Jilkáat Aani K_a Héeni in the Lingít language — the Chilkat Watershed serves as an important ecological, geographical, and cultural link between the coastal temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska and the dry, subarctic tundra and taiga of the Yukon Territory — and the tiny sliver of British Columbia wedged in between the two.
Much drier than the Tongass rainforest, the Chilkat region experiences colder winters and hotter summers than are typical of Southeast Alaska. But the Chilkat climate is a long way from the extremes typical of the Yukon. The happy medium that moderates the two climates makes the watershed quite hospitable to a diversity of plant and animal species — the highest diversity of vascular plants in Alaska, and the highest diversity of mammals in Southeast, with 38 mammal species, according to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Assessment.
Overlapping ecosystems and vast areas of healthy, connected habitat make for resilient wildlife populations. The Chilkat Valley’s north-south positioning and the braided web of the abundant, transboundary Chilkat River system contribute to its importance as a migratory corridor for fish and wildlife.
The Chilkat Watershed is just as important as a cultural linkage. Jilkáat Aaní — the territory of the Jilkáat Kwaan (Chilkat Tlingit) — extends well into Canada, and the Champagne-Aishihik First Nations north of the border cite strong relationships with their Tlingit neighbors to the south spanning generations, according to the First Nations of the Yukon.
According to the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, their ancestral land base extends over 2.6 million acres, much of which has been encroached upon by mining claims, homestead laws, the Statehood Act, and the U.S.-Canada border. The famous map the Chilkat leader, Kohklux, and his wives drew for the U.S. Coast surveyor George Davidson in 1869 charted a complex geography of Chilkat trade routes extending around 500 miles, all the way to Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River. Many of those trails are still in use today. The Chilkat Watershed provided wealth in the form of salmon, eulachon oil, and other natural offerings since time immemorial, and continues to support its inhabitants — both Indigenous and settlers — in this way today.
The Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers are popular fishing and camping destinations for Yukon residents when the salmon and eulachon are running — or any time the weather is nice. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, 2022 saw over 40,000 border crossings from Canada into the United States at the Dalton Cache-Pleasant Camp Border Station on the Haines Highway. Haines and Klukwan enjoy the economic boost sparked by Canadian long weekends and the social influx.
With the strongest salmon runs in Southeast Alaska, the world’s largest seasonal concentration of bald eagles, one of the largest brown (coastal grizzly) bear populations that coexist with human settlement, and communities on both sides of the border that love and depend on the life it supports, the Chilkat Watershed is worth cherishing and protecting.
Sadly, the Canadian mining company, American Pacific Mining (which bought out Constantine last year), and its partner, Japanese smelter company, DOWA, are aggressively trying to develop a dangerous sulfide mine at the Chilkat’s headwaters, just upstream of salmon spawning grounds.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council maintains a strong commitment to protecting the Chilkat Watershed, its clean water, abundance, and communities. You can find up-to-date action items to protect the Chilkat at our Chilkat Action Page at seacc.org/protect-chilkat.