Last week, I turned 100.
I woke up in the morning just like any other day; I rose and performed my morning ablutions and mowed the lawn. I didn’t feel like a centenarian; my bones didn’t creak, my back wasn’t bowed, and I still have all my original teeth. My hearing’s pretty good, too.
No, I’m not 100 years old, but I did write my 100th History Hunter column for the Yukon News. It went by so inauspiciously that I didn’t even notice until after my column was published. I had lost track.
One of the big question marks for me when I started writing them was whether there was enough material on Yukon history to sustain 100 columns. I came up with a list of 50 or more topics before I started. Hmmm, I thought, this is easy.
Over the past two years, I have covered a variety of topics. I wrote about being stalked by a grizzly bear near the Tatshenshini River. I wrote about Prohibition (or lack of it), politics, cattle drives and drunken diplomats.
I wrote about Sam Steele, Joe Boyle (who started his Klondike experience as a bouncer in the Monte Carlo saloon and ended it as the lover of the Queen of Romania), mining recorders past and present, and Swiftwater Bill, who had more gold, and wives, than common sense.
I’ve visited museums and interviewed archeologists, a conservator, and long-time residents. I’ve learned about sinners and saints, and looked at astounding collections of northern artifacts.
I have reported on my own explorations of the historical landscape, be it on the Fortymile River, or on the Dalton Trail, and I’ve reviewed new and interesting books.
I uncovered old silent movies frozen in the permafrost and wrote about it; I also described the restoration of the biggest house in the territory. I have written about women and First Nations people. I am neither, but their history is both meaningful and a significant part of the fabric of the territory.
In other words, I have attempted to touch on as many varied subjects as possible, although I have some favourites. Because there is so much of interest here in the Yukon, I’ve never been bored. I hope my readers feel the same.
Why do I write these columns every week? First of all, Yukon history is interesting and I want to share it. Second, I enjoy the recognition. It is gratifying when someone comes up to me and refers to a particular column of mine that they found interesting, or moving.
More important, I like to take a look at familiar subjects and take a different point of view. If you recall, I present a different account of the discovery of the Klondike than the one most people are familiar with.
If I am going to write about a subject, I refuse to regurgitate someone else’s work, I will delve into a number of books and articles and try to present a fresh perspective.
The process of writing is fun: I sit at my writing table and ask myself what I will write about this week. I may pick a topic, and after having completed the item, I will realize that there was something that I wanted to write about even more. Many times, I started with story “A,” and ended up with story “B” instead.
Sometimes I will reach into my past and write about something I experienced, and other times I will go out and look for a story. Sometimes, I go to my sizeable library of books on Yukon history and pick out something that I read a long time ago, refresh my memory of the story, and I’m off to the keyboard.
Sometimes I will pick a topic that I think is interesting and realize after pecking away at the keys for a while that it wasn’t such a good story after all.
One thing I promise my readers is that I will do my very best to get the facts correct. I have read awful articles written by people who know very little about Yukon history, and a few by people who should know the facts, and am outraged when I realize that they haven’t taken the time to get the story right. Don’t people care about what they write?
I hope that they don’t do it because they think that no one cares, because I know many people who do.
I once read an interesting, but brief, article about a murder trial involving lawyer George Black who, for almost 30 years, was also Yukon’s Member of Parliament. Why hadn’t I heard of this case before, I wondered? The story sounded interesting and I started hunting. I talked to lawyers and judges, librarians and archivists in the territory, in other provinces, and in the nation’s capital.
This quest continued for 18 months, often resurfacing whenever I travelled, or spoke with someone that I hadn’t discussed it with before. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, and learned that the story wasn’t anything like it was stated in the original article, a Canadian Press article no less.
Now that’s exciting. Being able to advance the topic or expand it in a new direction is gratifying. In the case of George Black, I spent far too much time tracking down the truth of the story, but then, nobody else had bothered. It was worth every minute of time I spent on the hunt.
When this happens, I am pleased to share my new-found knowledge with my readers.
There are places on the landscape that I have only heard about, and I resolve to go out and find them, see them for myself. Once you have been in the place, you can write differently about it, from first-hand knowledge.
I am working on a book about my current favourite topic: the Dalton Trail. There are many excellent photos of the Dalton Trail, and everybody has seen them before., So when I saw a photo in a book that was new to me, I followed up and found an old album of snapshots taken by someone during a cattle drive on the trail more than 110 years ago.
So there you have it. I am in love with the history of the Yukon. I was not trained to be an historian, it just came to me by accident and by coincidence. You see, it’s so darned interesting—say have you heard the story about………..?
If my readers are satisfied, and generally speaking, they seem to be, and if the editor continues to like my work, I will continue to write my weekly article on varied and diverse topics. Hopefully there will be something that my readers find especially enjoyable. And if they do, then I’m happy too.
I’ll check in again when I reach 200.
Michael Gates is a
local historian and sometimes
adventurer based in Whitehorse.