This week, I set out on the Alaska Highway to discover the history of Teslin
Tip Evans, the Teslin Tlingit Council’s heritage director, dropped by my campsite for a visit; over a small smoky campfire, we discussed the history of the community, and he started to fill in some of the pieces for me.
The Tlingit people have long inhabited the region, and it wasn’t until the American Frederick Schwatka made a little-known passage through the area in 1891 that the first white man visited the locale.
The area remained relatively undisturbed until the explosion of activity that occurred during the gold rush.
Norman Lee ended his disastrous cattle drive here in 1898, and the Yukon Field Force, consisting of about 200 members of the militia, passed through on its way to Fort Selkirk, where it was to establish what was, for a brief time, intended to be the territorial capital.
Members of the Victorian Order of Nurses accompanied the Field Force, and continued on to Dawson City.
Following the gold rush, Taylor and Drury, pioneer Whitehorse merchants, established a trading post on Teslin Lake that they supplied by boat. Aside from walking there, boat transportation was the only way to reach the community in the early days.
The pace accelerated when the Second World War was declared.
A wartime landing strip, part of the North West Staging Route was built, and the Canol Road and pipeline passed nearby. The greatest impact, however, came from the construction of the Alaska Highway, which changed the community forever.
The community also had its personalities.
George Johnston, after whom one of the community museums was named, was one of these. Both photographer, and entrepreneur, he brought the first automobile into the community.
Carole Geddes, a renowned homegrown filmmaker, made a film about Johnston and his car.
The following morning, I joined Bonar Cooley, a long-time Teslin resident and champion of community history, over coffee.
Where Evans gave me an historical overview, Cooley added content.
For his passion, enthusiasm for and dedication to community history, I have inducted him into my History Hunter Hall of Fame.
Cooley talked about the many interesting people, places and events, which over time have given the community its personality.
By the time we were ready to visit the George Johnston Museum, my head was spinning with names and places. I made a personal note to myself to become better acquainted with the district.
I followed Cooley to the George Johnston Museum, one of three such institutions in the community. (Sadly, I only had time to visit two of the three museums during this visit.)
Back in the 1960s, people in Teslin became concerned about the loss of its historical treasures.
To stop the removal of antiques from the area, the community club took action to establish a museum, which was constituted around 1971, with Cooley as its first president.
He has ever since remained a strong advocate and supporter of the institution, which he was now escorting me through.
The exhibits, which are all new to since my last visit, display the rich material history of the area with an emphasis on First Nations culture; George Johnston’s famed car is its centrepiece.
Entry is gained through a gift shop whose mercantile ambience is inspired by the Taylor and Drury store, and where Dieter Witt manned the counter.
Cooley took me outside and over to the recently stabilized radio repeater station.
This log building, dating back to the North West Staging Route, was at risk of being lost until the museum society stepped in and relocated it to a place opposite the museum.
For its efforts on this project, the society received a heritage award earlier this year from the Yukon Historical and Museums Association.
I was introduced to Sharon Chatterton, the executive director of the society.
Chatterton talked passionately about the history of Teslin and her interest in writing and documenting historical events. Where Evans and Cooley provided the skeleton and the flesh to the history, I think that Chatterton is destined to bring it to life through her writing.
After lunch, and non-stop conversation, I left her and made my way to the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre.
There I was welcomed by Lisa Dewhurst, the newly appointed director of the centre.
Interpretive displays in the centre feature masks and artifacts that explain two centuries of Tlingit history and the culture of the Inland Tlingit people, but even more striking than the beautifully crafted masks featured in the gallery was the structure itself.
The building, which was opened in 2002, received the 2002 Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia Medal in Architecture.
With a commanding view of the lake, and fronted by a row of five clan posts created by well-known Tlingit carver Keith Wolf Smarch, the building is broad and open and speaks loudly to the importance of the living heritage of the Teslin Tlingit people.
The building draws its design inspiration from the temporary lean-to structures traditionally used to house the Inland Tlingit.
Both inside and outside there are open inviting spaces that seem perfectly designed to support a wide variety of contemporary activities.
For me, these welcoming areas seemed appropriate for a First Nation whose cultural heritage is going through a period of renewal and discovery.
I think that you can best appreciate the building and its purpose by visiting during one of the special events that occur here.
Outside, my attention was drawn to the sounds coming from a large shed below the centre that looks out over the lake.
I walked in and introduced myself to Keith Wolf Smarch, who, with an assistant, was hard at work applying paint to a large traditional styled Tlingit canoe.
Large enough to seat a dozen or more paddlers, this canoe is intended to be paddled by a team of Teslin women in the forthcoming Yukon River Quest.
Smarch was commissioned to decorate the boat. The carver is no stranger to this kind of work.
Ten years ago, he explained, he carved a canoe out of a single massive piece of Douglas fir, which came from the Queen Charlotte Islands.
He turned and pointed toward the craft he had previously worked on.
His current commission is based on traditional Tlingit design.
There are strict rules, said Smarch, about using traditional Tlingit designs, yet within those constraints, there is a lot of room for creative expression.
Readers will be able to see for themselves the results of his creativity when the boat is launched at the start of the River Quest in Whitehorse on June 25th.
I left Teslin with a greater awareness of the community and its rich heritage, both past and present.
There is much to learn and enjoy about the place. I encourage you, my readers, to make a trip to the community and discover it for yourselves.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.