Camping in the Yukon in Rove-Inn, many sunsets since our last real shower, late afternoon on the longest day of the year, we decided to treat ourselves. Eager to get to Southern Lakes Resort on Tagish Lake, Magellan was driving quickly on the gravelled Ten Mile Road. Relatively quickly. But nothing compared to the Tagish Lake meteorite—it sped six miles a second through space for seven million years before exploding into a multi-coloured fireball in Earth’s atmosphere, most of it landing on Tagish Lake.
Do you remember the story of Canada’s most significant meteorite? Taking a trip down memory drain, Magellan and I realized we’d forgotten all about it.
This spectacular meteor, 5 metres in diameter and weighing 200 metric tons, raced across the skies of Yukon and British Columbia before exploding at 8:43 a.m. on January 18, 2000, its force equivalent to 2-3 kilotons of TNT. Land of the Living Skies!
Oliver Pusch, manager of Southern Lakes Resort, says no one who works at the resort now witnessed this astonishing event. But Jim Brook, a pilot and outdoor guide who operates a wilderness camp farther south on Tagish Lake, became an internationally recognized hero for his brilliant efforts.
Nothing so earth-shattering happened during our stay.
June isn’t the best time to see the Northern Lights, the biggest attraction at Southern Lakes Resort. When we arrived, workers were packing up their tool belts for the weekend. The resort was building a sixth cabin to accommodate visitors from all over the world who come to this remote spot in winter specifically to see the emerald-veil swizzle of charged particles intensify the starry sky. Surprising (to me), Oliver says October has been the best month for aurora borealis this season. Lingering under the shower and later enjoying the dinner prepared by Swiss-born chef Bruno Dietrich were solstice-special for us. Even better, Saturday morning in the early northern light we canoed on the lake, gliding through still waters.
Trapped at the bottom of Tagish Lake are meteorite fragments from January 2000. Which brings me back to the story of how Jim Brook got a hold of some of these previously unseen molten globules—formed long before our own solar system from asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.
With his university training in geology and pilot’s knowledge of the area, Jim was particularly interested in finding meteorites. On the afternoon of January 25, 2000, while driving his pickup on the frozen surface of the Taku Arm of Tagish Lake about 52 kilometres south of the Southern Lakes Resort, he noticed dark chunks of rock on crusted snow a few hundred metres from shore. Jim knew to avoid contaminating the rocks with his bare hands. He covered his fingers in clean plastic and put the fragile fragments in plastic bags, drove home and, wisely, put the samples in his freezer—ensuring the meteorites encased in extraterrestrial ice would remain frozen and pristine.
Returning to the area the next morning, Jim found smaller fragments a few kilometers north. But a heavy snowfall on January 27 completely covered the lake, destroying the chance of further recovery. Altogether, Jim found 17 meteorites, 5 the size of oranges and 12 the size of walnuts. And he assisted researchers in four recovery expeditions, one in February and three in April-May 2000.
Under Canadian law, meteorites belong to the person who finds them. Fortunately, federal grants, collaboration among institutions (including NASA) and fundraising activity enabled Canada to purchase the meteorite fragments from Jim. They are now at the University of Alberta and the Royal Ontario Museum, a bonanza to science as never before have we had frozen meteorites. Or ones with “nano diamonds,” microscopic diamond crystals that may have formed in another star predating our solar system. “It gives us a snapshot of what was happening when the solar system formed 4½ billion years ago and it’s unlike any other meteorite even of its own kind,” says Dr. Christopher Herd from the University of Alberta.
A century before it was gold, not meteorites, that created a rush in this area.
The Southern Lakes are really the headwaters of the Yukon River, which gold-seekers had to navigate to reach Dawson City. During the Klondike Gold Rush, a roadhouse was set up on what is now the resort.
Back in those days, all distances were gauged from the RCMP post near the village of Tagish. Which is why even today Southern Lakes Resort is still referred to as “Ten Mile Ranch”.
In those hay days, the place was a ranch. In 1899 a farmer from Manitoba paid $3 an acre to settle here, importing cattle, horses, mowers and hay-presses. Hay was his gold and he prospered.
Subsequent owners on this fertile land grew vegetables that outweighed meteorites—ten-pound cabbages and four-pound lettuces! I regret not asking to see the root cellar that’s still on the property and wonder if Bruno uses it.
Thirty years ago, a Swiss couple transformed the ranch into a resort, building traditional log cabins with wood-burning stoves. A year after the meteorite landed, the resort sold but sat empty for fifteen years. Then in 2016 on this calm arm of Tagish Lake in the boreal forest, new owners turned it into the Southern Lakes Resort, offering what many of us are looking for today.
It’s surprising how often I think of our brief time there. Not the showers or Bruno’s meals, though they were a treat, but the remote, natural tranquillity. Accompanied, now, by our realization of its storied past.
This CBC YouTube shows the Tagish meteorite and Jim Brook’s description of the find. Tagish Lake meteorite Public’s first look (2000) YouTube
Mortillaro, Nicole. “Tagish Lake meteorite that fell in northern B.C. contains clues as to how life may have arisen on Earth.” CBC, May 20, 2020.
For a long and most interesting account of the expedition to find more meteorites, have a look at this: Plotkin, Howard, McCausland, Phil, & Brown, Peter. “The Tagish Lake Meteorite Recovery Expedition: An Ice Fishermen’s Tale. “Aquarid Physics, University of Western Ontario.
“Looking back at a New Year Meteorite Discovery.” Royal OntarioMuseum. January 5, 2022.
Steigerwald, Bill. “Asteroid Served Up “Custom Orders” of Life’s Ingredients.” NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, June 9, 2011.
“Ancient rock star finds a home at the University of Alberta.” phys.org. University of Alberta, April 25, 2006.