“The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.”
From What is a Wilderness Area. The WILD Foundation. http://www.wild.org/main/about/what-is-a-wilderness-area/.
Wilderness: Uncultivated and uninhabited land or tract.
Oxford Illustrated Dictionary
Even today the Tatshenshini offers an uncommon pristine wilderness experience, free, for the most part, from the evidence of man and his works.
Modern society has constructed the concept of wilderness, places of untainted nature, devoid of humans, where species can propagate without fear of extinction because of urban sprawl, overhunting or pollution.
“Pristine” is the overworked term used to describe these areas.
But it’s a lie. Let me explain
When European immigrants came to North America centuries ago, they perceived a land populated only by small numbers of “savages.”
This notion of an unpopulated new world was later accepted by people of the 20th century.
It has promoted a reactionary counter-movement against the spreading plague of urban development and despoiling of nature, a movement to preserve the remaining areas yet relatively undamaged by human impact.
I applaud these efforts, which have championed the setting aside of certain areas from industrial development, but I also have to caution my readers to think about these areas as human landscapes as well. The human imprint is almost always there.
Charles C. Mann wrote an excellent book a few years ago, titled 1491, in which he demonstrated effectively that the so-called New World was more densely populated before Europeans arrived than we have come to believe.
As well, he illustrates that there were well-developed civilizations in North and South America before the Egyptian dynasties.
In some cases, he argues, as disease decimated the aboriginal population, ecosystems responded by changing dramatically. In essence, he was saying that humans were a keystone species in these ecosystems.
So what happened?
It’s a complicated story, but one of the critical elements that must be understood in order to answer that question is the role that disease had in decimating indigenous populations. The original inhabitants had no natural resistance to all the diseases introduced when Europeans arrived.
Perhaps 90 per cent of the resident populations succumbed to one illness after another, causing social disintegration that made it much easier for Europeans to move in. What the early settlers encountered was not wilderness but huge tracts of land recently depopulated by a preceding wave of small pox, diphtheria and tuberculosis, and an ecosystem that had lost a keystone species.
Obviously, it’s not that simple.
Take the Tatshenshini.
In 1972, I made a trip down the Tatshenshini River. For nine days I, and the other members of my party, did not see a single human aside from our travelling party. We encountered dense bush, and a wide array of wildlife.
It was awe-inspiring in its natural beauty. It was humbling. But even in the most isolated places on our journey, we found evidence that people had been there before us.
The Tatshenshini, which is now touted as one of the premiere wilderness rafting rivers in the world, was once a corridor filled with people.
The discovery of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, the famous mummy found frozen in ice in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park is only the most prominent evidence of this fact.
This young man was making his way in to the Tatshenshini River 200 years ago when he perished. Whether he was travelling alone, or in a group is not clear, nor is the manner of his death.
What we do understand is that he was travelling over a trail that was well known, to a river that was an important avenue for living, moving and trading.
E.J. Glave, noted English explorer, who was the first European to document the region, reported abundant evidence of people living on the Tatshenshini.
Travelling downriver from Nesketahin, Glave and Jack Dalton encountered a settlement on the banks of the river. It stretched for two and a half kilometres along the river, with discrete fishing camps every 300 metres or so along the bank. Each consisted of small tent shelters, or one or two small log huts roofed with Hemlock bark. Each was sheltered from the wind by brush piles, and goods were stored in above-ground caches.
At each of these encampments, large quantities of salmon that had been gaffed in the river were hanging to dry
Glave recounted how people from the coast, known as the Nu Qua, came up river, settled on the Tat and established trade with the Gunena (Southern Tutchone) from the interior.
By the time Glave visited the river, the settlements had dwindled away, leaving only a few descendants who had intermarried with the interior people, and abandoned decaying buildings as evidence.
Some of the inhabitant had died from European diseases like small pox and influenza; others had been washed away when, in the mid 1800s, a dam of ice up the Alsek River gave way, unleashing a giant wall of water that scoured out everything in its path.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most forgiving landscape to occupy.
Some of the elders born before the turn of the 20th century grew up in this area, living on the Tatshenshini (then known as the Alsek), and travelling the river between the coast and the interior.
Their stories were documented by the late Catharine McClellan, highly respected anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin who worked in the Yukon from 1949 until she retired from teaching.
Only the most preliminary archeological reconnaissance has been undertaken in this area, which is isolated and expensive to get to, so the potential for discovering the record of human use still lies before us. But I have no doubt it is there, and that it will be revealed with the passage of time.
What we have to do is adjust our thinking around the concept of wilderness.
We cannot continue to look at areas like the Tatshenshini as wilderness devoid of human associations. People have blanketed the landscape of the southwest Yukon for at least ten thousand years. It is only in recent times, due to changing circumstances, that the Tatshenshini was vacated.
We should look on people as an integral part of the ecology, perhaps even playing a critical role in the formation of the complex web of interrelations, and celebrate that fact.
Whenever I drive down the road to Haines, I always stop at the panoramic look-out near the turn-off for Dalton Post. From here, I look west toward the brilliant white-peaked range of mountains.
The view calls to me, but when I look out over this broad vista, I see a natural landscape, but one with the human imprint upon it.
After all, we can’t really pretend that no one lived there.
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.