Backstage pass to nature

The Yukon Conservation Society reminds fellow nature enthusiasts that they need not venture into the woods alone.

The Yukon Conservation Society reminds fellow nature enthusiasts that they need not venture into the woods alone.

For the 28th summer running, the society has trained and outfitted a hearty band of eight trail guides, who stand ready to spread the gospel of the Yukon wilderness to Yukoners and out-of-towners alike.

Clad in distinctive straw hats, and equipped with a stock of first-aid supplies, historical photos and wildlife samples, the guides are well prepared for the many treasures and surprises of a Yukon forest tour.

Massive cans of at-the-ready bear spray and CPR training are also in evidence for any of the more unwelcome surprises of the forest — though guides are quick to say that neither contingency has been experienced thus far.

In 1980, YCS first started the nature hikes as a way to promote education and appreciation of the surrounding wilderness;  it’s easier to get people to conserve if they know what they’re conserving.

The two-hour Canyon City hike is the most popular (during archeological digs at the Canyon City site during the mid-‘90s, conservation society guides were drafted as official interpreters), but throughout the summer, guided weekly tours are also held of cliffs, the waterfront, Wolf Creek and Grey Mountain.

Special one-time-only hikes will also be held at sites outside Whitehorse, including Dawson City and the Carcross Desert.

I met with Canyon City tour guides Audrey Bernier and Rhiannon Jones at the YCS office on Sunday afternoon. Nobody had shown up for the 2 p.m. hike because of rain, so the two spent their afternoon nursing green tea and pouring over Yukon history books.

“When we don’t guide — we research,” said Jones, who was reading up on a gold rush era murder at Canyon City.

The guides assure me that their tours are like a Grateful Dead concert — no two are exactly the same.

Crammed to bursting with information ranging from geography to geology to local history, the guides easily flit from subject to subject, expertly tailoring their hikes to the particular needs of their groups.

Children?

“We stay away from the cliffs.”

The elderly?

“We take an easier hiking trail.”

“We basically have had enough training to go on a four-hour walk on each subject,” said Bernier.

And if they can’t answer a particular question, they will take down your contact information and get back to you at a later date, said Jones.

“If there’s a group that just wants to know about plants, then we can do the whole hike about plants,” said Jones.

“We try to make these hikes for everyone, if there’s different abilities we’ll send one (guide) ahead with the higher-energy ones,” she added.

“We’ve had lots of elderly people, blind people, kids — so we can very much adapt for any needs,” said Bernier.

In the basement of Yukon Conservation Society sits years of guest books from previous hiking tour seasons – on hundreds of rain-stained pages are handwritten words of praise in almost every conceivable written language.

The basement also contains an ample collection of period costumes. Holding up a gold rush-era style dress, Jones said mid-season boredom may well prompt them to start giving their tours a bit of costumed accompaniment.

Costumed or not, throughout a hike, the guides never shy away from interacting with the surrounding wilderness.

“We get people to taste the berries and smell the sage,” said Bernier.

Following Jones and Bernier on their Monday afternoon Canyon City hike, they never missed an opportunity to crouch down on their hands and knees to examine the weeds and other local flora.

At one point Jones vigorously rubbed a trembling aspen poplar, then showed the white dust that had come off on her hands — explaining that it could be used for sunscreen.

A looming willow brushed its leaves along the heads of the group.

“Being a root ingredient for aspirin, the willow is often chewed by wildlife for pain relief,” said Bernier.

Bed straw, a scented grass-like herb, grew in a small clearing next to the trail. Prospectors used the plant to stuff their mattresses, and the plant’s scent helped to mask the miners’ appalling unwashed stench, said Bernier.

Yarrow plants appeared at intervals along the trail — an effective bug dope when it’s juice is spread on the skin, said Jones.

Rosehips, common along the trail, are a potent source of vitamin C — which explained why scurvy ravished early prospector populations, but left First Nations communities unscathed, said Bernier.

She explained that during the Second World War, there were worries that England would succumb to scurvy because shipments of oranges were being sunk by German U-Boats. As a result, the British was encouraged to grow rosehips in their backyards.

“Aha,” murmured a middle-aged German couple.

The guides pointed to an unassuming pair of grass blades — death camis, one of the forest’s most poisonous plants.

“But what does it do to the body?” asked a man in the group.

“It kills you,” said Bernier.

“But how?” he continued.

The gruesome question stumped Bernier.

Arriving at Canyon City after about 50 minutes, it is soon clear that the group’s grandiose expectations of a crumbling ghost town were dashed.

The remnants are Canyon City were naught but a sparse field cluttered with weeds and rusty cans — any bottles long since removed by collectors.

But the guides swung into high gear, leading the group in between the decades old ruins, bringing the ancient settlement to life with sweeping hand gestures, stories and legends.

Jones whipped out a book of old black-and-white photographs showing Canyon City in all its former glory.

Even the cans — thousands of littered cans — had their story.

Bernier held aloft a larger can that had once held cured ham — she indicated the still visible knife cuts along the outer edge, the handiwork of a prospector without a can opener.

A chaotic grouping of sod piles became a saloon’s foundation.

A semi-eroded river-side cliff was the entrance point for First Nations fishermen centuries ago. The rough, dirt trail leading to the town — a well travelled gold rush-era tram line.

This ragged, ruined tram line served as the return trail for the multinational group that now returned to Miles Canyon to conclude the tour.

The return from Canyon City was just as much punctuated by the enthusiastic stories and gestures of our two guides.

The group had seen the enduring glory of nature contrasted with the ruined remnants of human creation, all within the space of two hours.

Bernier reminded the group that the practice of quickly erected, temporary constructs is still alive and well in the Yukon.

She may be right, but the doctrine certainly doesn’t hold true for the conservation society nature hike.

Well-researched and lovingly conducted, the fond memories of Bernier and Jones’s amazing forest adventure will last far longer than the whole lifespan of humble Canyon City.

A lot of things in the Yukon are shoddily assembled, but this isn’t it.

The Canyon City nature hike is held seven days a week at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. until August 23rd. Groups meet at the Robert Lowe suspension bridge beneath the Miles Canyon parking lot.

Information on other YCS nature hikes is available at www.yukonconservation.org.

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