
West coast of Kenai Peninsula and Dyea tidal flats
The Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk via Dempster Highway
- Kluane Park: Slim’s River, Sheep Mountain and the Donjek
- Top of the World: an oasis of scenery, serenity and solitude
- Southern Lakes: including Yukon’s newest campground (Conrad) on the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake