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History hunting on the Dalton Trail

My wife Kathy and I woke up early in the campground at Haines Junction on Saturday morning.The previous evening, the campground had been…

My wife Kathy and I woke up early in the campground at Haines Junction on Saturday morning.

The previous evening, the campground had been transformed from a quiet, peaceful place, to one bustling with activity.

The bikers were in town.

Not the Hell’s Angels, mind you, or the Harley Owners Group (The Hogs), but the healthy, energetic type with muscled thighs and enhanced lung capacity, combined with the compulsion to get out on the road. The type that ride bicycles.

Friday evening, the campground was filled with energy, hurried meetings and last-minute equipment checks. Early in the morning, they arose by the dozens, quickly broke camp and headed to the start line of the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay.

There, they waited for the starter’s announcement; the cyclers’ equivalent to “gentlemen, start your engines.”

Some of them were outfitted in sleek nylon, others in denim. Some had fancy, thoroughbred racing machines, others sturdy mountain bikes. All were ready for the challenge of endurance and speed, to be the first to pedal over the finish line in Haines a few hours and 240 kilometres away.

I ponder the travel time for the race as I undertake a journey of my own, through time and space to a point in the past, a hundred years, even hundreds of years ago, when travelling over this same route took days, if not weeks to complete a similar journey.

For years, I have been lured to the Southwest Yukon, seeking answers of my own about what happened along the route across the Chilkat Pass and north to the Yukon River over decades and centuries past. Until the Haines Road was constructed, this was a physically demanding route to travel, either on foot, or later, by horse.

Several times, I hiked along the trail north of Champagne in search of places from the past, intent on finding them, seeing them and experiencing them, in order to understand and appreciate their place in the historical mosaic.

The first time, I hiked north from Champagne with friends to see for myself the abandoned village at Hutchi, briefly a stopping place mentioned by stampeders using the Dalton Trail, but also, at the time, home to 200 First Nation residents.

When I didn’t find it on my first attempt, I returned alone the following year with better success, taking my own pictures of the places captured in photographs 110 years ago.

I strapped on my backpack a third time and, with my best friend Les as a hiking companion, set out over the same trail on a quest to find a cabin I had previously been unable to locate.

This time, I found it. I examined it and took my own pictures of the building, which had been captured in a photograph taken by a prospector who was a member of a party looking for gold in the region.

Standing in front of the cabin, and circling its perimetre, I admired the simple techniques employed to construct it, and the simple tools used for the job: auger, axe and saw.

Later, standing at a point of high ground along the trail, I found remnants of stone tool manufacture lying scattered on the ground, and scanned the broad skyline for signs of game — or other people — much as the people who I imagine left these stone fragments must have done centuries before.

Recently, I set out on a short boat trip down the Dezadeash River, paralleling the corridor that was used during the gold rush and for centuries before.

My aim: to locate a log cache built, used, and abandoned by prospectors looking for gold in1898. Another aim: to locate any vestiges of the centuries old trail passing through the region.

I failed in achieving the latter goal, but convinced myself of success in the former. Pennock’s Post was photographed at the time of its construction, and a simple map and descriptive text pinpointing its approximate location were printed in a book of the period.

I attempted to reconcile this information with modern maps, which have different names than those used a century ago, and reveal the topography in a way that the crude sketch from the past fails to do.

Ron Chambers, who was my guide on this particular journey, and I pinpointed a place we thought approximated the location of the long abandoned post.

We came ashore, climbed a 25-metre-high bank and scanned the surrounding terrain for signs of a trail, or a cabin, without success. The place was surrounded by tall brush in low-lying, marshy terrain.

Yet working our way along this embankment, and down toward the river, we found the rotting remains of an old structure. I paced out dimensions approximating those described 100 years ago.

Could this be the place?

Yet, according to the description of the location written at the time, the stream is in the wrong place in relation to the cabin. Before despair set in, Ron finds, a short distance away, the bed of a once active, but now-abandoned stream.

If this channel were filled with water 100 years ago, then this location seems to match the description.

This is the challenge for the history hunter: to match records from the past with remnants from today, to try to place the events upon the immense landscape of the Yukon.

Sometimes it works better than others. In some instances the evidence is conclusive, but in the case of Pennock’s Post, there is a tiny voice in the back of my head demanding that I prove my suspicion beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Perhaps another visit to the site or uncovering another document from the archives will provide sufficient proof to put my doubts to bed once and for all.

Some years ago, I visited the customs post on the Haines road, looking for other remains of the past. On one side of the border was the dilapidated Dalton Cache, once the trading post of the famous pioneer entrepreneur Jack Dalton; on the other side, hidden away in dense overgrowth, I found the decaying and neglected remains of the abandoned Mounted Police post that once guarded entry to the Yukon.

Today, Dalton Cache has been proudly restored and is interpreted to interested travellers. The other remains have practically vanished in the dense undergrowth of the wet coastal climate.

Together, they tell the story of the brief period when stampeders were making their way to the Klondike, while nations negotiated the dividing line between Canada and the United States.

These are some of the places that I have come to know.

This is the challenge for the history hunter: to know the present places to better appreciate the past.

I ponder this and wonder if the cyclists, intent on reaching the next checkpoint, struggling against headwinds, steep grades and fatigue, considered, if only momentarily, the deeds of those who passed over this same terrain before the road was there to guide their way?

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