Looking for a memorable northern road trip?

The 17th annual Tombstone Weekend on the Wing (WOW) offers three days of fabulous hiking, a birding festival and interpretive events for all ages.

The weekend of free events takes place June 3 to 5 and will start from the Tombstone Territorial Park campground, at kilometre 71 of the Dempster Highway.  

The lineup includes expert birders and local naturalists as well as artists and researchers sharing their knowledge and perspectives on life on the northern edge of the boreal forest.

First organized in l999, the popular festival was picked up by the Friends of the Dempster Country Society in 2008 and then by Yukon Parks in 2009 when the Tombstone Interpretive Centre opened.

“A lot of the naturalists who helped start it then are still involved, and it’s been a really good partnership over the years,” says Cathie Findlay, the centre’s supervisor.

Friends of Dempster founder Julie Frisch, along with Cynthia Hunt and Greg Brunner from Dawson City are regular event hosts. Findlay and Hunt will lead a birdsong hike on Saturday morning. Brunner is leading a longer alpine walk later that day.

The birding festival is timed to catch the tail end of migration and also birds that are nesting and rearing their young.

“They’re singing their hearts out now,” Findlay says.

Surfbirds and northern wheatears are two Yukon birds that are found only in this area, so they are on the must-find list for birders from Whitehorse and further afield.

Festival regular and birding expert Dave Mossop will launch the weekend’s first talk on Friday evening at the campground shelter. Mossop has done recent studies on climate change effects on upland birds like ptarmigan and kestrels.

The weekend is a favourite of Whitehorse birder Mary Whitley who leads trips for the Yukon Bird Club.

“WOW is full of interesting people and interesting birds,” she says, naming the grey-cheeked thrush and American golden plover as two species she enjoys seeing.

A long-time volunteer, Whitley has always been one of the first at the campground’s original interpretive centre for the weekend event. She says she and her husband will “go early and stay later.”

“We’ve met many wonderful people there, and established friendships that have remained to this day,” Whitley says.

Whitley is leading a Sunday morning hike along the old highway on the Blackstone River, a finale for what is expected to be a weekend of fantastic birding and outdoors enjoyment.  She and Frisch are also teaming up for a Bird Trivia event.

Bisected by the Dempster Highway, the Tombstone Territorial Park includes 2,200 km2 of wilderness, mountain eye-candy vistas and is rich with wildlife. It was created under the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in land claim agreement.

Findlay notes that it’s a transition area between the boreal forest and the sub-Arctic, featuring small thermokarst lakes that are formed from melting permafrost.

“Tombstone has quite a variety of wildlife, birds and species in general. The fact that you can drive here instead of fly– that it’s accessible – attracts a lot of researchers too.

The Centre encourage researchers to share their findings with visitors and locals.

McGill University biologist Joël Potié will give a talk about recent Tombstone area studies on sharp-tailed grouse. He used telemetry or radio-tracking devices to show where and when the birds travel, including into the goldfields.

“This is something that might appeal to children, too,” says Findlay.

Artists also contribute to the something-for-everyone weekend programme. There’s planning underway for a hands-on art workshop.

For the final schedule, check out the google events on the Yukon Parks website. It’s being updated regularly.

Note: this year there will be a Husky Bus shuttle service from Dawson to the campground on Friday at 5:30 p.m. The service can transport up to 10 passengers at a one-way rate of $25 per person. For more information call 867-993-3821. (Findlay says that it’s usually easier to find a ride home after the event than up to the event.)

Happy birding!


Tombstone Interpretive Centre

Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until September 12, this well-designed centre offers displays and visitor information, as well as a campfire circle, hikes, talks and special evening and weekend events.  

“As part of a cultural program, elders and youth are invited Tuesdays for a traditional harvesting activity – like picking wild rhubarb or grayling fishing – and lunch is served,” says Cathie Findlay, the centre’s supervisor.

Watch for other summer events such as Botany Days (June 24-26), and weekends on geology,  and lichens and fungi.