Carcross entrepreneurship wins national nods

This December's Tourism Industry Association of Canada's Innovator of the Year Award has an East versus North story of David and Goliath proportions. 

by Justin Ferbey

This December’s Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s Innovator of the Year Award has an East versus North story of David and Goliath proportions. In the East, we have the CN Tower Edgewalk, Science North, Le Massif de Charlevoix resort and Parkbus; in the North, we have a group of youth who have created a world class biking destination supported by a small First Nation investment company. It is literally a group of local 16-year-olds in Carcross, versus engineers, scientists and business executives.

Carcross was recently like too many rural First Nation communities, with too few jobs outside of a handful of government positions. It was not always like this.

In 1897, local citizen Skookum Jim discovered gold, which started the Klondike Gold Rush. The Carcross Tagish peoples controlled trade by packing all the prospectors’ goods over the Chilkoot Trail into the Yukon, including the wares of Donald Trump’s great grandfather, Mr. Fred Trump.

However, recent history would show the community’s culture of trail and trade was nearly lost, becoming little more than just a handful of elders’ memories. This needed to change. An economic vision was born. The first step was to establish a niche market.

* * *

Ms. Sheena Johns, a recent young mother, arrived at her interview totally out of breath. The job she was applying for involved hiking up our local Montana Mountain and restoring by hand the same trails our peoples traded on 100 years earlier. She was an unlikely candidate.

“You seem to be out of breath with the office only on the second floor,” I said.

“Sorry, I just got chased by a bear for a kilometre,” Sheena responded.

“You are hired,” I said.

Returning to our culture of trail and trade, we rounded up all able-bodied teenagers to attempt to build the world’s best single-track mountain biking destination over the ensuing six years.

But if a community built a trail and the world never heard about it, would it be world class?

During the second season of building trails, a Learjet arrived at Whitehorse International Airport. While visiting Whistler, Kenneth Dart, the Michigan billionaire heir to a fortune built on polystyrene cups, had heard of these mystic mountain-bike trails being made by First Nation youth somewhere in Yukon’s wilderness.

He called a local bike company to figure out the specifics. One week later, Mr. Dart was biking by Sheena and the trail crew on Montana Mountain.

Word of mouth spread fast.

Sixty five kilometres of trails later, the International Mountain Biking Association named the local Mountain Hero trail as “Epic,” and after numerous other international stories, in 2013 Outside magazine, the United States’ largest adventure publication, named Carcross and Whitehorse the world’s best destination for mountain biking, beating out a region in Spain.

In a time when visitors seek authentic experiences, today one only needs to speak to a local teenager to meet one of the creators of this mountain biking destination. Instead of mining for gold we have pursued the new precious metal – carbon bikes – as we have sought to follow our cultural ways in a modern context.

In 2013 over 3,500 people came to Carcross for biking, with another 100,000 arriving on planes, trains and automobiles, largely from Alaska. We now needed to service our new market.

This year the visitors found Carcross Commons, a First Nation themed retail village. This development marked for the first time since Fred Trump ran his local restaurant, the Arctic, that Carcross saw the creation of a new building and land for entrepreneurs to service the community’s now-growing tourism market. Caribou Crossing Coffee, Frisky Fresh Fish, Gold Rush Pizza, Bear Paw Musical and Cabin Fever Adventures represented a 300 per cent increase in business activity.

This is a new destination for the Yukon, but also a place visitors will find a community that is stepping beyond the poverty of the past by establishing a new private sector economy. To think it all started with a group of teenagers going into the mountains with shovels, bear spray and a vision for our future.

Malcolm Gladwell says in his new book, David and Goliath: “Underdogs win all the time. Why, then, are we so shocked every time David beats a Goliath? Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?”

On December 4 in Ottawa, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada will announce their innovator of the year. Sheena, put a stone in your sling.

Justin Ferbey is CEO of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation.