One of the earliest European travelers in the area was Edward James Glave from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He wanted “to be the first white man to erase from the map the hypothetical and fill up the blank area with the mountains, lakes and rivers which belong to it”. In 1890 a party set out that included Glave, an Alaskan scout named Jack Dalton, and a Tlingit man called Shank The men traveled over the Chilkat Trail and then paddled the Tatshenshini in a 20-foot dugout canoe. At the end of the trip Glave said that the Tatshenshini had “such an incessant display of scenic wild grandeur that it became tiresome.”
At the turn of the century there was a brief gold rush on Porcupine Creek, near Rainy Hollow. The strike attracted over 1,000 miners and was very active until 1906. In 1927 another small gold discovery was made at Dollis (Ts’ach’än Chù) Creek by Paddy Duncan, a Neskatahin native. In the early 1900s there were several scientific surveys, a boundary survey and a few mountaineering expeditions, one of which included the first climbing of Mt. Fairweather in 1931.
The Haines Highway was built during the Second World War by the United States Army to provide tidewater access to the Alcan Highway. It closely followed the Dalton Trail, which had been established as a toll route to the Klondike gold fields in 1897 by Jack Dalton. This route, in turn, followed an early Tutchone/Tlingit trade route between the coast and interior tribes. In the late 1970s the highway was upgraded to its present standard through a joint Canadian/American project.
Shortly after, a major mineral exploration project began in the headwaters of Tats Creek on Windy Craggy Mountain. A huge, high-quality deposit of copper was found and environmental hearings began as part of the process of obtaining a mining permit. It quickly became apparent that the project would destroy the wilderness qualities of the Tatshenshini and pose some serious environmental hazards as well. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, river uses and environmentalists rallied in an unprecedented fashion. Tatshenshini Wild, an umbrella organization representing over 50 major environmental groups in the US and Canada, spearheaded a high-profile international campaign aimed at securing protection for the area. The BC government officially declared this area a Class "A" provincial park in October 1993.
The park is on the traditional lands of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Numerous First Nation fishing villages were located along the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, although today only Klukshu, Yukon is still occupied. Visitors are encouraged to visit Klukshu to learn something of the area's rich First Nations cultural heritage. Visitors stopping at Shäwshe (Dalton Post) are reminded that they are on lands legally owned by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Please respect their land use regulations and requirements.
More information on the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
Comprehensive archaeological studies of the Alsek and Tatshenshini River corridors are not yet complete. If you come across a site or artifact of cultural significance you are encouraged to report its location and what you saw to the BC Parks office in Atlin at (250) 651-7634. Please remember that it is an offence to damage or remove any natural or cultural resource from a Provincial Park.
The valley of the upper Tatshenshini is characterized by open sub-alpine forests, often with extensive poplar stands and alpine tundra. The poplar stands are unusual because of their dense alder thickets and carpets of northern ground cone, a parasitic plant, rarely found in the province, which is an important grizzly bear food. The broad middle reaches of the Tatshenshini flow past extensive gravel bars, large alluvial fans and the jagged ridges of the Alsek Ranges. The sloping fans and gravel bars are carpeted in meadows of flowers at a scale uncommon in the province.
Below the mouth of the O’Connor River, the Tatshenshini is dramatically different. The river pours through a braided channel that is over a kilometre wide; expansive views of the glacier-covered St. Elias Ranges dominate the west. Here the coastal influence begins to be felt, while high winds and heavy snowpacks are common. Scientists studying the area say the mixed spruce-willow-birch forest found along this stretch of the river is unique in BC.
The Alsek River flows south out of the Yukon’s Kluane National Park and Reserve and the largest non-polar icecap in the world. In BC, the Alsek Valley is very different from the Tatshenshini. It has been described as stepping back in time to the end of the last Ice Age. The broad, braided, silt-grey flows past dense groves of paper birch, willow and aspen. Higher slopes are covered with shrubby willows and slide alder. Moist meadows are common, often coloured with wide swathes of fireweed. The backdrop to every scene is filled with snowy peaks, blue glaciers and bare rock.
As the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek nears, Mt. Fairweather dominates the view, the highest peak in BC at 4,633 metres. The now mighty Alsek rolls past wide plains of river gravel backed by lush coastal vegetation. Nearby, hanging glaciers cover the flanks of the Noisy and Icefield Ranges.
Below the confluence, the river slices through the coastal ranges and enters Alaska. This section of the Alsek is spectacular. At Gateway Knob, the Alsek glacier flows into the river creating an iceberg-filled lake. One hundred and sixty miles from its source, the mighty Alsek finally reaches the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay, Alaska. Flowers, trees and shrubs are part of the park’s natural heritage, please do not damage or remove them.
The exceptional landscape, climate and vegetation of the Tatshenshini have produced an unusual diversity of wildlife species. As with the plants, many of the area’s wildlife species are at either the northern or southern limits of their geographic range. These edge-of-the-range populations are important for the long-term survival of the species. Because environmental conditions at the edge of a species’ range are different from the conditions at the center, adaptive evolution is encouraged. This results in a slightly different genetic pool that can help a species survive long-term environmental change.
About 200 Dall sheep - roughly half the provincial population - are found in Dollis Range (Ts’ach’än Dhäl) and Datlaska Range just west of the Haines Highway. Between three and four hundred mountain goats are found on south-facing slopes between the highway and the Alsek Ranges to the west.
Grizzly bears are found throughout the region but are especially plentiful along the rivers when the salmon are running. Most river users see bears or bear tracks nearly every day. The Alsek Ranges between the Alsek and Tatshenshini Rivers are known to provide exceptionally productive grizzly habitat, probably the best in Canada. The Tatshenshini-Alsek area, along with the surrounding parks, may be the only area in North America large enough to ensure the long-term survival of grizzly bears. Black bears are also numerous along the rivers in the fall, and in the sub-alpine/alpine during the summer. A rare colour phase of black bear, the bluish-coloured glacier bear, occurs here; almost nothing is known about its range except that it is found nowhere else in Canada and rarely in Alaska.
Waterfowl, sandhill cranes and other bird species use the Alsek River as a migration route from the coast to the interior in the spring and fall. Eagles follow salmon up the Alsek in the fall. Rafters report seeing 50 or more at one time. Other bird species of note include gyrfalcon, peregrine falcon, northern goshawk, golden eagle, northern harrier, trumpeter swan, willow ptarmigan, great grey owl, short-eared owl, king eider, arctic tern, gray-cheeked thrush, lesser golden plover, Pacific loon and the wandering tattler.
The Haines Highway provides an opportunity to see much of the same unusual plant and animal diversity that river users experience. The highway passes through coastal, sub-alpine and alpine tundra environments. Over 82 species of birds have been recorded in the Chilkat Pass area. Unusual sightings include Smith’s longspur, snow buntings, three different species of ptarmigan, red-throated loons, gyrfalcons and the wandering tattler.
A number of small mammals found here are rare in British Columbia; these include the collared pika, the tundra vole, the arctic ground squirrel, and the meadow jumping mouse. Dall sheep are often seen on grassy, southwest-facing slopes and at a mineral lick in the Mt. Mansfield area. Mountain goats are also found at the same lick and can be spotted near the Three Guardsmen. Moose can be seen in wet areas near the road. Grizzly and black bears, although not as common as on the lower Tatshenshini, can be seen on the Blanchard River when salmon are spawning from July to September.
Park users should always be aware of bears and other wildlife in our park environment. Never feed or approach bears or other wildlife.