Frances Lake, the Yukon: A Complete Guide

Frances Lake, the Yukon Complete Guide
••• Late Afternoon on Frances Lake. Jessica Macdonald

Shaped by moving ice during the last glacial period, Frances Lake is the largest lake in the southeast Yukon. Its twin arms are joined in a V-shape by a labyrinthine stretch of islets and inlets known as the Narrows; and its shores are fringed by creeks, rivers and glassy bays. Beyond the water’s edge, dense boreal forest separates the lake from the distant mountains. The lake’s fascinating topography makes it a haven for wildlife; and for adventurous souls wishing to immerse themselves in the region’s remote beauty.

 

The History of Frances Lake

Frances Lake only became accessible by road after the completion of the Campbell Highway in 1968. Before then, the only way to reach the lake was by float plane—and before that, by canoe or on foot. Nevertheless, humans have inhabited the area around Frances Lake for at least 2,000 years (although back then, the lake was known by its indigenous name, Tu Cho, or Big Water). This name was shared by the Kaska First Nation people who built temporary fishing camps along the lake’s shore, and depended upon its bountiful wildlife for survival. 

Europeans first arrived in Frances Lake in 1840, when an expedition led by Robert Campbell stumbled upon its shores whilst searching for a trading route through the Yukon on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Two years later, Campbell and his men built the Company’s first Yukon trading post to the west of the Frances Lake Narrows.

They gave the local First Nation people weapons, ammunition and other goods in exchange for furs that the Kaska harvested from the surrounding area. It was at this time that Campbell gave the lake its western name, in honor of the wife of the Company’s governor. 

Conflict with neighboring First Nation tribes and the difficulty of supplying the camp with provisions caused the Company to abandon the post in 1851.

In the years that followed, Frances Lake saw only a few outside visitors—including noted Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson, and 19th-century gold prospectors on their way to the Klondike. Gold was discovered at Frances Lake itself in 1930, and four years later a second Hudson’s Bay Company trading post was established. However, the construction of the Alaska Highway soon rendered the old trading route irrelevant, and the lake was once again left to its own devices. 

Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge

Today, the only permanent residents on the Frances Lake shoreline are Martin and Andrea Laternser, a Swiss-born couple who own and run Frances Lake Wilderness Lodge. The lodge, which is located near the southern end of the west arm, was founded as a private residence by Danish expats in 1968. Since then, it has expanded to become a haven of peace and tranquility for those looking to escape the busy pace of life outside Canada’s True North. It comprises a cozy main lodge and five guest cabins, all crafted from local timber and surrounded by native forest. 

The oldest of these is the Bay Cabin, which was part of the abandoned 20th-century Hudson’s Bay Company trading post before it was relocated across the lake by raft.

All of the cabins are romantically rustic, with supremely comfortable mosquito-netted beds, a portable flush toilet and a wood stove to provide heat on chilly Yukon evenings. Hot showers are available in a separate cabin complete with its very own wood-fired sauna; while the main cabin is a sanctuary of warmth where one can relax in front of the fire whilst perusing a library filled with Yukon literature

The lodge has two distinct highlights. One is the spectacular view from the deck, of jagged mountains reflected in the mirror of the lake. At dawn and dusk, the mountains are suffused with dusky pink or flame-bright ochre, and on clear days they are clearly defined against a backdrop of deep blue sky. The second highlight is the lodge’s unfailingly friendly hosts. As an accomplished mountaineer and doctor of natural sciences, Martin is an authority on life in the world’s most rugged places and a source of countless fascinating stories.

Andrea is a magician in the kitchen, serving home-style meals cooked with gourmet flair. 

Things to Do at the Lodge

If you can drag yourself away from the comfort of the lodge itself, there are plenty of ways to explore the surrounding area. An interpretative trail through the forest introduces you to the amazing array of medicinal and edible plants that grow wild around Frances Lake. You can use the kayaks and canoes moored at the lake’s edge to explore the many inlets and bays independently, or you can ask Martin to give you a guided tour (either by canoe or motorboat). These tours offer the chance to visit the old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, to take beautiful photographs of the lake’s scenery or to look out for resident wildlife

The birds and animals that share the Frances Lake ecosystem are free-roaming, and there’s never any telling what you might see. Smaller mammals including squirrels, porcupines, beavers and otters are common, while moose are frequently spotted grazing on the shoreline. Although elusive, bears and lynx inhabit the area and wolves are often heard in winter. The birdlife here is stunning, too. In summer, a pair of bald eagles rear their young on an island near the lodge, while flotillas of common loon patrol the still waters of the lake. Fishermen have the opportunity to angle for Arctic grayling, northern pike and lake trout. 

When to Visit

The lodge’s main season runs from mid-June to late September, and each month has its own distinct charm. In June, high water levels allow for easy access to even the most shallow bays, and the sun barely dips below the horizon at night. Mosquitoes are abundant at this time, however, and last into July—the warmest month, and the best time to spot the nesting bald eagles. In August, the nights get darker and the mosquitoes begin to die off—and lower water levels allow you to hike along the lake’s shore. September is cold, but brings with it the glory of the fall colors and a chance to witness the annual sandhill crane migration. 

The lodge is closed for parts of the winter, although stays are possible between mid-February and late March. At this time, the lake is largely frozen and the world is blanketed with snow. The nights are long and often lit by Northern Lights, and activities range from snow-shoeing to cross-country skiing. 

Getting to Frances Lake 

From the Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, the quickest way to reach Frances Lake is by float plane. The flight is an experience in itself but is also costly—so those with the time to spare may prefer to travel by road. The lodge can arrange a minivan pick-up from Whitehorse or Watson Lake, or you can hire a car instead. Either way, you will drive to the campground at Frances Lake, where you will leave your car before traveling the rest of the way to the lodge by motorboat. Contact Martin or Andrea ahead of time for help arranging transport, and for details of the three possible routes from Whitehorse. The shortest takes approximately eight hours, without stops.