OPINION: The indifferent devastation of Forty Mile

When my wife, Annie, came back down the Yukon River bank to our canoe, she looked shocked. “Well, there used to be a campground there,” she said. “but it’s gone.”

“How gone are we talking?” I asked. It had been a 12-hour day paddling the 50 miles from Dawson City on June 30, 2023, battling headwinds and crosswinds nearly the entire time, and we had been counting on reaching the campground at Forty Mile — one of a handful of official campgrounds on our Yukon River trip from Whitehorse to Circle.

“You can come up and see for yourself,” she said. “There’s nothing left. The ice took it all.”

The scene at the top of the bank was otherworldly. Yukon’s oldest townsite looked like it had been scraped bare by an army of D9 tractors, with deep furrows and puddles where ice had scored the ground during breakup. Campfire rings were strewn around and the outhouses were gone — and the historic buildings of the townsite, about a dozen of them, were mostly off their foundations if we could see them at all. The iconic two-story Royal Canadian Mounted Police post was heavily damaged and leaning, its first story braced by dimensional lumber. A steady rain fell as we boiled water for ramen and tried to come to grips with what we were seeing.

We had heard about damage caused by ice jams during the spring 2023 breakup before starting out on our trip, but there had been little news we’d seen about Forty Mile. Most of the damage we’d heard about was on the Alaska side of the border — flooding and damaged buildings in Circle, as well as some public-use cabins downriver from Eagle that had been affected by ice jams. There had also been flooding in Dawson City during breakup, but that had been mopped up long before we arrived in late June. Forty Mile was the first place we’d seen where the damage was so severe that it was hard to understand how we hadn’t heard more about it beforehand.

Until we saw Forty Mile, the disconnect between much of the Yukon River and modern life had been one of the best parts of the trip. In a time where technology is omnipresent and push notifications are almost inescapable, we hadn’t had a data connection for more than a few hours since we’d launched in Whitehorse. Being thrust into the 19th century patterns of river travel had been overwhelmingly positive — but at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon rivers, we were reminded of the flip side of the coin. The Yukon’s oldest town had been a seasonal camp known as Ch’ëdä Dëk by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people long before it became a trading post that was a mainstay of the Klondike gold rush. Now the tangible reminders of that history had been swept away and crushed by millions of tons of river ice, and it felt like no one knew.

We spent a restless night near the Forty Mile townsite, feeling like we were intruding just with our presence in a place that had lost so much of itself, but we were too tired to continue safely that evening. In the morning, we broke camp in the rain and hurried on our way.


Our shock at the scope of the damage continued as we paddled downriver. In some places, 6-foot-tall, multi-ton chunks of ice were still on the banks where they had been pushed during breakup, bafflingly undiminished in 75-degree temperatures on July 1, after more than a month of warm weather. For hundreds of yards into the trees, the river had deposited several inches of silt, burying all of the mossy understory in a fine brown mud. On islands in the middle of the river channel, acres upon acres of 40-foot trees were sheared off at the base like blades of grass that had encountered the world’s largest mower.

When we reached the town of Circle at the end of the Steese Highway in the Interior, we messaged my family in Fairbanks to let them know we made it and piled our gear up on shore, a stone’s throw away from a half-dozen houses that had been pushed off their foundations by the ice before coming to rest in a nearby stand of trees.

Here in the north country, we’re more aware than some that our existence in this place is not fully within our control. Like the miners and mounted police who put up cabins at Forty Mile, we depend on goods shipped in from afar. We trust that the electricity will stay on and the gas supply won’t run out — even if some of us hedge our bets a bit with a wood stove as a backup.

After a winter in which I often found myself wondering why my thoughts kept returning to that gray, bleak evening on the bank of the Yukon, I settled on this: It’s hard to be reminded that the forces of nature ultimately hold all the cards, and that the concrete evidence of our presence can be erased so easily and capriciously. It’s hard to confront the fact that when we lose things, sometimes they’re gone for good — whether they’re historic buildings or the people who built them. And it’s unsettling to feel like a place could be wiped out the way Forty Mile was and it could make so little difference to most people.

And yet we persist. After months with little public word of Forty Mile’s ultimate fate, news started trickling out a few months ago that a site damage assessment had been completed and that restoration — to the extent it’s possible — will take place.

Over the course of the past few weeks, warm weather across the Yukon and Interior Alaska have rotted the ice along the Yukon River’s nearly 2,000 miles, and breakup has begun. Although there have been reports of ice jams on the Yukon and Fortymile rivers, so far there hasn’t been word of the kind of catastrophic damage that took place last spring.

I’m hoping no news is good news.

Tom Hewitt is the opinions editor of the ADN. He previously was editorial page editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and news director of KTVF and KXDF in Fairbanks.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Tom Hewitt

Tom Hewitt is opinions editor of the ADN. He previously was editorial page editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and news director of KTVF and KXDF in Fairbanks.