How not to teach Yukon history to a six year old

My wife Kathy planned an action-packed itinerary filled with uniquely northern events for the much-anticipated visit by her cousin Nigel, his wife Maya and their six year-old daughter Nina from England.

My wife Kathy planned an action-packed itinerary filled with uniquely northern events for the much-anticipated visit by her cousin Nigel, his wife Maya and their six year-old daughter Nina from England. A trip to Skagway and another longer one to Dawson City were included. Whitehorse activities included visits to museums.


Kathy gathered up a well-chosen selection of northern books for Nina to read during her visit. Theme-related Playmobile toys were purchased as gifts for her to play with.

Imparting historical information to this articulate youngster with a bewitching smile would be my task. What could be more fitting for a history hunter?

We greeted them at the airport with hugs and smiles. Kathy presented little Nina with a large husky dog stuffy that she immediately named Twinkle, and clutched firmly throughout her visit to the Yukon.

The ride from the airport included a detour that took us via Miles Canyon and the Whitehorse rapids. Here, I explained that, over a hundred years ago, thousands of gold rush stampeders placed their lives in peril by careening through the then untamed waters. Nina just clutched Twinkle more firmly, fearing that he would fall into the frigid waters.

We took them to the Caribou Crossing Trading post where, among other things, they took a ride with a dog team. I pointed out to my little cousin that the dog sled was a very important form of transportation in the early days, when the ice was on the river and a blanket of snow covered the frozen ground. The concept of Yukon winter was difficult to convey when the temperature was nearly 30 degrees Celsius.

We followed that with a trip to Skagway. Stopping at Carcross for a short while, I told Nina to imagine Lake Bennett once filled with hundreds of tiny handmade Dawson-bound water craft. She played happily in the sand with a small plastic shovel she found lying on the beach.

In Skagway, we had booked a ride on the White Pass train through the mountains. I told her about the gold rush, and how the stampeders took their supplies up the White Pass Trail while above them, on the mountain side, laborers worked on the construction of the White Pass railroad. The White Pass, I told her, became a vital supply link to the Yukon, bringing goods and people to the interior at a reasonable price.

This information did not seem to excite her much. As the string of passenger cars rumbled and rattled their way to the summit of the White Pass however, Nina, wearing her White Pass engineer’s hat, became excited as we approached the first of the two tunnels that we passed through. The physical experience of the trip left more of an impact upon her than did the details of events from 100 years ago.

I knew upon our arrival in Dawson that I was championing a lost cause. As we entered town and drove along Front Street, Kathy and I pointed out the various historic features of the community and regaled them with interesting stories about each. Nina wanted to see the house we once lived in.

Tucked in between her parents in the rear seat as we wove our way up one street and down another, Nina was quiet until we reached Fifth Avenue, where, when passing Robert Service School, she spotted the immense playground.

Her excitement was doubled as we passed the newly installed play toy behind the swimming pool, with its multi-storey tube slide. And that is where we went the following morning after breakfast.

Dawson was filled with numerous opportunities to impart the history of First Nations and the gold rush. On the dome overlooking the Yukon River and the Klondike valley, I recited Robert Service Poetry to our guests.

An evening cruise on the river was a good time to talk about early river transportation.

Nina was excited to go on a treasure hunt of the Parks Canada window displays looking for “Klondike Gus” in the historic buildings of Dawson. As she rushed to the various displays, I covered themes of mercantile history, saloons, blacksmithing, early newspapers, and prostitution (we didn’t dwell upon that topic). She was eagerly looking for Gus.

At Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek I told her about the myths surrounding the origins of the gold rush. She threw sticks into the water for our dog Casca to fetch.

But I think we struck the paystreak, both literally and figuratively, when we panned for gold at Claim 33. There, our host, Ginny Holl, provided pans with paydirt and instructions on the fine art of gold panning. With fierce concentration, Nina swirled the water around her pan, slowly and patiently washing away the gravel and sand to expose the tiny grains of gold that lay within.

When the gold was all that remained in her pan, she carefully transferred it to a tiny glass vial (along with the gold her parents and Kathy had recovered from their pans) and clutched the container firmly. The vial and its contents were later carefully wrapped and stowed away in her suitcase for the long journey home to England where, I am told, she displays her gold to one and all with great pride.

Back in England, Cousin Nigel sent me a message telling me about Nina’s class presentation about her trip. She introduced her classmates to Twinkle (lots of oohs and aahs) and described what to do in case you encounter a bear. During their visit, they had seen a large grizzly and a brown bear with two cubs, she said, but she made no mention of history.

She also told them how to pan for gold. This very much intrigued her classmates, as well as adults, who were filled with questions about Canada. One of Cousin Nigel’s acquaintances, an American, was surprised to learn that the Klondike is not located in Alaska. Our little six year-old got that part right. She is, after all, a bright young girl who may, some day, even become interested in history.

Any teacher can tell you that children that age don’t have a well developed concept of the past. Concrete experiences are what impress the formative young mind. The abstract history part of the brain doesn’t develop until they are older.

Regardless of my failed attempts to inspire our little guest with the unique culture and history of the Yukon, we had a wonderful time.

It was I who learned the biggest lesson. Thank you Nina!

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at

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