It was on the third day of our hike that I found the old cabin.
My best friend Les and I were hiking north of Champagne in 1979 along a portion of the old trail to the Yukon River. The weather had been warm and dry, and we were hot and thirsty and making good time.
We had stopped to take a break, and remove the weight of our packs from our shoulders. I decided to wander around in the surrounding area to see if there was anything interesting.
Hiking with a heavy backpack is arduous and any thing interesting would relieve the monotony of placing one foot in front of another all day long.
Not far from the trail I picked up a scattering of decaying old tree stumps — a sure sign that someone had been active in this area at some time in the past. Sure enough, not far away, I saw, through the trees, the remnants of an old log cabin.
Les joined me and together we examined the derelict structure. I quickly realized that this one was more than 80 years old, and a real historical treasure because I recognized its origin. It was once called Camp Storey and had been constructed during the gold rush in 1898.
Camp Storey was part of a network of temporary cabins and caches along the Dalton Trail to house and supply a mining party known as the Mysterious Thirty Six.
They were part of a syndicate — one of many formed during the gold rush in the belief that the pooling of resources, both human and financial, would make it easier to strike gold.
Most of these syndicates focussed on the Klondike area, but there were a couple that concentrated on the southwest Yukon. The others, including a party known as the Dietz expedition attempted to reach the Klondike across the glaciers from Yakutat Bay.
The journey for the Yakutat parties started in the chaos that was Seattle in 1898. They endured a harrowing journey up the Alaskan coast aboard a leaky condemned vessel named the Blakely.
The Blakely was piloted by a drunkard who retreated to his cabin with a supply of whiskey during a storm that lasted for days and never reappeared until the liquor was gone.
Amazingly, most survived this part of the trip.
The overland trek was no walk in the park. They each had to transport a ton of goods over the melting glaciers until they reached the Alsek, where the overland journey began.
A few struggled on, finally reaching Dalton Post 18 months later. Most turned back; of the nearly 100 aspiring prospectors who started, more than 40 perished in the ordeal. None, to the best of my knowledge, ever struck it rich.
The Mysterious 36 fared better since no one perished. Capitalized in part by eastern Canadian interests, a group of 36 men, mostly from New England, were selected to travel into the Kluane region in search of mineral potential, under the direction of Lieutenant S. E. Adair, a former US cavalry officer.
Working mainly in the area to the west of Klukshu and Dezadeash Lakes, they also established a number of stations at Klukshu, Pennock’s Post, Champlain’s Landing (now known as Champagne) and Camp Storey, which was located deepest into the Yukon.
It was this last building that Les and I stumbled upon.
The members of this party were all sworn to secrecy about their mission, but during the summer, they constructed two mine tunnels, and a mining expert from California evaluated the property.
Inspector Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police reported that they would be bringing in a large quantity of mining equipment later, but in the end, that plan never materialized.
Under Lieutenant Adair’s supervision, parties of men were sent to other regions to explore for minerals, thus the group that established Camp Storey.
It’s easy to picture this cabin when it was built because one of the members of the party took a photograph of it in 1898. That photo is now part of the collection of the MacBride Museum.
The cabin was small, perhaps three metres square with a sod roof that sloped from front to back.
The rear is barely tall enough for a man to stand up in, while the front is perhaps half again as high. There are no windows or door visible in the simply constructed shell.
A dozen men pose beside the building while another man is bent over a fire in the foreground. An axe is stuck in a freshly cut stump also in the foreground, while the background is filled with barren fire-killed spruce.
I wonder about these men and their dreams.
Did they plan to get rich, or was it merely an adventure?
Was their experience filled with good memories, or bitter regret?
I peer at the fuzzy faces in the photograph, trying to divine what they are thinking.
I think too of the cabin.
Did the mysterious dozen occupy it for long? Did they ever come back to it?
What did they leave behind?
What were they actually doing in this area?
After they left, was the cabin used by anyone else, or was it forever abandoned?
That the building survived for 80 years was something of a miracle. Decay had not felled the structure, although the sod roof had caved in. It had been spared the ravages of fire, although the forest was clearly encroaching.
That was 30 years ago, and I wonder what remains of the shelter now.
The cabin was a wonder of simplicity. A careful examination of the marking and details of the construction suggest that three hand tools were used: whipsaw, axe and auger.
Small wedges of wood were cut and inserted strategically in splits and cracks of the wall logs in a way that held long, slender poles in place, to hold firm the chinking between the wall logs.
Small hand-cut dowels were inserted into the interior log walls presumably to serve as coat hooks or to support supplies above the ground.
Our inspection revealed that the door, which is in the west side of the cabin, was hidden behind some of the men posing in the old photograph, and that into the adjoining front wall, a window was constructed.
Similar structures built by this syndicate did not have windows, which caused me to ponder whether this was a later addition. I look at my photographs now but cannot find the details to answer this question. Perhaps this is a flimsy reason to revisit the site, but it is all the excuse that I need.
We realized as we examined the decaying old building that we weren’t the first to examine this site since the gold rush. Pencilled onto one of the logs was the name J. Suits, and the dates 1957 and 1968. I wonder what it was like when he visited the site.
Sites like this pepper the landscape, ranging from countless aboriginal brush structures and remnants of elaborate homes influenced by the style of the coastal Chilkat longhouses, to the numerous log buildings of the western pioneer and the distinctive hand-crafted structures in the style of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
While many of these have been rescued in places like Dawson City and Fort Selkirk, many more remain, slowly being overtaken by nature. Sturdy and proud, these buildings are a testimony to human use of the landscape, and for that, we should cherish and respect them, one and all.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.