how i became a history hunter1

I said I wanted to write about history. The editor wanted to know why. Not surprisingly, the answer dates back a few years.

I said I wanted to write about history. The editor wanted to know why.

Not surprisingly, the answer dates back a few years.

My wife Kathy says I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to Yukon history.

That’s true; I’ve been looking through the window of the candy (history) store for more than three decades and I still haven’t lost my appetite.

I started my university studies dreaming I would become an archeologist exploring for ancient ruins in the rain forests of Central America.

I fancied myself with trowel in one hand, machete in the other and pith helmet on my head.

I never got there though; the Yukon happened instead.

I had taken a year off to earn a little money to pay for another year of study.

I had two jobs and was making plenty of money, but truthfully, working on a conveyor belt in a brewery, driving the bungs into beer kegs and operating the shrink-wrap machine didn’t appeal to a lad in his early 20s.

It was 1971 when Jim Bennett, a graduate student in archeology at the University of Calgary, who was looking for an assistant, called me.

“Would you like to go to the Yukon?” he asked.

 “When would you want to leave?” I replied.

“How about tomorrow?” he said.

We compromised, and a couple of days later, we hit the road north in a 1949 Mercury one-tonne truck full of gear and aspiration.

The truck broke down outside Fort Nelson, but we eventually made it to Whitehorse, where we spent one evening before continuing on to Kluane Lake, where the adventure began.

Jim had planned a series of hikes into different isolated places in search of archaeological sites. He hoped to reveal the prehistoric presence of people in the southwest Yukon.

We started on one trip in an inflatable Zodiac raft down the Alsek River, innocently unaware of the dangerous canyons that lay ahead, but turned back before we came to harm.

We hiked up onto high mountain plateaus, totally insensitive to the amazing ice-patch treasures that lay buried in nearby snows.

We talked to elder Johnny Fraser at Champagne about old villages in isolated river valleys.

We travelled into many remote regions looking for the sparse, telltale signs of ancient people.

These experiences were more to the liking of a young adventurous student.

I never returned to the conveyor belt.

If I took the bait that summer so many years ago, then the hook was set when I returned to the Yukon the following year.

Again, I traveled the breadth and width of the southwest corner of the territory, meeting people and finding tantalizing clues to human presence scattered over the landscape like a crazy quilt of history.

With Art Brewster of Haines Junction as my able guide, I set off on a small expedition to find that old village on the Tatshenshini River mentioned by Johnny Fraser.

I came across the remnants of Dalton Post and nearby Neskatahéen, where oldtimer Charlie Ross brought the derelict buildings alive with tales of the Squaw Creek gold rush back in the 1930s.

The wanton destruction of some of the old buildings at Dalton Post by a mining entrepreneur with a bulldozer and more time on his hands than good sense sparked me to campaign for the historic site’s protection.

This was heady stuff for a young student still figuring out who he wanted to be.

I learned from my first two summers of adventure that the Yukon is full of fascinating stories of lives lived and places that are no more, but I also learned that this history is fragile and vulnerable, and if someone didn’t care about it, it would all slip away.

So I put away my fanciful notions of becoming an archeologist slashing my way through the jungles of the Yucatan.

Instead, I turned my sights northward and made my career working with the amazing historical treasures of the Yukon.

I worked as a curator for Parks Canada in Dawson City for many years.

In my spare time, I became one of the history hunters who gather information about Yukon’s intriguing places and people, collecting it and preserving it and making it come alive for every Yukoner and the world to enjoy.

Over the years, I have wandered over hills and into valleys throughout the Yukon, following the trail of history revealed by the remnants of past travellers left scattered on the landscape.

What I learned in the process was that the human imprint in the Yukon is scattered thinly on the land, but it is everywhere — buried in the ice and snow, on mountain tops and in the most northern reaches of the territory.

All of these travellers of the past have made the Yukon what it is today.

I’ve picked up a few stories and visited some fascinating places in the Yukon, which I hope to share with you, the readers, from time to time in the Yukon News.

I hope that you enjoy them as much as I have.

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

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