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An Explorer's Guide to Lake Bennett, BC & Yukon

By Murray Lundberg

Life on the Edge: Images of Carcross, Yukon

    Lake Bennett is approximately 42 kilometers long (26 miles), flowing from south to north between the ghost town of Bennett, British Columbia, and Carcross, Yukon. The BC/Yukon border crosses the lake about half-way along its length. The lake's primary intake is from the Homan and One Mile Rivers at its head, and it flows into the Yukon River system via the Nares River at Carcross. Lake Bennett is one of the headwater lakes of the Yukon River system, one of what are known as the "Southern Lakes".

    The West Arm of the lake (about 16 km long (10 mi), and Millhaven Bay, off the West Arm, bring Lake Bennett's total shoreline to about 160 km (100 mi). Shores vary from fine-sand beaches to rocky cliffs, but for boaters, there are a huge number of camping places. Despite that, boats of any kind are seldom seen on the lake, which is notorious for being hit by sudden storms.

    The only road access to Lake Bennett is at Carcross. The narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Route railway runs along its eastern shore, running various tourist excursions between Skagway, Alaska, and Carcross during the summer.

    Lake Bennett was named by US Army officer and explorer Lt. Frederick Schwatka in 1883, after James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald. Bennett had sponsored the 1878-81 search for the remains of the Franklin Expedition, under Schwatka's command. Earlier, Bennett had financed Stanley's search for Livingstone (1869-71), and in 1875 had financed a search for the Northwest Passage. All of the search parties were accompanied by a New York Herald correspondent and photographer.

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it. In the captions there are links to further information - clicking on them opens a new window.

Aerial view of Carcross and Lake Bennett
This photo, shot from a jet climbing out of Whitehorse en route to Vancouver, shows Lake Bennett from the north. Carcross is at the lower left, where the lake drains into Grayling Bay and Nares Lake via the very short Nares River. The West Arm is seen towards the upper right, with Millhaven Bay hidden behind a cloud. Montana Mountain is left centre, Gray Mountain is right centre, and the jet is over Caribou Mountain. Click here to open an interactive map of the lake in a new window.

Carcross, Yukon

Carcross, Yukon

The village of Carcross, with a population of 499 as of June 2017, is a very quiet place in the winter, but draws a large number of tourists in the summer. The vast majority of those visitors arrive at Skagway on cruise ships and make short stops during bus excursions. Because of that, there are currently no accommodations in Carcross. In 2012, a complex of small shops known collectively as Carcross Commons opened - prior to that, the Matthew Watson General Store, the oldest operating store in the Yukon, was the primary merchant in town for visitors.

The upper photo of this pair shows downtown Carcross as seen from the Bistro on Bennett cafe. The large light-blue building in the background is the Caribou Hotel, which has been closed since late 2004 - the pink building to its left is the Matthew Watson General Store, and the dark red building at the left is the WY&YR train station. The lower photo shows the view from a train headed for Skagway, with a footbridge and railway bridge crossing the Nares River. Carcross is at MP 67.4 of the rail line - that is, 67.4 miles from Skagway.

Grey Mountain - Lake Bennett, Yukon
For 15 years, I owned a cabin on Lake Bennett. I loved it and said that I was never going to leave. But after living there full-time for 7 years (2000-2007), my life changed and I did leave and moved back to Whitehorse. In 2013 I sold the cabin - I've kept the Web site I built to sell it, so you can see what that life was like. This photo shows the view down Lake Bennett from my deck, with Mt. Gray in the distance.

Living on Lake Bennett kept me very connected to the lake, quite literally. During the winter, my drinking and other household water came from the lake - when the lake froze, I chopped a hole in the ice to get my water. This photo was shot at dawn in mid-March, 2003, as I got water to make a pot of coffee.

There's a small patch of water right where Lake Bennett empties into the Nares River that stays open much longer than the rest of the lake. In the spring, Trumpeter and Tundra swans use it to rest and feed during their long migrations. As many as 40 swans can be seen on a good day.

In May when the water levels of Lake Bennett are at their lowest, a massive fine-sand beach develops at the north end. The beach stretches about 2 miles along the entire north shore of the lake, from the Nares River to the Watson River. This view was shot from the firebreak that was cut along the road to my cabin.

