Whitehorse’s tour guides may soon be history

Up until last summer, most of what Liam Campbell knew about the Yukon came from school lessons. This pretty much limited the 18-year-old's knowledge to the Klondike Gold Rush. But not so anymore.

Up until last summer, most of what Liam Campbell knew about the Yukon came from school lessons. This pretty much limited the 18-year-old’s knowledge to the Klondike Gold Rush.

But not so anymore.

Last year, he took a job as a tour guide with the Yukon Historical and Museum Association’s historical walks through downtown Whitehorse.

It was a perfect fit for the young man who is considering a career in education. “I like history. I like talking,” said the 2012 Vanier Catholic Secondary School graduate.

He admits the Yukon doesn’t have a very long recorded history to relate.

Just over a hundred years ago, when larger cities were established, this place was just tents and trees, said Campbell. Indoor plumbing? It didn’t arrive in Whitehorse until the 1950s.

“There’s not very many people that have lived here,” said Campbell. But the small cast sure has been colourful.

People either come here because they’re running away from something, or looking for something, said Campbell.

He’s particularly fond of T.C. Richards, the man who helped start Klondike Airways to bring mail from Whitehorse to Dawson. And while the business never owned a plane, its legacy continues. The Klondike Airways building is now home to Klondike Rib & Salmon.

Campbell’s favourite buildings are the old log skyscrapers, with their origins in a bet that Martin Berrigan couldn’t build anything taller than two storeys.

“Most of the buildings here are a result of bets and gambling,” said Campbell.

But talking about them takes time and money the association may not have.

Come the end of this month, these tours may not exist, at least, not the way they do now.

This could be the last season the association runs them. The walks, which occur from Monday to Saturday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., take up a lot of time and resources the association doesn’t really have, said executive director Nancy Oakley.

Salaries for the two summer staff come in at $13,000, said Oakley. Most of that is covered through federal funding, but the association doesn’t always know when, or if, it will receive that cash. This year, Oakley was interviewing students before she even knew if there were jobs she could offer them, she said.

She considers it a good year if the tours – which sell at $6 per person – make up the rest of the costs, said Oakley. And participants don’t always show up for every time slot. In the slower times, the summer students are organizing files and records, she said.

The association’s mandate is to inspire and encourage a passion for Yukon history, said Oakley. And it may be time to consider if other organizations or museums can start operating the tours so it can redirect its time and resources, she said. The board will decide this fall about whether or not to continue the tours after this summer, said Oakley.

The way historical interpreters do their job has changed a lot over the years. Technology is playing more and more of a role, said Sylvie Binette, the association’s treasurer.

Binette is a certified interpreter planner. She spends most of the year helping interpretive centres develop plans, but in the summer she works at the Beringia Interpretive Centre. And she’s spent 20 years doing interpretation about natural history, at places like Swan Haven or the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

There’s an art to interpretation, said Binette. The interpreter needs to relate to the audience, to reveal the story of a specific place and send the listeners home with a message or impression, she said.

And technology may be able to offer up a lot of information, but it can’t deliver personality, said Binette. It gives a “‘wow’ factor,” she said. “But it doesn’t replace a human being.”

Oakley agrees. The association offers free podcasts on its website so people can take their own self-guided tours. And Campbell recently gave a tour of sorts over the phone to a group of seniors in Manitoba. They wanted to learn more about the Yukon. Campbell described a bunch of photographs to them.

But these services won’t lessen the need for in-person tour guides.

“You’re always going to have a certain type of person who just wants to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she said.

And there’s good reason for people to want to hear the stories of this place. Every place is special, said Oakley, but not everyone realizes it. Yukoners do.

“Up here, to a certain extent everybody gets how special this place is. You can’t take that for granted. I’ve been to a lot of different places where people don’t get how important or special where they’re from is.”

But Campbell does. He wants to teach overseas – he recently completed training to teach English as a second language. But he thinks Robert Service summed up the Yukon best in the final lines of The Spell of the Yukon: “It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder / It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”

Campbell would add another word to describe this place. “It’s very privileged, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at