If I were asked to select one artifact from our past to be used to represent or symbolize the history of the Yukon, the log structure would be my choice.
From the earliest written history of the Yukon, and before, in every corner of our territory, we can find the remains of dwellings built from logs.
They come in many shapes and sizes; they are constructed in a variety of ways, and served many different purposes.
Log structures tell us about many different cultures, and they reveal much about their makers and how they were used and evolved. If you look closely, each of these structures has its own unique characteristics and represents a chapter in the history of our land.
Log is found almost everywhere in the territory and lends itself to the construction of shelters through its dimensions and strength.
It is not clear to what extent it featured in prehistoric dwellings, but it is possible to get a glimpse at the range and diversity of its use by our first citizens.
Several decades ago, I was taking a hike into the region north of the Alaska Highway at Champagne. The second day into this trek, I came upon a simple brush shelter next to a stream. The needles hadn’t fallen off the branches of the spruce boughs so I concluded that this was of recent vintage.
My limited knowledge at that time suggested to me that it might have been a temporary winter camp.
It was constructed beneath the shelter of two large spruce trees, and unless wind was driving in at an angle, I could see that the site would keep me warm and dry despite the absence of a roof. The logs and brush were shaped to form a shelter on three sides, but open on the fourth. I built a fire on the open side of the shelter and crawled into my sleeping bag for the night.
The upshot of my little experiment in bush living was that I became more alert to the presence of similar structures in my travels after that. Sure enough, I found more of these temporary shelters scattered along trails that I hiked.
Reading through accounts written by others reveals that these structures and numerous variations are richly scattered throughout the southwest Yukon. The forms vary from the simple three-sided shelter that I spent a night in, to those which are constructed of numerous logs stacked vertically, tepee style, to others with low, interlocking notched horizontal log walls and slanted pole roofs.
Some were described and depicted in the writings of the American explorer Frederick Schwatka. Others, described by researchers such as archeologist Elmer Harp, or the scientists Frederick Johnson and Hugh Raup, are more elaborate and very similar to the classic log cabin of the pioneer era.
Most elaborate of all were those built under the influence of the Tlingit traders of the 19th century, which I described in my column of May 30th (Vanished classical First Nation architecture reveals rich history). They were constructed of carefully shaped timbers in the style of the massive long houses of the coastal people.
When Europeans arrived on the scene, they brought with them knowledge of several different styles of building with log. Some were constructed of timbers squared with broadaxe and tied together at the corners with elaborate dovetail notches. It took some skill to make these buildings, but they stand solid and firm.
Somewhat more common are distinctive log buildings constructed in the tradition commonly found among the trading posts of the Hudson Bay Company, most commonly known as Red River frame, or pièce sur pièce.
These were often observed in the early trading posts along the Yukon River, and consist of upright corner and intermediate posts, mortised to receive the tenons of carefully hewn and squared timbers placed horizontally.
Most common of all and familiar to most of us are the traditional log buildings constructed of horizontally stacked log walls, interlocking with notched corners.
Typically, these buildings have sod mounded up around the four walls to save heat and reduce drafts. The roofs are also frequently covered with sod, which allows vegetation to prosper.
I have read accounts of the early pioneers growing food on the tops of their cabins, and have even seen a cabin or two with trees firmly rooted on the roof.
To reduce drafts and make them even more liveable, the open spaces between the logs are chinked with a variety of materials, including moss, mud (or both in many cases), or oakum. They usually have one or more windows, a single door, and a hole in the roof for the chimney, from the wood stove that kept them warm.
But from that point, the construction of the typical Yukon log cabin departs in many directions. The way the frame is assembled, the dimensions, shape and function all vary.
Some are simple, some elaborate. I have seen so many different notching techniques, that my head spins at the thought of them all.
In some instances, several were constructed by the same builder and display a similarity of form. Others were crudely built, suggesting the builder had no previous knowledge of working with log.
I even saw one small log building whose every corner was assembled differently, as though the builder was trying out different techniques before making up his mind for a bigger job.
These buildings are scattered far and wide through out the territory, everywhere there is the raw material to build from. Many are recognized as historically significant, including the national shrine in Dawson City, which Robert Service once called home.
Perhaps the best place of all to study the nature and variety of log building in the Yukon is Fort Selkirk, the historic site managed jointly by the Yukon government and the Selkirk First Nation, where the Pelly River enters the Yukon. Here is a collection of log buildings that represents a textbook of styles and techniques representative of the history of the Yukon.
The old Anglican rectory is hewn and dovetailed. It is possible that George Carmack, later acclaimed for the discovery of the Klondike, lent Reverend Canham a hand in its construction.
St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church is an excellent example of the Red River frame method.
The range of variation in the construction of the remainder offers a broad selection of techniques to study.
Some of the Selkirk structures have been moved, modified and copied. They were constructed by different builders at different times from 1893 until the end of the riverboat era.
There may be historic buildings of great stature and grandeur; excellent examples of classical design and constructions that make all Yukoners proud, but for my money, I couldn’t think of a better building to represent the range and diversity of the territory than any built of log.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse