As you learn more about the history of a place, your perception of it and of the world changes. We frequently try to shape the world to fit our preconceived notions, like trying to fit an oversized foot into a tight but fashionable shoe. This, to some extent, was how I viewed the “wilderness-adventure” industry, which promotes the image of “pristine” wilderness where humans have never before travelled. Long ago, I learned a good fit makes more sense than fashion …
“Wilderness: n. uncultivated and uninhabited land or tract.”
– Oxford Illustrated Dictionary
“The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet – those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure.”
– What is a Wilderness Area, The WILD Foundation,
“Even today the Tatshenshini offers an uncommon pristine wilderness experience, free for the most part from the evidence of man and his works.”
Modern society has constructed the concept of wilderness as places of untainted nature, devoid of humans, where animal species can propagate without fear of extinction due to urban sprawl, overhunting or pollution. “Pristine” is the overworked term used to describe these areas. But it’s a lie and I will tell you why this is so.
When European immigrants came to North America centuries ago, they perceived a land populated only by small numbers of “savages.” This notion of an unpopulated new world was later accepted by people of the 20th century, prompting a countermovement against urban development and the despoiling of nature, a determination to preserve the remaining areas yet relatively undamaged by human impact.
While I applaud the efforts that have championed the setting aside of “wilderness” from urban and industrial encroachment, I caution my readers to think about these places also as human landscapes.
Charles C. Mann wrote an excellent book a few years ago, titled 1491, in which he demonstrated effectively that the so-called New World was more densely populated before Europeans arrived than we have come to believe. He illustrates that there were well-developed civilizations in North and South America before the Egyptian dynasties. In some cases, he argues, as disease decimated the aboriginal populations, ecosystems responded by changing dramatically.
Cultivated fields gave way to forests, and populations of certain species, like passenger pigeons, exploded. In essence, humans were once a keystone species in these environments. So what happened?
It’s a complicated story, but a critical element that must be understood is the role disease had in decimating indigenous populations. The original inhabitants had no natural resistance to the diseases introduced by Europeans. Perhaps 90 per cent of the resident populations died as they succumbed to one illness after another, resulting in massive social disintegration that made it much easier for Europeans to move in.
What the early settlers encountered was not wilderness, but huge tracts of land recently depopulated by preceding waves of smallpox, diphtheria and tuberculosis. Take the Tatshenshini.
In 1972, I made a nine-day trip down the Tatshenshini River and did not see a single human outside of my travelling party. We encountered dense bush, a wide array of wildlife and endless awe-inspiring natural beauty. Yet even in the most isolated reaches of our journey, we found evidence that people had been there before us.
The Tatshenshini, now touted as one of the world’s premiere wilderness-rafting rivers, was once a transportation corridor filled with people. The discovery of Kwaday Dan Ts’inch, the famous mummy found frozen in ice in the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, is only the most prominent evidence of this fact.
This young man was making his way in to the Tatshenshini River two hundred years ago when he perished. Whether he was travelling alone or in a group is not clear, nor is the manner of his death. What we do understand is that he was following a well-known trail to a river that served as an important avenue for living, moving and trading.
E.J. Glave, noted English explorer and the first European to document the region, reported in 1890 abundant evidence of people living on the Tatshenshini.
Venturing downriver from the Southern Tutchone village of Neskataheen, Glave and Jack Dalton encountered a settlement that stretched for two and one-half kilometres along the river, with discrete fishing camps every 300 metres or so along the bank.
Shielded from the wind by brush piles, each camp consisted of small tent shelters or one or two small log huts roofed with hemlock bark. Goods were stored in above-ground caches, and large quantities of salmon that had been gaffed in the river were hanging to dry.
Glave recounted how people from the coast, known as the Nuqua, came upriver, settled on the Tat and established trade with the Gunena (Southern Tutchone) from the interior. By the time Glave visited the river, the settlements had dwindled away, leaving decaying buildings and only a few descendants who had intermarried with the interior people as evidence.
Many of the inhabitants had died from European diseases like smallpox and influenza; others had been washed away in the mid-1800s when a dam of ice farther up the Alsek River gave way, unleashing a giant wall of water that scoured out everything in its path
Some of the Yukon elders born before the turn of the 20th century grew up in this area, living on the Tatshenshini and travelling the river between the coast and the interior.
Their stories were documented by the late Catharine McClellan, the highly respected anthropologist from the University of Wisconsin who worked in the Yukon from 1949 until she retired from teaching.
Only the most preliminary archeological reconnaissance has been undertaken in this area, which is isolated and difficult to get to, so the potential for discovering further evidence of human occupation still lies before us.
I have no doubt it is there, waiting to be revealed with the passage of time.
What we have to do is adjust our thinking around the concept of wilderness. We cannot continue to look at areas like the Tatshenshini as wilderness devoid of human associations. People have blanketed the landscape of the southwest Yukon for at least 10,000 years. It is only in recent times, due to changing circumstances, that the Tatshenshini was vacated.
We must regard people as an integral part of the ecology, perhaps playing a critical role in the formation of the complex web of interrelations, and we should celebrate that fact.
Whenever I look west toward the brilliant white-peaked range of mountains visible from the Haines Road, the view calls to me. In this broad vista, I see a natural landscape, but one with the human imprint upon it.
After all, we can’t really pretend that no one ever lived there.
This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon,
which is available in stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.