By late May, the snow on the peaks is melting rapidly, water levels on the lake are rising, and the huge beach starts to disappear. The peaks in this photo are along the West Arm.

The beach at Carcross, Yukon
Because of the very shallow gradient of the beach, the water along the beach warms up enough by late July to allow the hardiest folks (usually children) to go for a swim. This photo shot in early August shows the beach on a fairly crowded mid-week day.

Kite surfing on Lake Bennett, Yukon
While the strong winds that can blow across Lake Bennett are bad for boaters, other people enjoy them year-round, with kiteboarding whenever the water is open, and kite skiing (or snowkiting) when it freezes.

By late summer, the year's highest water levels on Lake Bennett often combine with strong south winds to do serious erosion to the dune system that borders the lake on the north end.

Here's a close look at the fine sand that makes up the beach, the Carcross dunes, and the famous Carcross Desert, commonly called "The World's Smallest Desert". The sand, glacial silt deposited by the Watson River, creates active dunes in many places, including the Carcross school yard.

This is the silt-laden Watson River, which flows into Lake Bennett at the extreme northern tip of the lake. The Watson River's headwaters are in the remote peaks northwest of Lake Bennett, and for most of its length the gradient is very shallow so it meanders drunkenly across the narrow valleys that it flows in. This interactive map will show you a typical section.

Now that we've had a good look at the Carcross end of the lake, let's head down into the wilderness. Over the years I've walked the 57 kilometers (35 miles) of rail line from Carcross to Log Cabin three times, but the lake is best seen by boat. In my case, that means by canoe.

The wilderness character of Lake Bennett has recently changed somewhat, with some development in Millhaven Bay, and 15 recreational lots on the west shore down by the BC border being put up for sale by the Yukon government in 2015.

I plan to spend a few days over Summer Solstice 2018 canoeing on the lake and will have a look at what development has been done.

There are plenty of beautiful locations to stop and explore on the way down the lake. Tincup Creek is less than 2 miles from Carcross, and is a fairly popular camping spot. That rainstorm in the photo had passed over, and there was blue sky above us and to the south.

The wilderness feeling of Lake Bennett very quickly takes over from whatever else may have been going on in a person's life. On a warm summer day, spending an afternoon on one of the countless beaches is a wonderful, calming, perhaps even healing, experience.

Historic fox farm on Lake Bennett, Yukon
In the 1920s, fox farming was an extremely profitable business, and there were several in the Carcross area. Down Lake Bennett about 3 miles from Carcross, the ruins of a large fox farm lies hidden off in the forest. The fox pens/cages have largely rotted away and been covered by forest litter, but there's enough left to give a glimpse at what the operation would have been like. Being right on the rail line, shipping pelts out would have been very simple.

When the glaciers of the last ice age melted in what is now the southern Yukon 10,000 years ago, a vast lake formed, covering much of the land. As the lake drained, beach terraces were formed, and they're visible at many locations, being particularly clear on the lower slopes of Mount Gray.

The first of the mining artifacts along the lake is this power plant at MacDonald Creek, a little less than 5 miles from Carcross (at MP 62.8 on the rail line). It was built in 1911 to supply electricity to some of the silver mines being developed by Col. John Conrad. In the summer a water wheel in the creek turned a turbine, but when the creek froze or water levels were low, a wood-powered steam boiler was used to produce the power.

Boaters always have to be prepared for sudden storms on Lake Bennett. Sometimes, rainstorms will blow in and in an hour or so the skies will be clear again.

Sometimes wind is the problem - in a canoe or other small boat, this can be a challenge that lasts for days.

A few years ago, while walking back to Carcross after abandoning my canoe when a storm hit, I found the remains of a trail on the west side of the lake at the base of Mt. Gray. It seems to have gotten fairly heavy use decades ago, but I haven't figured out yet what it was used for - wood cutting, prospecting, access to Millhaven Bay, are all possibilities.

