Much of my passion for discovering and preserving Yukon history is credited to a remarkable man named Alan Innes-Taylor. I first met him in 1972, in his office in the old federal building. The tiny space was filled with file cabinets, and he was wearing his signature tan vest and expedition cap – the type one wears when surveying or conducting field work out-of-doors. You instantly sensed that he was more at home outside than he was in an office.
Tall and proud, he was immediately interested in the work I was doing in the southwest Yukon. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the abandoned places in which I had become so interested. He openly shared his knowledge – and his enthusiasm for preserving Yukon history, and within a year, I had decided that the North, not the south of the continent, was the place for me.
Many other people were influenced by Innes-Taylor. The day after arriving in Dawson City in 1963, he handed an axe to Ed and Star Jones, a young American couple, and pointed them toward a plot of land on the hillside above town that was overgrown with trees, brush, grass and weeds. It was the Pioneer Cemetery, and they spent the next several days chopping out trees and piling them by the road to be hauled away.
On Sundays, he took them for trips up and down the Yukon River. He became their mentor. According to the Joneses, “He … simply exuded respect for the river, the mountains, the valleys, and the people, and by the end of the summer, we were hooked.” The Joneses have undertaken many historical projects in the Yukon since then and still return every year if they can.
Another young couple from Ontario was attracted to the Yukon after an encounter with Alan Innes-Taylor at a conference in Thunder Bay in 1969. He showed them the old site of Forty Mile during their first visit to the Yukon the following year, and they returned in the summer of 1971 to volunteer as caretakers at the historic settlement. He filled them with stories of the people and places of the Yukon, and they were entranced. That summer sealed their fate, and they live in the Yukon today. That couple was Ron and Kip Veale.
So who was this remarkable man who was so influential in all these lives?
Alan Innes-Taylor was born in England February 12, 1900, and came to Canada six years later. In order to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, he lied about his age. He enlisted in the Royal North West Mounted Police in 1921 and was transferred to the Yukon a couple of years later, where he patrolled the southwest Yukon until he bought out of the force in 1926.
He next got a job as purser on the river steamer Whitehorse, clocking thousands of miles on the river over the next two years. His experience with dogsleds in the Yukon led to a job as dog driver in 1929 and 1930 on Admiral Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition. After lecturing extensively about Antarctica, he was called upon to serve as the chief of field operations on Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition, 1933-1935.
Under an act of Congress, Innes-Taylor was commissioned captain in the U.S. Army Air Force during the Second World War. His assignments included a secret mission in Greenland, and command of survival training schools in Canada and the United States. After the war, he was the project engineer for a joint U.S.-Canada weather station on Isachsen Island in the High Arctic.
He was recalled to military service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean conflict with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, again commanding survival training schools in Idaho, Colorado and finally, Alaska.
After retiring from the air force, he became a consultant on northern survival, from 1957 to 1964, for both the U.S. Army and various international airlines with polar routes. His book, This is the Arctic, for SAS airline, was highly acclaimed.
He returned to the Yukon, where from 1961 to 1962 he was the general manager of the Dawson City Festival Foundation. This was followed by stints cataloguing historic government documents in Dawson City, and conducting trips to various Yukon historic sites in 1964 and 1965. It was Innes-Taylor who was responsible for the installation of the familiar large white signs announcing that various historic sites along the Yukon River were under the protection of the territorial government. He is also credited with saving the Dawson archives during the flood of 1966.
In the years that followed, he was a consultant to the territorial and federal governments, providing information and inspiration to visitors to the Yukon. When I met him in 1972, he was also the field representative for the Arctic Institute of North America.
He passed away January 14, 1983.
For his contributions and accomplishments, he was given recognition with a number of medals and awards, including two congressional medals for participating in the Byrd Expeditions, and commendations and service medals for his military service. In 1941, he received a Carnegie Hero Award for saving the life of a drowning woman.
In Canada, he was awarded the Centennial Medal in 1967, the Order of Canada in 1977, and the Commissioner’s Award in 1981. There are also two mountains named in his honour, one in the Yukon, the other in Antarctica.
He was honoured with a plaque in the Dawson City Museum’s Klondike History Library, which was officially opened June 11, 1998. But most of all, he is honoured in the hearts of the many people who had the privilege of knowing him and learning from him.
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 email@example.com