Last summer, I set out for a journey on the Dezadeash River with Ron Chambers as my guide. Our goal: to find the remains of the Dalton Trail and locate the remains of a cabin, known as Pennock’s Post, which was built by a mining party in 1898 during the gold rush.
Chambers and I found Pennock’s Post without too much difficulty, but the trail remained elusive so I decided to try again this spring.
Last winter, I talked about my plan to find the trail with friend and neighbour, Mark Iceton. Iceton spends much of the summer camping and travelling on Yukon roads, lakes, and rivers with his wife Elaine.
We made plans, and agreed that if the weather forecast was favourable, we would take the trip the weekend of May 23.
He and I had a specific plan to locate the trail. Over the winter, I compiled information from old historical references, geological surveys, and other government reports.
At the mouth of the Dezadeash River, where Chambers and I had first sought the trail last year, Iceton and I planned a more thorough investigation of the terrain. All the old maps showed that the trail passed between the mountains and the Dezadeash River at this point. It had to be there somewhere.
I reasoned that if we walked all the way from the bank of the Dezadeash River to the mountain two kilometres distant, we would have to intersect the trail at some point.
Early Saturday morning, we hiked off toward the distant mountain. At first we encountered the terrain typical of the Dezadeash shoreline: low-lying marshy ground consisting of wet mushy swamp, filled with grassy tussocks.
A few hundred metres brought us to a fairly steep moss-covered slope which we cautiously climbed to a forested terrace that gently sloped toward the east. We made our way through the willows and deadfalls for some distance.
The gold rush accounts of the use of the trail referred to fires all along the route. Were the rotting charcoal-coated stumps, that we saw everywhere, the remains from these fires? If so, then the forest had grown in again over the past 110 years.
Our progress was frustratingly slow because of the terrain and many obstacles that we had to get around. As the day heated up, we took occasional breaks to nibble on snacks, sip water and discuss where to go next, and what we might find. Iceton provided sound suggestions and was more perceptive of the terrain than I was.
We wondered if, after 110 years, the trail would still be visible at all. We discussed the behaviour of cattle along the trail. My own experience herding and rounding up livestock when I was young was revived. The conditions, however, were different, so it was hard to draw a comparison.
We wondered: would cattle walk across an open landscape in single file, or would they spread out and walk in a large fan? If the latter was the case, would they leave any lasting mark on the landscape at all?
During the gold rush, cattle fared well on the trail, but horses did not. In various historical accounts, there are descriptions of dead horses along the trail. Perhaps we would know we had found the historic track if we found the remains of these dead horses.
We cross-cut the east side valley, through marsh, up hills, and across beaver dammed creeks.
Several hours later, we returned to the shore of the Six-Mile Lake, some distance above our camp. It was along here that we found the vestiges of a trail. I referred to the study notes I had compiled, and sure enough, a government surveyor had commented that the trail skirted the lake at this point.
The trail had not fared well over the years in this area, which was marshy and overgrown. In drier terrain it was well defined and easy to see, but in other sections, the imprint was lost amongst the moss, willows, and muskeg.
Having found the trail, our luck improved. We followed it back to our camp, and then followed it north, down river, where it was still well-marked and visible after more than a century. The path would disappear into swampy ground, and then reappear on the other side.
We eventually reached a stream too wide to cross, and turned back, now satisfied that we had found the historic trail.
Downstream, at Pennock’s Post, we walked away from the Dezadeash River. At a distance of several hundred metres, we again found a well defined trail leading in both directions, which we followed for a kilometre, to make sure it wasn’t just a game trail.
Now more confident, we returned to the boat launch just above Champagne. Here we followed the trail leading south toward the cleft through which the Dezadeash River flows.
First we moved along exposed sunny hillsides, then down into the forested valley bottom. The trail was well defined, but obstructed by deadfalls and new growth. Though not actively used in recent times, this was obviously a well-used trail in the past.
About a kilometre along the trail, we found a horse skull lying by the path. Nearby lay a bleaching pelvis. I had found my dead horse, but that’s another story. My quest now felt complete.
The trail is still there, overgrown and unused. In some places it is well defined and easy to follow; in others, it is hidden in the moss and wetlands. Perhaps with a little effort, it could be made passable again, and easy to follow.
Upon my return to Whitehorse, a collection of photos from the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, California, was waiting for me. They depicted a cattle drive along the Dalton Trail in 1898. Some of the images seemed to answer the questions that Iceton and I posed about the movement of cattle along the trail.
In one photo, they are shown moving across a treeless landscape, fanned out, but it is easy to see a pathway incised into the foreground. In another photo, we see them walking down a tree-covered hillside, single-file, along a path. In the foreground, it is plain to see that trees had been cut down and laid across the trail.
The trail that we see in these photographs is likely the one whose vestiges are still visible along the Dezadeash River.
Good weather, good trail, good company, and history too! That’s what history hunting is all about.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes
adventurer based in Whitehorse.