France Lake Wilderness Lodge
Yukon Wilderness Lodge

The History of Frances Lake

Geological History
Frances Lake is situated at an elevation of 730 metres within the trough of the Tintina Trench, a 1500-kilometre-long rift valley that extends from Prince George (B.C.) via Watson Lake up to Dawson City. The trench began forming about 65 million years ago, as a result of plate tectonic forces that shape the continents. This caused various minerals to be washed out and accumulated in river sediments, which eventually led to the massive deposit of gold that sparked the famous Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the last century. Large-scale geological lines are also important wildlife and plant migration corridors, both for the evolutionary spreading of species in the course of time, as well as for short-term cycles such as the annual bird migration. The unique combination of geological, topographic and climatic factors mean that Frances Lake — the largest lake in the southeast Yukon — is situated in one of the territory's most biologically productive regions, resulting in a great diversity of plants and wildlife.

However, today's appearance of the region was, from a geological perspective, shaped very recently. Heavy glaciations during the ice age period of the past 2–3 million years have had a huge impact on the topography of the southeast Yukon — countless glacial advances and retreats carved out the valleys and shaped the surrounding uplands. But only the debris and moraine deposits of the last glacial period (peaking about 20,000 years ago) have formed today's detailed topography.Aerial view of the ice age carved Frances Lake East Arm

Frances Lake is a typical glacial lake whose basin has been scoured by the flowing ice. The lateral and terminal moraines of the glacier built up natural dams along the margins and at the glacier snout, today's terminus of the lake. Small glacial advances during the overall retreat towards the end of the last ice age (10,000 years ago) mark the various narrows of the lake, including the distinctive peninsula near the lodge. Massive sand and gravel deposits of the dwindling glaciers — particularly extensive on the lower part of the East Arm between the Narrows — have created today's attractive, winding shoreline with its countless bays, secluded ponds, hills and islands.

Time hasn't stopped yet, and still today the lake continues to be reshaped. Most striking, perhaps, is the delta formation of various feeder rivers (e.g. at the boat ramp) which due to sediment transport, eventually will cut the big, long lake into a chain of various smaller lakes. The Finlayson River has already completed this step cutting the upper Six-Mile Lake off from the rest of the West Arm.

Today, the Frances Lake region is characterized by extensive boreal forests (spruce and pine species) and, particularly in shady locations, permafrost (permanently frozen ground) is widespread. This leads to a very diverse vegetation cover, with everything from 30-metre-tall spruce trees along sunny shorelines, down to crippled dwarf trees on steep shady slopes. Periodically occurring bush fires add to the diversity of the forest. After a fire, it is mostly deciduous trees (aspen, birch, poplar, willow) that come up first — only in the course of time does the mature spruce forest take over again.

Early people

Various archaeological findings attest to human occupation in the area for at least 1500 – 2000 years. These early people who lived at Frances Lake were the Tu Cho, a tribe of the Kaska First Nations. «Tu Cho» means «Big Water», which was the traditional name of Frances Lake. Frances River was called «Tu Cho Tua», meaning «Big Water River». For the Indians (today called First Nations) the lake wasKaska First Nations on the Liard River (around 1940) an important fishing and hunting area. They didn't maintain a permanent village at Frances Lake, but visited here their traditional fishing camps. In the course of the year, they followed the animals and subsisted on edible plants and berries. They used a well-established set of hunting and walking trails along Frances River to Frances Lake, and on to Finlayson Lake. In summer and in winter, they stayed at lower levels along the waters in order to fish and to trap. In fall, higher regions in the MacKenzie Mountains were visited in search for caribou, mountain goats and sheep. This nomadic lifestyle was characteristic for the Natives before the white settlers arrived. However, as a result of the increasing fur trade and growing dependency on trading goods, they began taking up residence near trading posts and in permanent settlements.
Robert Campbell
1840 White explorers
In search of a trading route through the interior of the Yukon, the sturdy Scotsman Robert Campbell (1808-1894) and his explorer team were the first white men to reach Frances Lake. On behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company, a large English fur trading enterprise, the adventurers followed Dease, Liard and Frances rivers up to the Pelly River and down the other side to the Yukon River. Along this newly discovered route, Robert Campbell named many lakes, rivers and mountains whose names still show up on today's maps. He also first described Frances Lake and named it after Lady Frances Simpson, wife of the long-time Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Sir George Simpson.

1842 – 1851 First trading post in the Yukon
Two years later (1842), Robert Campbell established the first trading post in today's Yukon Territory for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at Frances Lake. The post on the western side of the Narrows at the confluence of East and West Arm was named Glenlyon House or Fort Frances. The Natives provided fur in trade for ammunition, tools and cloth. Second generation HBC trading post around 1950 at Frances Lake For 10 years, Frances Lake was part of the HBC trading route into the Yukon's interior. However, the route was soon abandoned because the fierce rapids along the Liard and Frances River claimed many lives, the logistics to supply the post with provisions was extremely difficult, and other easier trading routes (Mackenzie – Rat – Bell – Porcupine – Yukon River) were discovered. Also, differences with various Native groups that were afraid of losing their established trade monopoly in the region led to the closure of the trading route.