Camping along Lake Bennett, Yukon
There are great beaches for camping everywhere along Lake Bennett. The late-August afternoon that my wife shot this photo was a bit chilly, but Monty was into just snuggling up with me for a nap in the sun.

What a perfect evening to share with my family. A nice fire, a nearly-calm lake, and complete silence except for the gentle lapping of the waves.

In the Fall of 2016, I spent an afternoon exploring along Lake Bennett by air and on foot, with a friend in his float plane. This photo shows Millhaven Bay and the Wheaton River flowing into Lake Bennett just north of it, but I've posted many photos of that day on my blog - see Fall Colours and Yukon History - by Floatplane.

On the west side of Lake Bennett between Mt. Gray and the Wheaton River is a lengthy stretch of sandy beach. As with the sand at the north end deposited by the Watson River, this is an extensive area of glacial silt deposited by the Wheaton River. Being somewhat sheltered from the prevailing winds, forests of aspen and spruce primarily have largely stabilized the sand and small dunes here.

Among the dunes north of the Wheaton River, I discovered what I eventually found to be the camp of the Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company from 1898. Here, the sternwheelers Ora, Nora, and Flora were built with lumber milled at this site, and machinery hauled over the White Pass trail before the railway was built. All that remains at the site now is broken fragments of equipment, and at low water, the rotted pilings from a dock. It was those pilings that allowed me to positively identify the camp, comparing them to a photo from 1898.

Just south of the Bennett Lake & Klondyke Navigation Company camp is the grave of R. Saunders. Mr. Saunders is, so far, largely a mystery man - all I've been able to find out about him is a brief mention in the 1899 North West Mounted Police report, stating that he died of natural causes on June 21, 1899. Note that his headboard states that he died in May, and I got an email from a man who had met Mr. Saunders' son some 30+ years ago in Calgary, and he believed that his father died in a boating accident. Saunders clearly had either some very good friends or a family wealthy enough to afford to hire this level of grave construction. Note that the headboard and fence may have been installed long after a rough initial burial. See more photos here.

WP&YR work train at the Watson siding on Lake Bennett
Back on the east side of the lake as we continue south, the Watson Siding of the railway is at MP 59.6. This siding is the longest one on the Bennett-Carcross section, being over 1,600 feet long. That's MoW (Maintenance-of-Way) equipment in the photo, waiting for the passenger train I was on to go past.

The West Arm is both the most dramatic and most remote part of Lake Bennett. It's in the centre of this view from the eastern shore, with the Wheaton River sand dunes to the right.

West Arm of Lake Bennett - wilderness picnic by helicopter
The only time that I've been to the head of the West Arm so far was in June 2002, when my wife and I chartered a helicopter for 3 hours to take friends from Ontario on a wilderness picnic. It was an incredible day, landing on a glacier, a mountain-top, and then on the West Arm beach seen in the photo.

Boundary Island, Lake Bennett, Yukon
One of my favourite places on Lake Bennett is the largest island, commonly though unofficially called Boundary Island. On the railway, it's at MP 53, and at extreme low water levels, you can wade knee-deep over to it.

Camping on Boundary Island, Lake Bennett, Yukon
Boundary Island is one of the most common places to camp on the lake - there are several excellent spots to set up a tent, from wide open sandy beach to forested. One of the advantages of camping on the island is that it's extremely unlikely (though not impossible) that you will encounter a bear - on the shore of the lake, both black bears and grizzlies are commonly seen.

Camping on Boundary Island, Lake Bennett, Yukon
This was about as fine an evening as I've experienced on Boundary Island.

Camping on Boundary Island, Lake Bennett, Yukon
A chilly August morning on Boundary Island. A campfire, a cup of hot coffee, and a copy of Up Here magazine to read other people's stories about the North.

I first explored Boundary Island while looking for the graves of Luc Richard and Thomas A. Barnes, who fell through rotten ice on Lake Bennett on May 10, 1898. When their bodies were recovered, they were buried on an open knoll on the island, facing back home. See more information and photos at Wilderness Graves on the Route to the Klondike.

There is plenty of beach camping along the main lake shores in the Boundary Island area, most of it on the eastern shore.

