The Yukon River is the longest river in Yukon & Alaska. Third longest river in North America, flowing northwest from the Coastal Range mountains of northern British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory and Alaska to the Bering Sea. Its overall length is 3185 kilometers (km), with 1149 km within Canadian borders. The watershed's total drainage area is 840 000 sq. km (323 800 sq. km in Canada) and it discharges 195 cubic kilometers of water per year.
During the Klondike Gold Rush the Yukon River was one of the principal means of transportation. Paddle-wheel riverboats continued to ply the river until the 1950s, when the Klondike Highway was completed.
Yukon means "great river" in Gwich'in. The river was called Kwiguk, or "large stream", in Yupik. The Lewes River is the former name of the upper course of the Yukon, from Marsh Lake to the confluence of the Pelly River at Fort Selkirk.
The valley of the Yukon is believed by some anthropologists to have been the main immigration route for North America's first human inhabitants. According to this theory, the ancestors of today's aboriginal peoples arrived across a now-submerged isthmus joining present-day Alaska with Russia's Siberia. Some aboriginals dispute this theory and believe in their own traditional teachings that their ancestors originated in North America.
The generally accepted source of the Yukon River is the Llewellyn Glacier at the southern end of Atlin Lake in British Columbia. Others suggest that the source is Lake Lindeman at the northern end of the Chilkoot Trail. Either way, Atlin Lake flows into Tagish Lake, as eventually does Lake Lindeman after flowing into Lake Bennett. Tagish Lake then flows into Marsh Lake. The Yukon River proper starts at the northern end of Marsh Lake, just south of Whitehorse. Some argue that the source of the Yukon River should really be Teslin Lake and the Teslin River, which has a larger flow when it reaches the Yukon at Hootalinqua. The upper end of the Yukon river was originally known as the Lewes River until it was established that it actually was the Yukon. North of Whitehorse, the Yukon River widens into Lake Laberge, made famous by Robert W. Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Other large lakes that are part of the Yukon River system include Kusawa Lake (into the Takhini River) and Kluane Lake (into the Kluane and then White River).
The river passes through the communities of Whitehorse, Carmacks, (just before the Five Finger Rapids) and Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, and into Circle, Fort Yukon, Stevens Village, Tanana, Ruby, Galena, Nulato, Grayling, Holy Cross, Russian Mission, Marshall, Pilot Station, St. Marys (which is accessible from the Yukon at Pilot Point), and Mountain Village. After Mountain Village, the main Yukon channel frays into many channels, sprawling across the delta. There are a number of communitites after the "head of passes," as the channel division is called locally: Nunum Iqua, Alakanuk, Emmonak, and Kotlik. Of those delta communities, Emmonak is the largest with roughly 760 people in the 2000 census. Emmonak's gravel airstrip is the regional hub for flights.
The Yukon is one of the most important salmon-breeding rivers in the world. Each year it supports huge Chinook salmon returning to spawn in its tributary creeks. The Whitehorse Fishway is, at 366 meters (m) in length, the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. It was built beside the dam at Whitehorse to provide a channel for the salmon as they migrate upstream.
Many tourism operators rent canoes for the more adventurous type.