1887 Scientific expedition
George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901) was a talented Canadian scientist (geology and palaeontology) and extraordinary human being. During the 1870s, extensive survey expeditions to determine the international border between Yukon and Alaska saw him up north for the first time. Foreseeing that there would soon be a major strike of gold in the Yukon, in 1887 he led an overland government expedition up north in order to compile information to produce detailed maps. In large part, he followed along Campbell's trading route and passed by Frances Lake. His detailed scientific observations about geology, mineral resources, plants, animals, and human occupation are recorded in the famous Dawson Report, where he writes:

«Few lakes which I have seen surpass Frances Lake in natural beauty, and the scenery of the east arm, bordered on the east by the rugged masses of the Too-tsho Range, is singularly striking.»

1898 Stampeders in transit
During the Klondike Gold Rush, several hundred stampeders passed by Frances Lake on their way to Dawson City. The route, from Dease Lake, up the Liard and Frances rivers to Frances Lake, across the divide to the Pelly River, and down to the Yukon River was also referred to as the «All Canadian Route».
Anton Money washing gold at Frances Lake (1930)
1930 Discovery of gold by Anton Money
Anton Money was an English adventurer and prospector that came around 1930 to Frances Lake, where he found gold. He lived there for a couple of years with his young wife and a baby boy. In his book, This was the North, he depicts their simple life and praises the glory and the peacefulness of the wilderness. He describes his feelings of freedom, independence and the great satisfaction he took in accomplishing his plans without any outside help.

1934 – 1949 Second HBC trading post
A second trading post was established on the opposite (eastern) side of the abandoned earlier post. Besides trading with fur and various merchandise, the post served as a weather and radio station for air traffic during the Second World War. However, with the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942 the trading post soon lost its importance. Today's remains of a 1940 Hudson's Bay Cabin at Frances Lake (Photo 2008) Also, the Natives interest in trapping — the basis for trading with the HBC — waned considerably. Road construction and the general evolution of the area after the war generated plenty of employment, and the living conditions, both for Whites and First Nations, improved considerably. With the closure of the trading post, most people moved away and the place deserted. Today, some remaining parts of buildings and gravesites from this era can still be seen at the site.

1942 Travelogue of a family
William Hamilton and Ruth Albee write in their paper, A Family Afoot in Yukon Wilds, published by the National Geographic Magazine, about their foot journey from Watson Lake to Frances Lake and back. On their trip, which lasted several months, they were joined by their children, Billy (8 years) and Jo-Evelyn (5 years), and lived largely off the land. The text and photos display a very interesting picture of the area from 70 years ago.

1968 Completion of the Campbell Highway
With the construction of the Campbell Highway, which runs parallel to Robert Campbell's discovered route of 1840 and is named in his honour, Frances Lake became accessible by road for the first time. The highway provided access to explore the various mineral deposits at and around the lake. Fortunately for us, commercial mining never happened in the area, mainly because of high transportation costs. During this time, several people settled in the area. Notably in the early 1970s, there was a lot of traffic on the lake — something we can't imagine today: except for ourselves, there are no permanent residents at the lake anymore.
Lodge history

In 1968 Danish-born Kurt Hansen and his wife, Yoshi, arrived at the lake. They laid the foundation of today's lodge and built three structures for their private use: the main lodge, the neat little A-Frame Cabin and the historic Bay Cabin. Main lodge building and dock in1984 In fact, the latter one was an original Hudson's Bay cabin at the abandoned trading post — they dismantled it log by log, rafted it across the lake to the lodge site, and rebuilt it at its new place. The nicely renovated Bay Cabin serves today as one of our most popular guest cabins.

In 1985, Swiss ex-pat Ed Festel took over the place and started up a tourist business. Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge, as well as guided canoe and hiking trips in the area, was among the very first wilderness tourism products offered in the Yukon. Elfie and Markus Lenzin, the lodge's long-term managers at that time, also contributed to the unique character of the lodge that still persists today. It was a bustling time and various employed contractors helped construct three more guest cabins and several other buildings (sauna, workshop, employees and owners residence).

From 1999 until 2007, two more Swiss immigrants, Andrea and Christoph Altherr, together with their young daughters, were owners of the lodge. They continued to run the well-established lodge operation along the proven path and intensified international marketing relations. 2004 forest fire, the firefighting helicopter is circling just behind the lodge In their era, satellite communication was introduced at the lodge and an Internet website was launched. The 2004 forest fire that dangerously approached the lodge was also a major event in the lodge's history.

Since 2008, the lodge has been owned and operated by Andrea and Martin Laternser, yet another Swiss-born couple who continue to run the lodge in a tried and true tradition. The construction of a self-contained cabin at the other side of the peninsula expands the offerings for guests of Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge — a comprehensive picture story shows the entire construction process of the spacious log house, from felling the trees to the installation of interior fittings.

More information and imagery illustrating the lodge history is available in the April 2015 newsletter featuring the 30-year lodge anniversary.

Campbell of the Yukon, Clifford Wilson, Macmillan, Toronto, 1970
Dawson Report, The Yukon Historical and Museums Association, 1887
Prelude to Bonanza, Allen A. Wright, Studio North Ltd., 1992
This was the North, Anton Money, General Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, 1971
A Family Afoot in Yukon Wilds, The National Geographic Magazine, May 1942
Frances Lake Wildlands Study, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Yukon, 1997
The Yukon Fact Book, Mark Zuehlke, Whitecap Books, 1998
Yukon – Places and Names, R.C.Coutts, Moose Creek Publishing, 1980
Yukon Heritage (