history hunter bids farewell to parks canada

On April 29th, I saddle up my pony and ride off into the sunset. That’s another way of saying that I am retiring.

On April 29th, I saddle up my pony and ride off into the sunset.

That’s another way of saying that I am retiring.

After 34 wonderful years working in the employ of Canada, I will lay down my pencil and shut off my office computer for the last time.

A year ago, when my column started appearing in the Yukon News, I talked about how I became a history hunter. That wasn’t the whole story.

As I prepare for the big change, I think back into my deepest past, back to my early childhood, when I remember playing in the dirt in the back yard.

My parents always left an uncultivated area in our back yard in Calgary so that I, and the neighbourhood kids, could play in the dirt to our hearts’ content. Over the years, we tunnelled, excavated, and constructed imaginary skyscrapers in that topsoil.

I somehow made the connection between digging in the dirt and archeology.

“I’m going to be an archeologist when I grow up” I announced to my parents one day, and from that day on, I proceeded with resolute certainty along that course.

Then there were the bones.

My father would take me out on hikes in the foothills of the Rockies west of Calgary, where I spent many of my formative years.

We would occasionally come across the ossified remains of some unfortunate creature, and I would gather them up, take them home, sort them, identify them, and cache them with my rapidly growing bone collection.

The most memorable of these specimens was acquired because my grandfather did landscaping when my father was young.

One of Grandpa’s projects was to landscape the grounds of the Calgary Brewery, whose logo at that time was a buffalo head enclosed within a red horseshoe and the word “Calgary” emblazoned on it.

The grounds had to be decorated with buffalo remains, and Grandpa knew a site where there were plenty of buffalo bones.

Today we recognize that he had found an old pound or buffalo jump. Dad took me out there when I was about 10 years old, and buried under a hollow-sounding tussock of grass we found a buffalo skull.

I think it was this that sparked my idea to open a museum. With the newly acquired buffalo skull proudly displayed as the centre-piece of my exhibition, I assembled all of my specimens in a section of the basement of our home, and charged the neighbourhood kids a nickel to come and see them.

Now I can reflect upon the things that I have done during a very satisfying career.

First there was the Dawson film find.

In 1978, newly arrived in Dawson City, I became involved in the salvage of a horde of early silent movies buried behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s gambling hall in Dawson.

This was an accidental discovery that quickly became a big international project involving everyone from the local museum to the US Library of Congress.

In fact, I married the museum director, and we are still married today.

The following year, on May 2nd, the rising water of the mighty Yukon River overflowed its banks and flooded the town of Dawson.

Thousands of artifacts were submerged in numerous buildings owned by Parks Canada.

Ten years later, we wrapped up the last of the work on the flood-damaged collection, now organized and stored in specially adapted buildings.

You couldn’t be involved in the history of Dawson without looking toward the goldfields where so much of the history lay abandoned.

John Gould, Dawson’s respected patriarch of history, took me out into the goldfields to show me the thousands of relics, the abandoned buildings and the numerous scars on the landscape and explained what they meant.

Klondike oldtimers told me many amazing stories, and showed me many amazing things in the goldfields over the years, things that enriched my life considerably.

You can’t go out to the creeks of the Klondike without noticing the monstrous dredges that lay rotting in the valleys.

They are slowly disappearing due to age, fire and human misadventure, but Dredge Number 4, the largest of them all, is now recognized as nationally significant.

In 1991, Parks Canada had to move this 4,500-tonne behemoth onto a special cradle to prevent it from splitting wide open. That was the first significant step toward preserving it for future generations.

It involved the military and an army of civilians to move it into place, and when the dredge was temporarily floated prior to moving it, there were former dredge employees who watched the process with tears in their eyes. Thus, it was a moving experience in more than one sense of the word.

I couldn’t reminisce without including the restoration of the Commissioner’s Residence.

This magnificent building, which stands proudly on Dawson City’s Front Street, was and is the most pretentious home in Dawson, if not the entire Yukon.

I worked on that project for seven years, along with a team that included more than 200 others.

In 1996, 2,500 people showed up for the official opening of the residence, which included a visit by Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

I got to give Chretien a tour of the newly restored main floor, and shake his hand … three times!

Over the years, I was fortunate to work with a multitude of other dedicated individuals, all of whom enriched and stimulated my work.

Some people started their careers in the heritage field working with me in Dawson City, and are still working in the field today.

Many visitors walked into my office over the years, with stories to tell, photos to show, and tender moments to share.

It was through the time spent with these people that the past took on a human face.

They made the old buildings, the relics and the special places come alive.

Taking Joe Boyle’s daughter, Flora, out to Bear Creek where she once lived while her father ran the biggest dredging operation in the goldfields, was one of these special moments.

In the past few years, I have been involved in projects with First Nations and am pleased to see that elements of the history that I viewed as important in my early days in the Yukon, are now receiving recognition and attention that were so long denied.

History is about people after all, and through nearly 40 years of contact, I have seen many facets of Yukon’s history gemstone.

It’s given me great pleasure to be involved with these and many more exciting projects and people, and I hope there are plenty more waiting for me before I hang up my history hunting shoes for good.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.

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