I first discovered the village of Atlin by air, during a life-changing tour of the Far North that took me from my home in Langley to Tuktoyaktuk and back by small plane in 1985. Atlin was one of the places that convinced me that I belonged in the north, and my love for it has never diminished – the land, the people and its fascinating history keep calling me back.
It had been a few years since I’d had a long visit to Atlin, but my wife, Cathy, and I have just bought our first motorhome, and Atlin was the perfect place for our first trip in it with both our dogs, Monty and Bella, and our cat, Molly.
Atlin is definitely “off the beaten track”, but major reconstruction along the Atlin Road in the past few years has made the 98 kilometre (61 mile) drive south from the Alaska Highway at Jake’s Corner easy now. There is, however, still about 24 kilometres (15 miles) of gravel.
We arrived in Atlin without reservations, but quickly found a campsite at the Norseman RV Park on the shore of Atlin Lake just 4 blocks from the centre of town. It costs only $18 with 15 amp power and water, and the million-dollar view is free! For anyone who likes old planes, being right next to the base for Atlin Air’s 1952 de Havilland Beaver is a huge bonus. The sound of a big rotary engine always sends chills up my spine.
Atlin is very walkable, although you may find that you put on many kilometres during your wandering. The historic centre of town is a great place to start your exploring, with this view down Pearl Avenue being one of the “classic” views of Atlin. In the background, the famous “rock glacier” flows down the slopes of Atlin Mountain.
This was Atlin’s first fire hall, built to house a fire wagon that was shipped to Atlin in 1901 to replace the bucket brigade that had little effect on a disastrous fire the previous August.
While looking at the fire hall, I got chatting with Edie and Len Graf, who own it and the Atlin Mountain Inn next door. I’d heard about the major renovations they’ve been doing on the hotel, and asked for a tour, which Edie was happy to do.
The Discovery Saloon is as wonderful as it was when I had my first beer in it 29 years ago. It houses many artifacts, such as the diamond drill core trays seen to the right (the vertical stripes).
I brought many tour groups to Atlin through the 1990s in particular, and spent many nights at what was then the Atlin Inn. Room 10 was always my favourite, with its awesome view onto the historic tour boat M. V. Tarahne, with Atlin Lake and Atlin Mountain behind.
Another of the most-photographed sites in Atlin is Jules Eggert’s clock, which has been standing in front of what had been his jewellery store since 1923. The usual joke about it is that it still gives the correct time, though only twice a day.
Atlin is a photographer’s dream, whatever your favourite subject(s) might be. From an antique fire engine…
… to colourful doorways, inspiration surrounds any artist, whether photographic or in some other media.
Evening is often a very special time along Atlin Lake. Whatever the sky condition, the light seems to bring some superb moods. The two young women on the dock in this photo shot a “selfie” there just before it got too dark.
On our second full day, art and history were the main focusses. The quality of the local art to be found in the gallery in the historic courthouse will probably surprise most people. From jewellery to carvings, paintings to photography, the area’s artistic inspiration that I mentioned is clear. A couple of blocks away, “Magpie, etc“, offers some unique pieces.
The Atlin Museum is located in the schoolhouse which dates to 1902 (it also acts as the Visitor Centre). Though not large, it provides an excellent look back to the area’s gold mining heyday in particular. Outside in the yard is some truly unique equipment including a huge “worm gear” that powered a car through snow.
This old International pickup sits beside Morton’s Morgue on the museum grounds.
At the museum you can also book a walking tour, which gives you access to some places not generally open to the public, including the M. V. Tarahne. “The Queen of Atlin Lake” was built by the British Yukon Navigation Company, a division of the White Pass & Yukon Route, in 1917, and immediately became a significant part of northern tourism, bringing up to 400 people each week to, and on tours from, the large Atlin Inn.
A full restoration of the Tarahne would cost several million dollars, and there’s no sign that that is about to happen, but with a bit of imagination you can take yourself back to the 1920s. To go back in style, on the first weekend of July each year, the very popular “Tarahne Tea” brings people out to join hosts and hostesses in period finery, for tea, small sandwiches and dainties.
The other place I really wanted to get inside was the lovely little Globe Theatre. Built after a 1917 fire that wiped out most of downtown again, it was used for everything from movies and magic lantern shows to funerals. I’ve been to two concerts there over the years, and the acoustics provided by the curved, button-tufted ceiling are excellent.
There are fascinating stories behind every bush in Atlin, and many locals are happy to share them with visitors. This classic Chestnut canoe has just been restored by a local who travelled some 10,000 miles along the Arctic coast in it.
Monty and Bella aren’t used to being on leashes all the time, but Atlin is very dog-friendly, and they both loved the very long walks. Tarahne Park, large and empty, was a great place to give Bella, only 9 months old, some good play time (bring your own clean-up bags, as none are available there).
On our second evening at the RV park, Norm, the owner, came by and asked if I’d like to get some photos from the water in the magic light that was beginning to appear. We certainly would, and joined 4 other guests on Norm’s large pontoon boat. He has owned the park since 1985, and clearly still loves what he’s doing – he’s a perfect host.
Norm took us around to the back of the 3 islands near Atlin, and showed us this osprey nest. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is not a species I get to see often, and to get this close to a full nest was a thrill.
A closer look at the osprey nest. The very impressive birds can be more than 60 cm (24 in) in length and have a wingspan of 180 cm (71 in).
Cruising back close to the shore near town, we got the views that Norm promised, as well as getting a view I hadn’t seen before. The building in this photo is the old hospital (now a glaciology research station), and the boat is the Gladys, the first patrol boat used by the North West Mounted Police in the region. There are unfortunately more significant artifacts in the Atlin area than there is funding to save them, and Gladys may not get the love she needs in time.
Several of us sat around a campfire that evening and chatted about our various northern adventures as the sun made a glorious exit from the sky. What a perfect ending to the day.
As we packed up to leave on our third morning, Norm came by to let me know that 3 Trumpeter swans had just returned to the slough across the road. As Fall rapidly approaches, these birds are now on their long migration south.
We had originally planned on going further afield than just downtown Atlin, but ran out of time. I did drive out to the Pine Creek Campground for a good look, for possible future use. It’s a lovely, quiet spot in the forest. When was the last time you saw a sign like this at a campground?
There is so much more to see and experience in the Atlin area that a 10-day visit would be much better than a 3-day one – along the Warm Bay Road (seen in the next photo), the Surprise Lake Road, the Ruffner Mine road, and into the Pine Creek gold fields. I’ll show you much more in future posts.