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Tatshenshini expedition yields more adventure than history

The grizzly bear came up the valley along our right flank.But it wasn’t until he crossed the valley and started to follow us that I became…

The grizzly bear came up the valley along our right flank.

But it wasn’t until he crossed the valley and started to follow us that I became uneasy.

The valley was flat and barren, almost a kilometre across, with 40-metre-high cliffs along each side.

There was nowhere to go but forward, downstream toward the Tatshenshini River.  

The dull, overcast day had been long and the terrain exhausting.

Our horses were strung out almost a kilometre along the valley and we were all tired.

The actions of the grizzly injected new energy into our efforts to find a camp for the night.

It wasn’t the first bear we saw on that trip, nor the last. It was just the most memorable.

At that point, it was hard to remember what my original objective was — to locate the remains of the old village of Noogaayík on the bank of the Tatshenshini River.

The quest had started the year before when I was assisting graduate archaeology student Jim Bennett in a project in the southwest Yukon.

One day, we were at the village of Champagne talking to elder Johnny Fraser.

He was bent with age, but had bright, alert eyes as he talked to my boss about this village on the Tatshenshini River.

Many of the First Nation families in the southwest Yukon have roots leading back to this village, to a period when there was regular commerce along the “Tat.”

Originally called the Alsek by the people of the country, the river later became known as the Tatshenshini.

Through time, the traditional trade and family connections with the coast via the Tatshenshini have been displaced.

The region is now characterized as a pristine wilderness.

The first white men to travel through this area may have been Edward J. Glave, an Englishman and renowned African explorer, and his companion Jack Dalton, well known frontiersman and Alaskan pioneer.

They departed on foot from Neskatahéen  (the First Nation community near what later became Dalton Post) in August of 1890 and hiked down the valley toward the coast until they came to “the Alseck fishing camp” where 200 people all engaged in fishing from the abundant salmon run.

The gaunt adventurers were greeted with the greatest hospitality and provided with food and a tent for the duration of their brief stay.

From there, they continued in a dugout canoe with Shank, a Chilkat medicine man, as their guide until they reached Yakutat on the coast.

From Glave’s description of the Alseck /Tatshenshini, there was abundant evidence of human occupation all along the shores of the great wilderness river.

Based on this account, combined with Johnny Fraser’s references, Jim Bennett decided to visit the vicinity the following year, 1972.

A year later, Bennett had dropped out of grad school, and by default I inherited his project.

This is how I found myself departing Neskatahéen for the Tatshenshini River with Art Brewster as my guide, Tom Wild as his wrangler, Dale his young son, another student Francie, and a team of packhorses to carry the supplies.

The weather was warm and sunny, and we made good time, camping the first night at an old abandoned cabin.

The following morning I found a case of sweating dynamite behind the cabin.

In this condition, dynamite is very unstable and is apt to explode unexpectedly.

Perhaps this was an omen that on this journey danger would always be nearby.

When I returned to Haines Junction later, I reported the explosives to the RCMP.

That day, we ascended a series of steep switchbacks. Larry, one of the packhorses, fell off the edge and landed on the switchback below, shaken, but unharmed.

After repacking, we started off again.

Later, we had to stop to repack again. Art said it was the most difficult day he had ever had with his packhorses.

The next day we headed across country with no trail to follow.

At one point we observed two magnificent bull moose locked in combat. The wildlife was an unexpected bonus with frequent sightings of moose, bear, sheep, goats and various small game.

This area had not seen many people in recent times and had become densely overgrown with willow, which slowed our procession to a crawl.

Art and Tom had to battle the dense undergrowth with axes, to enable any progress at all.

At one stop, I dismounted my horse, Chief, and went forward to investigate.

The branches were so thickly intertwined that I was walking a metre and a half above solid ground. Then suddenly, there was no solid ground.

Below my feet and the web of branches was open air. The ground was 30 metres below.

I carefully retraced my steps to the edge of the embankment.

We eventually descended a steep talus slope into the barren glacial outwash valley where we were followed by the grizzly.

It was another day before we reached the Tatshenshini River, a day during which progress was slow, and humans and animals alike were exhausted and hungry.

With our gear unceremoniously piled on a sand bar, we assessed our situation.

Behind us flowed the Tatshenshini River, dark and fast. The area, not having been disturbed for years, was densely overgrown.

The chances of finding the exposures that revealed archaeological remains seemed remote.

Worse yet, there was nothing for the animals to eat. Art was concerned for their well-being and advised that we should retreat to more nutritious terrain.

We had another two days of difficult travel before we regained the trail that we had followed for the first part of our journey.

During this time, another horse collapsed and fell about 25 metres down a steep slope we were ascending — a mare that had been feeding a foal during our travel as well as packing supplies.

Fortunately, despite the fall, she was uninjured. We transferred her load to the panniers on the other pack horses and carried on.

On the return portion of our expedition we did find some signs of life.

We camped in a small grassy meadow one evening where we found the remains of an old campsite and fragments of a small white rubber boot.

I wondered who else had been to such a remote place, but never found an answer.

We travelled through cool, wet, windy weather for three days during our return to Neskatahéen.

We were all thankful to be back at our starting point.

In the end, the journey yielded little of historical nature, but plenty of adventure.

We had travelled nine days through some of the wildest country in the Yukon.

If the quest has as much meaning as finding the object of the search, then this adventure was laden with it.

Each time I drive the Haines Road past the turnoff to Dalton Post, I stop at the viewpoint and look off to the southwest.

There in the distance is the cleft in the mountains through which the Tatshenshini flows.

I feel the magnetic pull toward that place that we tried to find so many years ago.

Perhaps I will be able to return some day.

As long as there is one quest left, one unfulfilled goal, one place that you want to go back to, then life is definitely worth living.

And the grizzly that circled us?

We never saw him again.

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