Now’s the time to visit the Whitehorse fish ladder. This month the Yukon River Chinook salmon are migrating through Whitehorse, and the Whitehorse Rapids Fishway, located in Riverdale at the end of Nisutlin Road,is a good place to seem them in action.
The wooden fish ladder is the longest of its kind in the world at 366 metres long. It was built in 1959 to help Chinook get up and around the newly constructed Whitehorse Rapids dam. The hatchery located just downstream of the fish ladder, incidentally, was built in 1984 to help replace young Chinook fry that are lost in the dam’s turbines.
The fish ladder features three big windows where you can watch the salmon in a gated holding tank that the salmon enter about halfway up the ladder.
About 1,500 Chinook are expected to come through the fish ladder this summer, with the peak run – about 100 a day – taking place in mid-August.
The Chinook salmon (also known as king salmon) is the largest salmon and undertakes the longest migration in the world: 3,200 kilometres from the Bering Sea to spawning beds in Yukon River tributaries above Whitehorse.
It does all this swimming upstream and without eating.
Other species that use the ladder include lake and rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, inconnu and northern pike. (One year a beaver got caught in the tank.)
The fish ladder, which is also called a fishway, offers a host of charts, maps, aquariums, videos, an underwater camera, displays, a gift shop and helpful and knowledgeable staff.
The best time to get to see a salmon is when the facility opens at 9 a.m. says manager Elizabeth MacDonald, as Chinook arriving at night will not have been released yet.
Males are a striking orange and have hooked mouths, females are slightly smaller and lighter with bellies ripe with eggs.
Before the viewing tank is opened, each fish is examined to identify their sex, age, condition and type (“hatchery” or “wild”). Hatchery fish are missing the small adipose fin, near the tail, which was clipped when they were young fry, as a marker for monitoring.
During the run, wild salmon will also be taken for hatchery broodstock. The hatchery releases about 50,000 fry each spring in the same creeks as their wild “siblings” and the mature fish form about half of the returning run each year.
The historical and cultural importance of the salmon to First Nations people is highlighted at an Elders’ Tent, with photos and exhibits of harvesting with fish wheels, traps and gaffes. It’s is erected on the path below the centre on the way to the lower viewing platform.
Ta’an Kwach’an elder Julia Broeren, and Sarah Snowdon, from the Kwanlin Dun First Nation share their salmon stories Wednesday and Friday afternoons here.
Yukon Energy is hosting a Yukoners Appreciation Night on Wednesday, August 16 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. featuring cake, lots of live salmon viewing, and door prizes. And it’s rumoured Whitehorse Rapids Hatchery Manager Lawrence Vano, who’s been helping maintain the kings and other Yukon fish stocks for over 30 years, will get some special recognition.
The Whitehorse Fish Ladder is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until August 21 and then it will change from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until September 4. Entrance is a suggested donation of $3. Family passes are $10.
For more information about the Whitehorse Rapids Fishway call 633-5965. Information is available online at the Whitehorse Fish Ladder Facebook page and through the Yukon Energy webpage (www.YukonEnergy.ca and click on “Sustainability”).