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First Nation and European histories intersect at Carcross

June 30 started out wet and miserable. Not the best day to make a trip to historic Carcross it seemed.

June 30 started out wet and miserable. Not the best day to make a trip to historic Carcross it seemed, but as my wife Kathy, our friend Michelle and I drew closer to the community nestled on the shore of Bennett Lake, the sun broke through and it became a lovely day after all.

The community was bustling with activity: 100,000 tourists visit the site each summer. In recent years, there has been something new to see each time we have visited. This year is no different. We stopped first at Watson’s Store (the oldest continuously operating store in the Yukon) for the mandatory popcorn and ice cream, and a quick tour of one of the quirkiest stores you will find anywhere in the Yukon.

Beside the general store is the Caribou Hotel, one of the oldest buildings in Carcross, if not the Yukon. It is closed now, but is slowly being renovated. Back in 1973, it was a going concern. I stayed in one of the rooms in the old hotel then while conducting a preliminary archaeological survey of the route for the Skagway road, which was being readied for construction.

My room, if I remember correctly, had an old fashioned metal-framed bed that sagged in the middle. I drank cider in the bar, and ate meals in the restaurant, where a large cage housed Polly the Parrot, who was the most notorious resident of Carcross at the time

During our recent visit, the three of us joined a small crowd assembled in front of the old train station, to watch the White Pass train arrive with tourists from Skagway. We rambled by the old steamer Tutshi perched on the bank of the short river that connects Bennett and Tagish Lakes. The Tutshi was destroyed by a fire in 1992, but the remains of the boat have been converted into a viewing platform along with interpretive displays.

Next we wandered through the Carcross Commons, a small cluster of gaily decorated buildings housing various craftsmen and gift shops. There is a tourist information centre here, and a lovely little bistro, in which we found an excellent menu, friendly atmosphere, and good service.

The main purpose of this trip was to visit the newly opened Parks Canada information centre, located in the Skookum Jim House. The building is a replica of the original building constructed by Skookum Jim Mason after the turn of the century. The house is the nexus that ties together both first nations and gold rush history.

Skookum Jim, who was recognized as nationally significant by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for his role in the discovery of the Klondike, lived in Carcross. While he travelled far and wide in search of another “Klondike,” he always came back to his home in Carcross. Skookum Jim, or Keish (his Tagish Name), and his brother-in-law George Carmack, helped pack the outfit of Canadian government surveyor William Ogilvie over the Chilkoot Trail to Bennett Lake in 1887.

Georgianna Low, one of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation staff at the Parks Canada centre, welcomed me. She gently emphasized the traditional importance of the “grease” trail to Carcross/Tagish people, over which they had traded with the coastal Tlingit people long before Europeans arrived.

Tradition lies deep within her veins. She talked about her grandmother, Angela Sidney, a Tagish-speaking elder who championed the preservation of her culture and language. For this, Sidney was awarded the Order of Canada in 1985, and was invested the following year by the Governor General.

Georgianna’s mother, Ida Calmagne, is also a respected elder in her community. The tradition continues through Georgianna, who talked to me about her personal participation in the land claims process, and her current involvement in cultural programs in the community. The sense of tradition and commitment to Carcross/Tagish cultural history were evident as we chatted over homemade bannock.

A visit to the Parks Canada centre and a conversation with her or one of the other staff will emphasize how much First Nation tradition is part of the story of the Chilkoot Trail.

Richard Zaidan, the Parks Canada Centre supervisor and long-time Parks Canada employee, filled me in on the details of their new visitor centre. Parks Canada was invited by the Carcross/Tagish

Management Corporation (the economic development branch of the First Nation) to operate the interpretive centre as a pilot project this year.

The centre is the information hub in Carcross for the Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site of Canada. The trail is tucked into the mountains some 40 kilometres away, as the crow flies, from Carcross. “If you can’t bring the people to the Chilkoot Trail, here at the centre you can bring the Chilkoot trail to the people,” Zaidan said.

The Chilkoot Trail, he told me, is significant because of the mass migration of tens of thousands of eager gold rush stampeders. The stampeders used it for a couple of years, from 1897 to 1899. After that it was displaced by the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad, which was rapidly constructed to cash in on gold rush opportunities in Dawson City and the Klondike.

Beyond the historical messages, the centre, which is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, provides information about the conditions on the Chilkoot trail, as well as schedules for programmes at other national parks and historic sites in the Yukon, like Kluane and Dawson City. At the centre, visitors can obtain permits for camping on the Canadian portion of the trail, which extends from the summit to Bennett.

More visitors are choosing to take the train south to the old station at Bennett, and either camp there (I have stayed there several times myself for periods of two to three days and have really enjoyed it), or hike up to the summit and return. White Pass is selling reduced fares for hikers going in to Bennett, and Parks Canada offers a special campers’ rate (roughly $10 per group, rather than $10 per person).

Being a test program this year, Parks Canada and the development corporation will evaluate the results at the end of the season. This is one place you should check out when you visit Carcross, especially if you are interested in camping and hiking on the Chilkoot trail, the gold rush history, and its first nation roots.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I will be available in the spring.