Carcross at a crossroads

CARCROSS I arrive in Carcross to witness two buses load their cargo of tourists and leave for Skagway.

CARCROSS

I arrive in Carcross to witness two buses load their cargo of tourists and leave for Skagway.

On busy days, the 8,000 to 10,000 visitors that dock at the Alaskan port translate into about 800 – 1,000 people walking Carcross’s gritty streets.

More than 71,500 tourists signed the guest book at the town’s reception centre this summer, according to numbers from the department of Tourism and Culture.

Whitehorse received about 58,000 signatures and Dawson City, only about 23,000 during the same period.

And far more visitors are expected next year, when the White Pass train will travel all the way from Skagway to Carcross.

But when the buses and tourists leave, Carcross folds inward like a flower cut off from the sun.

Workers at the ice cream store put away their street benches, lock their doors and flip the business sign to “closed.”

The only sounds that fill the silence are flags flapping, a few dogs barking and the echoes of the buses accelerating to Skagway.

This is the real Carcross, a town surrounded by stunning mountains and clear-water lakes where there’s little to do other than sit at Montana’s highway restaurant, eat a $4.99 bacon sandwich, and wait for something to happen.

When it comes to politics, waiting is what Carcross has always done, says Greg Kehoe.

Kehoe, who owns the Carcross Barracks and chairs the town’s chamber of commerce, sees Carcross as a town with limitless potential squandered by political neglect and disinterest from many residents.

“We get 700 people . . .  for half an hour,” says Kehoe, a lifetime Yukoner.

“We’re the first bathroom stop. There are huge lineups for the bathrooms — when they finish up there is just about 10 minutes left, which isn’t enough time to see the town.”

Exploiting Carcross’s potential should be as simple as government getting behind development to encourage private investors to bank on the town’s future, he says.

But is the government doing that?

“Plain and simple, no,” Kehoe says.

Little issues are big in Carcross.

Kehoe and other business people proposed improving the town’s sign on the South Klondike Highway to catch more RV traffic.

All they received was government resistance.

“They wouldn’t let us do it: They said Carcross has enough signage already,” he says.

There was a concern about streetlights not working that took eons for the government to respond to community concerns, he says.

And though Kehoe likes the town’s MLA, Patrick Rouble, he and others have gone to Steve Cardiff, MLA for nearby Mount Lorne, for representation on issues in the legislature, he says.

When it came to territorial politics, Carcross was once just a great place for Whitehorse residents to have a cabin, and not much else.

That has changed, but town’s image hasn’t, Kehoe says.

“This town has been grossly neglected,” he says, pointing to the waterfront development plan that has been studied since the late 1970s.

“If that doesn’t show some sign of neglect, what does? We have the same status as a cabin 100 miles into the bush.”

With his words in mind I happen upon the perfect person: Rouble.

We talk outside the visitors’ reception centre — which is, to my eye, receiving a coat of Liberal red paint.

The riding of Southern Lakes worries most about its political recognition, Rouble concedes.

But things are looking up.

A local advisery committee is being set up to improve the Carcross’s political voice.

And that long proposed waterfront development of washroom facilities and a rebuilt pedestrian bridge is just around the corner — with money in the bank to pay for it.

“Carcross is a jewel waiting to be polished,” says Rouble. “More visitors go through this reception centre than the one in Dawson.”

But the harsh reality of the riding is that it is split into three.

Carcross makes up only 30 per cent of the riding’s population.

Marsh Lake dominates with 50 per cent of its residents, and Tagish has the remaining 20 per cent of the population.

Marsh Lake is one of the largest communities in the Yukon, but has very basic infrastructure, Rouble says.

Lots of government of government time and attention is going into brining Marsh Lake up to standards as a result.

Tagish and Carcross are more developed and appear somewhat off the government’s priority list at the moment.

But the waterfront development idea is key to getting the ball rolling in Carcross, Rouble says.

“Would I like to see the waterfront development progress faster? You bet. When you get 800 to 1,000 tourists in town, bathrooms are an issue,” he says.

But while the delays in getting the waterfront ideas built are frustrating, “when you talk and listen to what people want, it takes longer.”

The biggest hope for Carcross’s political future is the South Klondike Local Advisery Council, Rouble says.

Enter Linda Pringle.

Pringle has been working hard getting the advisery council off the ground.

It will hold elections for five seats later this week, though Pringle is unsure whether she’ll run.

What she is sure of is that Carcross stands at a crossroads.

“Here’s our opportunity … we stand on the threshold,” Pringle says of the advisery council.

“Land-claims is settled, the First Nations wants to do things related to economic development, we have tremendous potential here — maybe it’s time we started working together and looking at what our future might be.”

Politics has been an abstract thing for many Carcross residents, says Pringle.

She has lived in the town for 19 years.

“This is an opportunity for those of us who are not represented by the First Nations to have a voice in the development of Carcross and to work with the First Nation to try and make these things happen,” she says of the advisery council.

Until then, Carcross will not have a political voice.

“We really do need to get off our asses and quit being complacent and saying ‘somebody else will do something here to make it happen,’” Pringle says.