Fort Selkirk is closer than you think

To get to Fort Selkirk, most people have to paddle a canoe 50 kilometres or so down the Yukon River from a bend in the road on the North Klondike…

To get to Fort Selkirk, most people have to paddle a canoe 50 kilometres or so down the Yukon River from a bend in the road on the North Klondike Highway.

Others might charter a plane to land on a gravel airstrip at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers.

There are no roads to the historic site, where First Nations people traded with each other for millennia before the Canadian army posted 2,000 troops to assert national sovereignty during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.

As of Friday, however, anyone can walk into the Arts Underground at the Hougen Centre in downtown Whitehorse and take a tour through Fort Selkirk’s rich history.

Photographs line the walls, telling Yukon tales of the original inhabitants meeting with prospectors and the army that followed.

For 24 years the heritage branch of the Tourism and Culture department has been working on restoring the historic buildings of the First Nations abodes and the old Canadian army post that made Fort Selkirk famous more than a century ago.

“At the moment it’s only accessible by boat or plane,” historic sites co-ordinator Doug Olynyk said Thursday as he guided reporters through a sneak-peak of the display.

“However, with the development of the Minto mine not too far away I expect there will be some ATVs rolling in one of these years.”

The reconstruction of Fort Selkirk was completed in partnership with the Selkirk First Nation.

“Many of our people were born, lived and died at Fort Selkirk,” David Johnny, one of the First Nations councillors, said in a release.

“I’m very happy that we’ve been able to keep this part of our history alive.”

Some of the old photos now hanging in the Hougen Heritage Gallery are from the Yukon government archives. Others were donated by the MacBride Museum.

The more recent colour shots were taken by heritage spokesman Michael Edwards.

“Fort Selkirk was a trading location,” Edwards said as he pointed out ancient photos of dark-skinned people standing on a bleak looking landscape.

“Chilkat Tlingit from the coast came and even some people from the Northwest Territories are also met there and traded stuff.

“It was a natural site for trading for about 8,000 years.”

Building a tapestry of then-to-now was an archeological pursuit best exemplified by the reconstruction of the former residence of Selkirk chief ‘Big Jonathon.’

In 1986 government found archeological evidence suggesting the location, dimensions and orientation of the chief’s cabin.

The building originally housed a third of Canada’s military force, said Edwards.

The government heritage unit built a replica on the exact spot. Its portrait is part of the collection.

“There are lots of historic photos that show a lot of detail,” said Edwards.

“It was a former military barracks from the Yukon field force that was there in the 1890s.

“When the field force left, Big Jonathon, one of the Selkirk chiefs, moved in and made it his home.

“That’s it,” Edwards said, gesturing to a colour photo of a reconstructed longhouse.

“Originally built as a military barracks, this is it as Big Jonathon’s home.”

There are two ancient cemeteries at Fort Selkirk, one where First Nations people buried their loved ones, and another for soldiers and, later, non-native settlers.

An ancient RCMP building marks the place where Yukon Senator Ione Christensen was raised.

Christensen is pictured with her family in one of the photos from the 1940s.

There are photos of the Taylor and Drury store, the only commercial structure left in Fort Selkirk.

And the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, originally established in 1852, has a prominent place on the Arts Underground wall.

“The Hudson’s Bay was there for only a year,” said Edwards.

“They were actually routed by Chilkats from the coast.

“There was no one here for quite a few years.

“Then in the 1890s a store was established again.”

The Fort Selkirk exhibit will occupy half the Arts Underground until October 3, 2006.

In the other half, Peter Von Gaza’s photographs of Mount Logan and the Kluane Ice Field Ranges will be on display until the end of August.

Since 1997 Von Gaza has been travelling among Kluane glaciers, by plane and on foot, collecting photographs of the mountains.

Some of his 22 display photos, mostly black and white, were taken over the course of five aerial flybys with Kluane pilots Andy Williams and Donjek Upton.

“It’s been whenever I’ve been able to have the time or the weather co-operates,” said Von Gaza.

The others he shot during three ground expeditions.

“One trip I had, Andy dropped me off in the middle of the ice fields by myself, in August, on the south side of Logan.

“I set up a camp and skied around, taking what pictures I could without falling into a crevasse.”

All Von Gaza’s photos are for sale.

“I still don’t have my dream photographs over Logan.

“It’s been a passion for me. I love going back there.

“Mount Logan, in my opinion, is still the most beautiful and dominant landscape feature in all of Canada, if not the world, and no one knows about it.”