The southwest corner of the Yukon was one of the last regions of the Yukon to be explored by Europeans. It was left to an Englishman and a cowboy to undertake the task.
The passes that provided access to the area were jealously guarded by the Chilkat Tlingit long after the Chilkoot Pass and other routes had been opened to exploration. Via the routes from Chilkat Inlet, the Tlingit undertook a lucrative trade with the First Nations of the interior in this region.
The Chilkat destroyed the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Selkirk in 1852, thus maintaining their trade monopoly and access to the region for another 40 years.
The first glimpse of what lay beyond the mountains of the coast was provided by Kohklux, the great warrior and diplomat of the Chilkat people, who, in 1869, provided American geographer George Davidson with a hand-drawn map of the overland route between Fort Selkirk and the coast.
The Kohklux map was not published until after others had documented the geography of this remote corner of the Yukon.
German scientist Arthur Krause was the first European to get a glimpse of the interior when reluctant Chilkat guides took him within sight of Kusawa Lake in 1882.
In 1890, British adventurer Heywood Seton-Karr was attempting to enter the interior via the Klehini River, when he encountered some prospectors returning to the coast after a winter in the Tatshenshini valley. Seton-Karr had to turn back before he crossed the summit, but he met another exploring party, sponsored by an American newspaper, preparing to cross the mountains to Kusawa Lake from the Tlingit village of Klukwan on the Chilkat River.
After crossing the summit, where they were trapped in a blizzard for three days, the American party succeeded in reaching Kusawa Lake, upon whose shores they divided into two smaller parties. One of these consisted of two men, Englishman Edward Glave and American pathfinder Jack Dalton.
Glave had been in Africa before getting involved in this Alaskan expedition, and even worked for Henry Morton Stanley, the famed African explorer.
Dalton was a cowboy, sailor and prospector, and an accomplished traveller in remote places. He had previously participated in an expedition to climb Mount St. Elias before being hired by the newspaper party.
“There are few men I would have undertaken the trip under such conditions,” said Glave, “but I knew Dalton … was a man of undoubted pluck and energy.”
Carrying only the bare essentials, Glave and Dalton headed west from Kusawa on foot in search of the headwaters of the Alseck or Alsegh River, which drains into the Pacific Ocean at Dry Bay in Alaska. Today, this river is known as the Tatshenshini, and the Alsek is its main tributary.
When they struck out on their own, they had no idea where they were going. On Frederick Lake (named after Glave’s deceased brother) they encountered a Southern Tutchone family camped there. They befriended the family and tagged along when the family headed south to the important native trading community of Neskataheen, which was located on the northernmost bend of the Tatshenshini River.
The residents of Neskataheen had left the settlement to fish for salmon farther down the Tatshenshini. The duo of explorers followed their guides overland down the Tatshenshini valley and eventually arrived at a fishing encampment on the river known as Noogayik.
Here, they were treated to the hospitality of a clan leader named War Saine, who had the mistaken impression that the two white men were emissaries of the American government. Glave and Dalton, whose supplies were running low, received food and shelter from their host, but they did not want to abuse the hospitality, so they soon decided to continue.
They obtained a six-metre-long dugout canoe, which they modified for the rough glacial waters they were about to navigate. Employing the services of a shaman named Shank, and accompanied by a native healer, they pushed their tiny craft into the turbulent waters of the Tatshenshini.
“The stream is the wildest I have ever seen,” wrote Glave; “there is scarcely a hundred-yard stretch of fair water anywhere along its course. Running with an eight to ten knot current, and aggravated by rocky points, sharp bends and immense boulders, the stream is also rendered dangerous by the innumerable rapids and eddies which disturb its surface.”
At one point, the river constricted into a canyon, with a glacier on one side, that rose more than 30 metres above them. Any calving of ice while they ran this navigational gauntlet would have washed them to their deaths in the icy waters.
The men successfully navigated the treacherous waters to the Pacific coast having traversed 500 kilometres of uncharted country with almost no supplies by living off the land and relying upon the generosity of the native residents they met along the way.
In fact, Glave admitted: “Had we not been able to avail ourselves of their local knowledge and valuable guidance, we should have had great difficulty in covering the stretch of rough country.”
Glave returned to the United States where he published an account of their adventure as a series of articles in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
So impressed were they with the potential of the country that the two men decided to return the following year and use pack horses to penetrate the interior in search of copper deposits rumoured to be located near the White River.
They never found their mother lode, but Glave left behind the legacy of his colourful accounts of their journeys, while Dalton returned to carve out a trail that was used to bring cattle to the Klondike during the gold rush.
Glave died in Africa a few years later; he was only 32 years old. Dalton remained in Alaska another 17 years before moving to Washington State. He died in 1945, at 89 years of age.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org