Where it all started

Ione Christensen cups a hand to her ear and asks if anyone else can hear huskies howling. It's a fanciful question. No dog teams have been kept here for more than a half-century.

FORT SELKIRK

Ione Christensen cups a hand to her ear and asks if anyone else can hear huskies howling.

It’s a fanciful question. No dog teams have been kept here for more than a half-century.

But there’s something undeniably special about Fort Selkirk. So, if there’s a place in the Yukon where you could hear a ghostly dog-team howling, this may be it.

It’s probably the Yukon’s earliest settlement, a place where First Nations and European settlers lived side-by-side for a brief spell in the 1850s, until the coastal Chilkat, upset to see their trading monopoly upset, chased the Hudson Bay boys out.

AUDIO SLIDESHOW:Frozen In Time

Later, Fort Selkirk played a key role during the Klondike Gold Rush, as the headquarters of the Yukon Field Force, a unit of 200 soldiers dispatched to shore-up Canadian sovereignty in a territory flooded with American miners.

Missionaries and Mounties also played key roles at the site.

The fort’s population peaked at around 1,200 at the time of the Gold Rush. It was big enough to be a contender in the fight to become the Yukon’s capital that was eventually won by Dawson City.

As river traffic diminished in the 1930s, so did Fort Selkirk. Construction of the Alaska Highway and the Mayo Road finally did the settlement in, and it was abandoned in the early 1950s.

The settlement stretches for nearly a kilometre along the riverbank. Today, more than 40 structures remain, from tumbledown sheds and roofless log cabins to the Taylor and Drury Store, the RCMP cabin and the newly restored Anglican church, complete with operating bell tower.

What’s remarkable is that all this exists at all. At other abandoned settlements, like Canyon City outside Whitehorse, all that remains are a few piles of rusted tin cans.

But Fort Selkirk remains frozen in time.

The upstairs rooms of the Anglican rectory are still covered with century-old newspapers. A dilapidated wooden sleigh sits in a shed outside.

A dozen desks sit inside the single-room school, surrounding a wooden stove.

Inside the Anglican church, a handwritten prayer sheet for Oh Come Let Us Adore Him alternates in verses from Tlingit to Latin, English and Italian.

Visitors are allowed to wander as they please. All the doors are left open.

For the past two decades, the Yukon government and the Selkirk First Nation have worked to preserve more than 40 structures at the site. Last year, the territory finally recognized Fort Selkirk as a historic site. And on Wednesday of this week, about 50 visitors arrived for a plaque-unveiling ceremony.

Christensen, 78, grew up here. Her father was a Mountie. Her mother was a nurse.

“It was a fantastic place to grow up,” she said. “Everyone got along. No one fought. It was a happy place.”

Christensen’s childhood was unusual, to say the least. She was the only white girl growing up at Fort Selkirk.

And she wasn’t allowed to play with First Nation children indoors, for fear of her catching tuberculosis. So she spent a lot of time with adults, and came to be treated like one at a young age.

By seven, she’d be checking traplines and carrying a small, .22 rifle. She sold fox pelts to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

She’d also snag grayling out of the river for her evidently well-fed, 20-pound cat, Boots.

Christensen’s mother tried to homeschool her. But “it didn’t work very well,” because the young girl would sneak out to check her trapline whenever her mother’s nursing duties beckoned.

So Christensen was sent to Dawson City for a stint. But she broke her leg and was returned home.

So it was off to Queen Margaret’s private school in Duncan, Vancouver Island.

There, Christensen found herself among “prim and proper” English girls brought over during the London blitz.

“The first thing the matron did was take away my hunting knife,” she said. It was the first of many infractions for the girl who would become the first female mayor of Whitehorse, then the powerful commissioner of the territory and, later, the Yukon’s senator.

Christensen’s father, Cpl. Gordon Irwin Cameron, served a far different role than Mounties play today. He would bring mail, medicine and news from Outside.

They lived in the RCMP cabin, where the dining room doubled as the prisoner’s cell. Thankfully, few people were held in custody, other than the occasional person caught making home brew – First Nations people weren’t allowed to possess alcohol at the time.

Christensen’s mother, Martha Ballentine Cameron, was charged with packing the fort’s runway in snowshoes so planes could land.

After a Caterpillar bulldozer was finally brought in to help with the job, Christensen learned how to drive the machine.

On this day, Christensen marvels at Selkirk’s serene atmosphere and wonders whether there may be a mystical explanation.

“Maybe it has to do with the magnetic fields of two volcanos, because there’s one north of us and one south of us.”

Maria Van Bibber, 83, remembers the excitement of having fresh apples and oranges delivered by sternwheeler, and the sadness of hearing the whistle as the last boat departed before freeze-up.

“That was about the saddest I felt as a little kid.”

But most her memories of the place are fond. She remembers little conflict between its residents.

Van Bibber left to marry at 18. But much later, beginning in 1995, she returned to spend 11 summers working as an interpretive guide at the site.

The carpenters on site would leave for the weekend, leaving her as the only worker on site.

“You know you’re alone when you see the last canoe leave the site and you’re all alone. I’d sing as loud as I could to keep the bears away.”

The site is remarkably well tended, given it’s remote location. To get here, you depart the Alaska Highway at Pelly Crossing and spend nearly an hour bumping down a dirt road, keeping an eye out for cows grazing on the twisty path as you approach Pelly Farm.

Then hop on a river boat for a 15-minute ride to the olive-green waters at the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon Rivers. It’s only here that it becomes clear that the settlement, far from being inaccessible, would have been centrally located when the only highway was the river.

No place tells the story of settlement in the Yukon better, contends Doug Olynyk, who recently retired from the territory’s historic sites branch.

He wonders why the site never became a federal park. He suspects it’s because it wasn’t sufficiently “flashy.”

But, “as far as telling the story of settlement in the Yukon, this is the place. This is where everything happened.”

The area has been occupied by Northern Tutchone people for long enough that there’s a oral history of the eruption of Volcano Mountain, which is believed to have last gone off between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago.

White settlers first arrived when Robert Campbell travelled down the Pelly River in 1848 and established a trading post at the far side of the river. It didn’t last long: he picked a site prone to flooding.

So, in the winter of 1851-2, Campbell moved across the river, beside the village of the Selkirk First Nation.

That didn’t please the fierce Chilkat Tlingit, who regularly travelled from the Pacific coast to trade with Northern Tutchone at Fort Selkirk. As Olynyk lightly puts it, “they just didn’t appreciate the competition.”

The Chilkat raided the fort – the only incident of its kind in Yukon history.

Nobody was killed – few people occupied the site at the time. But Campbell was sent packing. As Olynyk tells it, the trader was sent down river in a boat, naked.

By the time the Schwatka expedition passed by in 1883, all that remained of Campbell’s fort were the chimneys built from the nearby basalt cliffs.

It would take until 1889 for Arthur Harper to establish a new trading post at the site.

Today, Fort Selkirk is occupied by a dozen workers in the summer who keep the structures in good shape and offer interpretive guiding to the approximately 1,000 visitors who pass through each year. Many are paddlers, seeking a camping spot as they continue down the Yukon River.

See audio slideshow at www.yukon-news.com.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.