A mammoth undertaking

Stroll the streets of Dawson City on the shores of the Yukon River, and you’ll find an enticing array of souvenirs. Local boutiques, like the Klondike Nugget and Ivory Shop, sell jewellery, small sculptures and intricately carved scrimshaw. Remarkably, the scrimshaw is made of fossil ivory from the tusks of long-extinct woolly mammoths.

“Mammoth ivory is harder to carve than elephant ivory, but on the plus side it’s tremendously plentiful,” says boutique owner Greg Kehoe. “In fact, experts estimate world reserves of mammoth tusks in the Yukon, Alaska and Siberia at around 60,000 tons. So elephants can relax for a while!”

Kehoe sells between 2,000 and 3,000 kilos of mammoth ivory a year. He estimates many thousands of tons of fossil ivory move through Dawson City annually. All of which raises the question: Is this some kind of “white gold” rush?

Hitting the Jackpot
Actually, it was during the Klondike Gold Rush that the Yukon’s fossil ivory was first discovered a little over a century ago. To find gold, miners and other adventurers had to dig down through the permafrost to reach the gravel beds that held gold deposits.

Permafrost, course, is ideal for preserving the carcasses of long-vanished animals. Geologists and miners working in Siberia and Alaska have dug up everything from partial or complete mammoth carcasses to bison, horses and other Ice Age mammals.

The Yukon also boasts a wealth of fossils and other traces of prehistoric creatures, and mammoth skeletons and ivory are still being unearthed here today. In the north of the territory, prospectors, loggers and adventurous tourists exploring riverbanks occasionally stumble across tusks, bones, vertebra and even entire mammoth skeletons.

The fossil beds aren’t on any tourist map. They’re scattered around the territory, and finding them is largely a matter of luck. But they really do exist, for woolly mammoths once roamed widely over this cold northern region.

Glacial Cold
Twenty-five thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, the average global temperature was 0° C. It was a time of great glaciers, steppes and tundra, an Ice Age that lasted for 10,000 years.

But much of Alaska and the Yukon were free of ice. Sea level was 100 to 200 metres lower than it is now, which left the floor of the Bering Sea exposed, creating a land connection between Alaska and the Yukon to the west and China and Siberia to the east. Animals migrated back and forth over the land bridge, part of a larger unglaciated area called Beringia and nicknamed the Mammoth Steppe.

It was the age of mammoths, but it was the age of many other creatures as well. Plants and animals thrived despite the cold. “Sixty-two species of land mammals that date from the last Ice Age have been recovered as fossils in the Yukon,” says palaeontologist John Storer, director of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, a Whitehorse museum devoted to prehistoric wildlife from the age of mammoths.

The centre exhibits complete skeletons of some mind-boggling animals, starting with the woolly mammoth, which was about the size of present-day Asiatic elephants and had a shaggy coat and large, curved ivory tusks. Also on display are skeletons of specimens like the giant beaver (which at 2.5 metres long and 200 kilos was roughly the size of a black bear), the giant ground sloth or megatherium, and two species of prehistoric bison, the large-horned bison and the steppe bison.

Another skeleton in the cavernous exhibition space is that of an enormous bear called the giant short-faced bear, which stood 30 centimetres taller than present-day grizzlies and was the biggest, strongest land carnivore in North America during the last Ice Age. The cave lion, the scimitar cat and other large predators can also be viewed at this extraordinary facility.

“But not all these animals have disappeared,” Storer notes. “Some of the mammals that lived alongside the mammoths in the Yukon survive to this day, like the wolf, the caribou, the bison and the muskox.”

In other words, prehistoric animals still dwell in our forests and out on the tundra. Think about that next time you’re exploring the woods!

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at www.travelcanada.ca.

Getting There
Air Canada offers daily flights to Whitehorse from Vancouver. Information: 1-888-247-2262 or www.aircanada.ca
Driving: The Alaska Highway runs for 2,233 kilometres from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Delta Junction, Yukon; the road is paved and there are places to stay, eat and gas up every 32 to 80 kilometres. Alternatively, the Stewart Cassiar Highway winds through B.C.’s backcountry to connect to the Alaska Highway 22 kilometres west of Watson Lake in the Yukon, but this is a remote area and calls for planning ahead in terms of gas, food and lodging, as services are few and far between.
Motorcoach: Greyhound offers scheduled motorcoach service to Whitehorse six days a week from Edmonton and Vancouver (1-800-661-8747 or www.greyhound.ca )
Ferry: BC Ferries’ regularly scheduled service from Vancouver connects to Alaska Ferries and road connections to the Yukon (250-386-3431 or www.bcferries.bc.ca).

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: 867-667-8855 or www.beringia.com
Dawson City Visitor Reception Centre: 867-993-5575 or www.dawsoncity.com
Tourism Yukon: 867-667-5949 or www.touryukon.com

Jean-Pierre Sylvestre is a wildlife photojournalist and science reporter. His interests range from ecotourism and geography to natural sciences. He has travelled throughout North America for more than 20 years, writing about Canada for European and Canadian magazines and newspapers. Based in Rimouski, Quebec, he is the author of several books on marine mammals.

Photo: Government of Yukon