It’s been a busy year for the History Hunter. I have a book that will soon be in stores throughout the territory. I have also been pursuing other interesting historical topics that will soon become books as well.
So it’s time to take a break. The History Hunter will still appear, but in a slightly different format and frequency. I hope you will still look forward to my columns when they appear in the News.
It has also been a time of reflection upon what I have been writing about. Why did I call my column “The History Hunter,” for instance? Well it was an impulsive decision on my part, but one I have truly enjoyed.
There are plenty of other people whom I have met who I think deserve to be called history hunters. They have all been driven by an obsession to track down one aspect of Yukon history or another, be it missing aircraft, sunken ships, or ancestors.
Here are some of the experiences that have moulded me into a history hunter.
I first came north to assist an archeology graduate student searching for signs of early humans in the southwestern Yukon, around Kluane National Park. Back then, it was a game sanctuary.
We hiked to a remote part of the region seeking the garbage left behind by ancient hunters. Walking along with our eyes scanning the ground, we sought evidence that thousands of years ago, people walked across the same northern landscapes that we were crossing.
We found tantalizing clues in the form of stone scrapers and projectile points.
The land had a profound effect upon me. I carried all my possessions in my backpack. Stripped of the usual trappings of society, with little to separate me from my surroundings, I became hypersensitive to what was around me.
Sky conditions, air temperature, wind direction and intensity, ground conditions and the game I encountered all became important details of my environment. We may have been looking for tiny specks of stone exposed in the soil at our feet, but we always had to be vigilant for the occasional wandering bear.
Jim, the grad student I was working for, introduced me to bannock making and the fine art of fishing. When not out searching for items of antiquity, I could pit my wits against the arctic grayling, or the massive northern lake trout, and put food in the frying pan at the same time.
I still bring my fishing rod with me on history hunting trips whenever I can.
There are also the esthetics of the out-of-doors to consider. I frequently climbed to high vantage points to survey the landscape. It is a good thing to know your surroundings, I reasoned.
That first summer in the North, I recall standing on a rounded mountain top. Below me was a valley, streams and lakes.
Our camp was an insignificant dot in the distance. Beyond and above were the treeless rounded tops of the neighbouring mountains. I could see sheep speckling the side of a distant peak. My imagination conjured up images of nomadic hunters stalking them thousands of years ago.
Even in June, there were still vestiges of ice and snow tucked away in some of the shady slopes of the mountains. Little did I know that 25 years later these ice patches would reveal the most remarkable prehistoric finds in all of Canada.
The following year, I was part of a small party with pack and saddle horses following trails, and sometimes, no trail at all, into the Tatshenshini valley. As I have written before, we didn’t find the historical remains we sought in the dense bush that enveloped us, but the memories of that trip have lasted a lifetime.
In later years, I strapped on a back pack and alone, or with others, hiked all over the southern Yukon. I have been snowed in and rained upon; I have had feet so badly blistered I could barely walk. I have slept in the open, in old abandoned brush shelters, and in derelict log cabins. I have stood on rocky ridges where I could absorb the beauty for kilometres in every direction.
As an underfunded student, I even stuck my thumb out to get a ride to historic places I wanted to see and photograph. I once stood on the Alaska Highway for three long, lonely days, with my thumb out, praying that someone would stop and give me a lift back to Whitehorse. After that, I saved up my pennies so that I could rent a truck, rather than cast my lot with the generosity of motorists.
I have met interesting people. One old-timer, named Charlie Ross, returned to Dalton Post in 1972 after having been away for decades, and regaled me with stories of early mining on Squaw Creek. At other times, I have witnessed salmon being gaffed, and have been shown the art of skinning a beaver, which was a lot more difficult than it appeared to be.
Later, when I went to work for Parks Canada in Dawson City, I drove out into the gold fields surrounding the Klondike capital to see what was there. At first, I saw only rocks and trees. Then, under the tutelage of my mentor John Gould, I started to see the man-made features on the landscape and learn what they meant.
What at first seemed to be a land of nameless creeks proved to be filled with people who had interesting experiences to share. These people were always friendly, and helpfully showed me how placer mining was done. After years of years of stumbling upon decaying cabins and abandoned machinery in the creek bottoms and bush-clotted hillsides, I began to understand their meaning.
I have canoed on the Yukon River. Once, I was with a group whose supply boat sank in the waters of Lake Laberge, but we continued on our trip in spite of this inconvenience.
I have travelled by motorboat and floated by raft on the Fortymile River. There, I encountered the numerous rapids and fast water that challenged the old-timers. I developed a healthy respect for what people had to overcome in days gone by that I could never have gained from reading about it in a book.
I have stood on the shores of Bennett Lake, amidst the relics of the Chilkoot Trail and listened to the wolf’s call echo across the valley from the far shore.
So I learned that we have a tremendous history in this endless landscape; I will never stop learning – there are many more stories to be told. I have encountered amazing and interesting people in all the places to which I have wandered.
I also learned that everywhere there is history to be uncovered in the Yukon, from the high ice-covered mountains, to the frigid lake-bottoms.
And every encounter has been worth more than gold to me.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon(Harbour Publishing), will soon be available throughout the Yukon.