Over the summer, I will be sharing articles adapted from my new book: History Hunting in the Yukon (Harbour Publishing). The best place to start is at the beginning: how I became a history hunter….
What is a history hunter?
A history hunter is simply a person with a passion for understanding days gone by. The history hunter is driven with a steely determination to seek out the story of every landscape, hear the narrative of each person, rummage through the pages of every archive, and look for evidence of life long ago in every artifact.
My wife, Kathy, says I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to history. That’s true: I’ve been looking through the history window of the Yukon candy store for nearly four decades now – and I still haven’t lost my appetite. I started my university studies dreaming of becoming an archaeologist and carving my way through the rainforest to explore the ancient ruins of Central America. I never got there because the Yukon happened instead.
In 1971, I had taken time off from school to earn money to pay for another year of study. With two jobs I was making plenty, nevertheless driving the bungs into beer kegs on a brewery conveyor belt and operating a shrinkwrap machine didn’t appeal to this young lad in his early 20s.
Luckily for me, I received a call from Jim Bennett, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Calgary who was looking for an assistant.
“Would you like to go to the Yukon?” he asked.
“When do you want to leave?” I replied.
A couple of days later, we hit the road for the great north in a 1949 Mercury one-ton truck full of gear and loaded down with eager aspirations. When our vehicle gave up outside Fort Nelson, we did not, and somehow we managed to make it to Kluane Lake where my 40-year adventure began.
I learned from my first two summers of exploration that the Yukon is loaded with incredible stories of lives lived and places that are no more. I learned the joys of the land as well, especially fishing. Whenever I can now, I take my fishing rod with me when I go history hunting.
But even more apparent to me was that this history is fragile and that if someone didn’t grasp onto it, it would slip away.
I owe my inspiration to preserve and celebrate Yukon history to two mentors: Alan Innes-Taylor, of Whitehorse, and John Gould, from Dawson City. Alan was working for the Arctic Institute when I first met him, and he was incensed by the wanton destruction of Yukon’s history. His passion to preserve Yukon history rubbed off on me.
John Gould introduced me to placer mining history and under his guidance the rocky tree-covered hills of the Klondike goldfields came alive with the stories of the early days. The strange gravel piles, ditches, and derelict cabins found everywhere in the Klondike took on new layers of meaning.
So I put aside my fanciful notions of becoming an archaeologist slashing through the Yucatan jungles in search of ancient temples, and instead turned my sights northward where I have dedicated my life to seeking the historical treasures of the Yukon.
I started collecting old animal bones as a child, and with them opened my first museum in our basement at 10 years old, charging neighbourhood kids five cents for a look. At university, I studied archaeology and worked in the field for five seasons.
I catalogued artifacts at the Glenbow Museum, recorded buildings for the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building, practised museum-artifact conservation at the Canadian Conservation Institute, and worked on land-use planning in the Yukon.
All these disciplines and experiences – and more – became integral in my work at Parks Canada in Dawson City and eventually, Whitehorse, for more than 30 years. I provided consultation on cultural resources, and organized, preserved, and studied historical artifacts. I also developed historical displays using one of the finest collections of artifacts in northern Canada.
The history I learned in school as a child was boring; it was nothing more than a succession of dates and events, learned by rote. I struggled to remember the dates when treaties were signed and statutes were passed. In university, it was transformed into an abstract, often arcane intellectual pursuit. As a consequence, I had little interest in the subject.
In the Yukon, I met people who were not only connected with history, they were history.
Renowned Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan stated that “…historians have increasingly gone in for specialized language and long complex sentences…” I have come to believe that this too often the case.
Renowned author Pierre Berton was once criticized by a scholar of history for trying to make history too interesting. “Well,” he retorted, I sure as hell didn’t try to make it dull!”
I’m with Pierre.
Over the years, I have wandered over hills and into valleys, following the trails left on the landscape by travellers of old. What I’ve learned in the process is that the human imprint in the Yukon is scattered everywhere – frozen in the ice and snow, sitting on mountaintops and buried beneath buildings.
From the humblest tin can to a 4,000-ton mining behemoth, I have learned to respect and appreciate every inkling of the past. History anywhere is a rich treasure, and nowhere is it more fascinating than in the Yukon. Stories of survival and human spirit are bigger than life in this frozen place.
Even today in the Yukon, at minus fifty degrees Celsius, the obstacles are immense. Batteries don’t produce current. Oil turns to fudge and rubber becomes peanut brittle. Planes don’t fly and buses don’t drive.
At our extreme winter temperatures, making a trip from Dawson City to Vancouver or Edmonton can be like flying to the moon. In the Yukon, all those inaccessible points on the planet will perpetually be the Outside.
And inside this frozen place, we are linked to the land and each other by the language of gold, by the timeless agents of nature, by lusty legends of violence and valour, and by a human history of innovation against incredible odds.
And that is why I am a history hunter.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, History Hunting in the Yukon (Harbour Publishing), is now available in
stores throughout the territory.