The Yukon’s Magnificent 11 – Part 3 of 6

The Robert Campbell Highway (Highway 4)

The Campbell Highway (Highway 4), which runs diagonally across southern Yukon from Watson Lake on the Alaska Highway (Highway 1) to Carmacks on the North Klondike (Highway 2), is certifiable proof that all you needed in 19th century Canada to attain geographical immortality was a Scottish surname and an HBC (Hudson Bay Company) job title.

The only other Magnificent 11 roads honouring surnames are The Dempster (Highway 5), named for a highly regarded Mountie who patrolled the Arctic by dogteam for years, and the Haines Road (Highway 3), the only one named for a female: missionary Francina E. Haines. However, all Campbell did was name Frances Lake for his boss’s wife, get himself promoted, then happen to be the first white man to cross into the Yukon River watershed from the east and come down the Pelly River to where it meets with the Yukon River, and set up a HBC post.

He chose a spot where the Selkirk First Nation had been living, fishing and trading for as long as their history is told. An archaeology study on the area (called A Look Back in Time: The Archeology of Fort Selkirk, published by the Government of Yukon) states that the Selkirk people had been there since before the end of the last ice age.

Then, in 1848 Campbell came along and set up Fort Selkirk.
He promptly lost it to some Chilkat fur traders from the coast who ransacked it because they resented the HBC’s unwanted invasion into their interior trading area. His own company admitted he never made a nickel of profit while he was here.

If ever there was a Yukon road begging for a name change in the 21st century, this is it, but that’s a dragon to be slayed on another day. The road itself is yet another example of Yukon connect-the-dots.

The territorial and federal governments had a post-war construction program in the ’60s called “Roads to Resources” and the section of the Robert Campbell Highway from Watson Lake to Miner’s Junction (now the Nahanni Range/Highway 10 rest area and turnoff) was one of the first projects to get started under this program. They needed to get to the Cantung Mine up in the high Logan Mountains of the Yukon Territory/Northwest Territories border region.

On the other end of what later became the Robert Campbell Highway, Al Kulan’s discovery of lead, zinc, silver and more in the Faro region close to the Tintina Trench was being readied for production and the road in from Carmacks was being improved annually until finally finished in 1969. This meant there were now two good mining roads at either end of the Robert Campbell Highway, which only had to be connected to complete the loop between Ross River and Miner’s Junction.

In 1978 you could finally drive from Watson Lake to Carmacks, taking Highway 4 (Robert Campbell Highway) – which is technically a shortcut to Dawson City and the Klondike (but only by 8 kilometres or so) compared to driving the Alaska Highway from Watson Lake to Whitehorse and turning onto the North Klondike Highway to get to Carmacks and Dawson City.

As a product of the “Roads to Resources” program, tourism was never a part of the construction motivation of this highway, although there are several good campgrounds along the way, so it must have been a secondary consideration.

In a word, the completed Highway 4 was schizophrenic when it opened in 1979. First it’s good, then rough, then good again for a while, and then rough again. It was good from Watson Lake to Miner’s Junction in the southeast, and good from Carmacks to Faro in the northwest, but there was a lot of Yukon in between with no services or amenities. That section was well suited for self-sufficient RVs, but no other travelers or visitors.

In fact, your reviewer did the whole trip with a travel trailer during the autumn colours of 2017 and it is still that way after all these years of annual upgrade opportunities. There is only so much money in the YG road budgets and roads get bucks according to population numbers and/or economic considerations. That’s just a northern fact of life.

As for Nahanni Range Road (Highway 10), with no tungsten activity going on these days, it could use some grading, surfacing and ditch work, but is such a well-constructed road built to handle big ore carriers, it’s a pleasant drive into spectacular scenery. But, again, it is only suitable for self-sufficient RVs and 4X4’s.

It’s not really set up for casual tourists and is definitely an adventure drive unless you’re a geologist. They’re a different breed and drive roads these roads all the time for work.

Of course, if you break down or have any problems up there, you may find other adjectives to describe it, as there is no cell service. Come to mention it, the only place I could make a phone call between Johnson’s Crossing and the North Canol was right in the town limits of Ross River.

If you are a northern cheechako (rookie), sitting at the Watson Lake sign forest on the Alaska Highway, looking at a Yukon road map and wondering if you should turn right onto Robert Campbell #4 on your way to the Klondike because, afterall, it is shorter, the answer is NO!
Two reasons:

  1. The Alaska Highway from Watson to Whitehorse is a paved piece of cake going directly into the headwater lake country with beautiful scenery around every bend, and
  2. Whitehorse is the only place between Watson Lake and Dawson City where you are guaranteed to find any kind of supplies or luxuries you need to make your trip enjoyable. Whitehorse will have anything you need, including the cheapest fuel in the North.

You cannot bypass Whitehorse to go bouncing down a bumpy Highway 4 just to save time, because you won’t save any at all. It will cost you time and money if you are the type who cannot resist a shortcut. It just looks inviting on a map.

Besides, Whitehorse is much more than just a service and supply centre. It’s a great tourist attraction, too, with a riverboat, museums, game farms, lakes, hot springs, a variety of restaurants and many other activities and locales of interest like Miles Canyon, Grey Mountain and Mount Sima.

When you consider that the Cantung Mine was the biggest producer of tungsten in the western world (outside of China) and ran from 1962 to 1985, and that Faro’s lead/zinc mine ran from 1969 to 1998 for three different companies, the amount of revenue generated by Highway 4 is virtually incalculable.

At one time Faro was the largest open pit mine in the world and produced 40 per cent of the Yukon’s GDP for years and years. It also produced one of the biggest environmental nightmares in Canadian history, but restoration and reclamation is expected to begin in 2023 and cost more than $1 billion, which will help the 400 hearty souls who still live in the only Yukon ghost town with a golf course.

Mactung, on the Canol Road (Highway 6) in the Hess Mountains just north of the Logans, has between 11 and 27 years of proven scheelite deposits considered the biggest minable deposit in the world and is in pre-production, pending road construction and better world prices. So the Highway 4 mining party isn’t over yet.

In Sept, 2017, the Liberal governments of Canada and the Yukon announced $350 million in road construction funding, much of it slated to have #4 ready when ore prices rise again, which is inevitable.

Calling Robert Campbell’s highway a “Road to Resources” may have been an historical understatement, whether the guy deserved a road named in his honour or not. (In my opinion, not!)

I think it should have been called The Kulan Corridor or Berglund Connector to honour one of the Yukon’s two most successful prospectors, Axel Berglund who staked and founded Cantung in 1954 or Al Kulan who discovered Faro.

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