Ten mostly francophone civil servants from Ottawa come roaring across the desert on ATVs, while the dozen others in their tour group watch from the cliffs above and cheer them on.
The doubled-up ATVers making looping, synchronized tracks in the sands of Carcross are being led by 21-year-old Ashley Carvill, an employee of Tlingit Tours.
One of the women behind the wheel keeps driving too close to another ATV and, as it comes to a stop, she bumps the rear end and apologizes nervously. Again.
At least they all have helmets.
Up on the cliff, Ashley’s mother Corinne Carvill has finished leading the remainder of the public policy students on a hike through historic hunting grounds in the lee of Mount Caribou.
In truth, it was Zeus, Foxy, and Chief — the willing stars of Husky Hikes — who led the hike.
Varying combinations of Siberian, husky, and malamute, the leashed pack-dogs helped some of the wanderers (especially the lady with the red-leather semi-heels) make it up the loose-rock switchbacks.
“The nice things about Zeus is he’ll pull you up the hill,” laughs our tour guide. “I’ve tried to teach him to heel. It isn’t working!”
Indeed, Zeus sometimes tried to bypass marked trails for more direct uphill routes.
The three dogs all sport little traditional canvas packs, good for porting bottles of water on thirsty days, or containers in berry-picking season.
The soapberries aren’t out yet, but they don’t taste very good either, she says.
Their redeeming feature is that they foam up when you crush and mix them fast.
“Just add some sugar into it and they kids just love it,” she says, describing what she calls Indian ice-cream.
The $35 one-hour walking tour takes the willing through a forest of jack pine and aspen to the top of the cliffs overlooking Caribou Crossing Trading Post, with views to Lake Bennett, Big Thing Mountain and the world’s smallest desert below.
Our guide, wearing pink camouflage pants and hair in low pigtails, points out a centuries-old stone-enforced hunting blind, overlooking a field where caribou would once pass.
Today, the field contains kennels and dog-cart rides, Caribou Crossing Trading Post’s Frontierland, a parking lot stuffed with cruise ship buses, and the Carvill’s Tlingit Tours, tucked away in corner.
While Husky Hikes is a definite back-to-the-land experience, the interpretive ATV tours are a strange marriage of modern culture and technology with the simpler life — sort of like how ABBA tunes are pumped out in the restrooms of Frontierland’s old-town interpretation.
But these are modern times.
Though Carcross has a mining legacy, being the home turf of gold rush instigator Skookum Jim, the traditional hunting area is embracing nostalgia as a way to move forward.
With Holland America’s White Pass train finally running to the town’s historic centre after a 25-year hiatus, the Carcross/Tagish First Nation is actively encouraging tourism entrepreneurship as a means to economic sustainability and as a way to give the young adults from the area the option to stay.
“What we’ve learned is its better to team up with other tourism products to maximize sales,” says the elder Carvill.
As in retail, packaging matters.
Tlingit Tours is trying to offer an “authentic” First Nation experience of Carcross, though the definition of authentic is evolving.
Twenty-one-year-old Ashley lives three days a week in Carcross, and commutes from her home in Whitehorse, where she moved in order to take classes at Yukon College.
“Ashley pretty much runs the show,” her mom says.
She greets the government employees, who are students of a six-week long Ottawa-based leadership program, in a skull-printed zip-up sweater. Her face is pierced, and fuchsia hair competes against dark strands for supremacy.
“It’s better than my usual job, which is A&W,” she chuckles.
“It actually gets me out and doing something, doing hikes.”
Her younger sister, still in classes, will join her in Carcross once school lets out.
Their mother manages the marketing and bookkeeping, but her government job in Whitehorse keeps her away most of the week.
A lot of the administration she does involves liaising with Frontier Excursions and Southeast Tours out of Skagway, though a lot of business is on-the-fly with cruise ship patrons, and peaks on Tuesdays.
A 15-minute ATV tour to the desert costs $30, doubling to $60 for a half hour, and $110 for a full hour tour that includes Lake Bennett and a telling of the Game Mother story that traces the birth of the animals of the North to Carcross.
A two-hour ATV trip of Big Think (aka Montana) Mountain will cost you $135. To take four hours to fully explore stone houses and abandoned minesites, the price rises to $210.
Carvill worked with the Carcross Tagish First Nation for 12 years before the group became self-governing last October.
As part of the restructuring of the First Nation’s administration, a number of small business grants were given to strengthen the local economy.
Tlingit Tours, now in their third year, received help with daunting payments on their fleet of six ATVs, and with insurance costs.
However, the future looks good for the tour providers. Business has been doubling every year and is still picking up, the mother-daughter team agree.
The Carvills also see their business as one more piece to the puzzle in how Carcross can justify the planned Four Mountain Resort.
“With our resort we want to build, we need things for people to do who want to stay there,” Corinne says.
“As you know, our people have done tourism since Captain Henderson and before that.
“There’s definitely tourism blood here in Carcross. It provides a great opportunity to share our culture.”