I’ve always loved exploring ruins. Something about the tattered remains of a bygone era that fascinates me. I’ve explored lost civilizations such as Machu Picchu, Tikal and Angkor Wat, and smaller, more modern gems such as the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Most recently, it was the eerie pile of disintegrating boats in the Yukon’s Sternwheeler Graveyard that captured my attention.
Imagine seven wooden and steel paddleboats, most over 100 years old, lying in various stages of decay along the Yukon River in Canada’s remote northwest. Six paddleboats and reportedly one barge, abandoned and overrun by a forest that’s nearly reclaimed them.
I first heard about the sternwheelers (The Mary F. Graff, The Victorian, The Schwatka, The Seattle No.3, The Julia B., The Tyrrell), during a trip to Dawson City, famous for being at the heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, and less than 2 miles from where the boats are found.
A local man I was speaking to included the graveyard in a long list of suggested to-dos. Curious, I asked him to tell me more. He described exploring the wreckage as an authentic adventure, not a commercial tourist attraction, and I was immediately intrigued.
Two days later, I gathered my gear and was on my way, camera in hand.
A little history
During the gold rush era, the sternwheelers, named for the massive paddle wheels attached to their rears, were the main mode of transportation. More than 250 negotiated the muddy waters of the Yukon River carrying freight and prospectors hoping to strike it rich.
Within a few short years, however, the number of paddle boats dwindled as Dawson’s population declined. Limited opportunity and news of gold in Alaska lured miners west and between 1903 and 1928, the sternwheelers dry-docked in the shipyard (now the graveyard), were unceremoniously abandoned.
I approached the sternwheelers from the south, by way of a wide stony shoreline littered with tree limbs and forest debris. In the distance, a thin rusted smokestack, looking as if it were wearing a top hat, was bent like a used straw and listing to the right. As I drew near, an old rusted boiler came into view, partially obscured by bushes and errant wood planks.
I started at the southern tip of the sight, heading west into the forest away from the river, climbing under limbs and walking between planks and metal machinery.
Shadows from the midday sun danced over the remains. It was difficult to tell where one ended and the others began. The years hadn’t been kind. The sternwheelers looked as if they’d been dropped from the sky then stirred. The foliage was thick and I had to duck and weave to make my way through. But thin, people-wide paths snaking through the trees made it relatively easy to find my way.
At the south end of graveyard, the forest is much thicker and the remains jumbled and dense. It’s much harder there to get a sense of what’s what. At the northern end, I found a set of huge wooden paddle wheels, a broken down engine room and other large mechanical parts I couldn’t name.
In future, I told myself, I’d walk along the river’s edge to the far end of the ruins before heading west into the forest and then work my way back.
I picked my way through the piles of steel nuts and bolts and warped sheets of metal. It’s no place for flip-flops and I was happy to have my hiking shoes on.
There were dozens of rusty nails and other pointy, serrated and sharp scraps. Pieces that could have caused serious damage if I hadn’t been diligent. Venturing deeper into the wreckage some of the planks were unstable and I could tell they wouldn’t hold my weight.
I loved how raw everything was. It’s not a tourist attraction with boardwalks, roped off exhibits and rules. That said, each year the wrecks will become more unstable, and I fear someone might get hurt if they’re not careful.
In retrospect, even though I was perfectly fine, I shouldn’t have gone there alone. It’s just far enough from civilization that no one would have heard me if I called for help, and my phone didn’t have a signal.
If you decide to visit the graveyard, and I highly recommend you do, make sure to wear good shoes, keep your eyes peeled for anything sharp, test everything before you pull or put your weight on it, and go with another person. Lastly, don’t bring children. At the very least, don’t let them wander off by themselves. It’s fascinating but far from a playground.
How to Find The Sternwheeler Graveyard
The best way to reach the graveyard from Dawson City is on foot. Take the free George Black Ferry to West Dawson and the Top of the World Highway. About a 10 minute ride straight across. On the other side, walk along the main road until you see the Yukon River campground on your right. Walk through until you see the yellow gate at the end to your right next to the shore. Go around the gate, turn left and walk along the water a few minutes and you can’t miss it.
I WAS A GUEST OF TOURISM YUKON FOR THIS TRIP BUT WORDS AND SENTIMENT ARE MY OWN.
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