Nude suntanning on Lake Bennett, Yukon
There is very little chance of meeting any other people on the lake, so you can experience the wilderness dressed any way you choose.

Immediately south of Boundary Island is a group of rocky little islands. The BC/Yukon border crosses Lake Bennett here, and a large, colourful "Yukon" sign was installed a few years ago to replace a simple little BC/Yukon one.

On the White Pass & Yukon Route railway at Milepost 51.6 from Skagway is Pennington Station. Named after Frederick Pennington, one of the original investors in the White Pass railroad, it served as a section house for railroad crew rather than a passenger transfer point. As well as maintaining the tracks, in the winter crew members would cut large blocks of ice from the pristine waters of the lake at Pennington. The blocks of ice were then put them on a train to Skagway, where they were stored in sawdust-insulated icehouses.

Pennington Station has been closed for many years, but because few people ever visit it, it is still in very good condition. For many years I occasionally dreamt about what an incredible B&B the historic station would make.

Cabin at Pennington Station, BC
Adjacent to Pennington Station is a log cabin that may have been a fox farm. I haven't searched the area yet to see if there's any validity to that story.

Waterfall near Pennington on Lake Bennett
On the west side of Lake Bennett just south of Pennington is this large waterfall. Very thick brush along the creek has so far discouraged me from hiking from the beach to its base.

Silver Queen Mine, Lake Bennett, BC

Silver Queen Mine, Lake Bennett, BC

In 2003, I got an opportunity to fly to the Silver Queen Mine, high above Lake Bennett. Unfortunately, the ore there wasn't as spectacular as the location, and it had a very brief history. Little remains there - some small pieces of equipment and a chair were all I saw during our 15-minute visit.

In 1913, the Annual Report of the BC Minister of Mines said: "On Lake Bennett Fred Storey and others are developing a group of claims within a mile of the railway and near Bennett Station, from which great things are expected." In 1915, the Annual Report says: "On the Silver Queen and Ruby Silver properties, above mentioned, considerable development has been prosecuted under the management of Fred H. Storey, and a prospecting and shipping tunnel is this winter being run in at a level calculated to intersect the main ledge at a considerable depth from the surface outcropping, and if the surface values and quantities are found at that depth it is expected that arrangements for shipping ore will at once be consummated, and the property is so conveniently situated as to make this a very simple matter, apart from the cost of constructing aerial tram and bunkers. The mine doesn't show up in any subsequent reports. "For more information, see Mining at Lake Bennett, British Columbia.

As well as scattered wreckage up at the mine, the wreckage of a power plant sits alongside the railway at MP 45.

This photo shows the Gridiron Mine on the west side of Lake Bennett as it looked in 2003. The operators were looking for gold and silver primarily. The 1901 Annual Report for the British Columbia Minister of Mines stated that: "The assessment work on the Gridiron Group, owned by Messrs. Whitfield and Hildebrand, has been completed and it is intended to apply for a Crown grant. This ore has assayed high and the owners are satisfied with their success." The 1904 Annual Report states that a tunnel has been driven 110 feet, and a wharf, shack, and blacksmith shop have been built, but the property never appears again in subsequent reports. For more information, see Mining at Lake Bennett, British Columbia.

Limestone belt along Lake Bennett, BC
The areas where the belt of limestone seen in this photo meets the other rock is what initially caught the interest of prospectors who staked the Gridiron and other mining properties.

After a tough day of play at Bennett, paddling north to a new campsite with my wolf-cross Kayla, and Siberian husky Kodi.

Bennett City, BC
For anyone with an interest in the Klondike gold rush, the ghost town of Bennett, or Bennett City, is an irresistible draw. The site is only accessible by train, plane, or boat (or by hiking the Chilkoot Trail), but the railway has a special Bennett Camping Adventure so you can ride the train from and back to Carcross.

This is what Bennett City looked like in the Spring of 1898, as most people were finishing off the construction of their barges, rafts, and boats so they could continue on down the Yukon River system to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields.

It's quite a climb to get this view of Bennett now, but it was a popular spot for professional photographers to shoot from during the town's heyday during the Klondike gold rush.

Unless otherwise noted, photos are ©1997-2018 by Murray Lundberg.