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History Hunter fires latest salvo

There were no can-can dancers during the Klondike Goldrush. "It's cliche. It didn't happen," said Michael Gates, Yukon's self-proclaimed History Hunter.

There were no can-can dancers during the Klondike Goldrush.

“It’s cliche. It didn’t happen,” said Michael Gates, Yukon’s self-proclaimed History Hunter.

You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the prominent role the high-kicking dancers play during the annual Rendezvous Sourdough Festival that’s underway in Whitehorse.

As far as Gates can tell, can-can became a Yukon tradition during the final years of operation of the SS Klondike in the 1950s. The operators, “turning in desperation to tourism” to prop-up sales, hired dancers, he said.

“They introduced can-can to the mix and it’s been here ever since.”

It’s just one example of how it’s never been easy to keep the myths and the facts apart when it comes to Yukon’s history.

Gates has taken on this task, on and off, for more than 40 years. His insights are contained in a new book, History Hunting in the Yukon, which anthologizes his columns printed in the Yukon News from 2007 until 2009.

He first arrived here in 1971, when, as an anthropology student, he traded his dreams of exploring Mayan ruins in Central America for a chance to visit the territory. He didn’t look back.

He left with Jim Bennett, a graduate student at the University of Calgary, in a 1949 Mercury one-ton truck full of gear. It broke down at Fort Nelson, and Gates spent the next three days sitting at the side of the Alaska Highway wondering what he had gotten himself into.

“After then, everything was downhill,” said Gates. “It couldn’t get any worst than that.”

Since that time, he’s served as curator of collections for the Klondike National Historic Sites and as cultural resource manager for the Yukon field unit of Parks Canada. And, during his off-time, he’s regularly tromped into the wilderness with his camera and fishing rod, looking for traces of the past.

He’s the kind of person who marvels over the many uses a rusted tin can may have served.

During the Gold Rush they were fashioned into candleholders, watering cans, stoves, honey buckets, berry pickers, moose callers, ashtrays, mailboxes and cribbage boards, among other things.

“It goes directly to the isolation and the remoteness,” he said. “Only recently have we had the luxury of good roads and cars and trucks to get around.”

Yukon’s wilderness is frequently described as being “pristine” by conservationists and eco-tourism outfits. “But it’s a lie,” Gates writes, “and I will tell you why.”

First Nations are believed to have occupied the territory for at least 12,000 years, and you never know when a fragment of this distant past will be stumbled upon, whether it’s the 1,100-year-old grizzly hide discovered by David Hik in 1991 in Kluane National Park, or the uncovering in 1999 of Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, “Long Ago Man Found,” a young man whose body was preserved in a glacier near the Tatshenshini River after he perished sometime between 1670 and 1850.

The sophistication and size of First Nation civilizations has long been under-appreciated, in large part because the arrival of European explorers to North America coincided with ravaging plagues that left First Nations “persecuted survivors of a recently shattered culture” at time of contact, writes Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the America.

Likewise, the Tatshenshini, “now touted as one of the world’s premiere wilderness-rafting rivers, was once a transportation corridor filled with people,” writes Gates. It was where Tlingit from the coast and Southern Tutchone from the interior would meet at now-vanished villages to trade goat wool, furs and copper for fish oil, cedar boxes and decorative dentalia shells.

When the English explorer EJ Glave visited the area in 1890, he found First Nation fishing camps stretched for two-and-a-half kilometres down the river.

“Shielded from the wind by brush piles, each consisted of small tent shelters or one or two small log huts roofed with hemlock bark. Goods were stored in above-ground caches, and large quantities of salmon that had been gaffed in the river were hanging to dry,” Gates writes.

What was left of the historic village of Neskataheen was bulldozed by miners shortly after Gates arrived in the territory. He was appalled by the act of cultural “vandalism” and fought a losing battle to preserve the site along with Dalton Post, which has also since vanished.

The history of the Klondike Gold Rush is already well picked over, but Gates manages to revise the portraits of some famous characters.

Take the case of Robert Service’s secret lover. The Klondike’s poet laureate had a fiery romance with one Constance MacLean, whom he met while working as a store clerk in Duncan, BC, but his love for her goes unmentioned in two-inch-thick biographies of Service.

In the Queens University archives, Gates finds letters to MacLean that “oozed purple prose off the page like molten wax,” he said.

Unfortunately, the paper trail abruptly ends. We never discover why Service abandoned his plans to return to MacLean in British Columbia and instead took up his cabin in Dawson City. Gates can only speculate that “maybe she became impatient or perhaps Service lost interest.”

Gates also recounts how, in 1978, he helped recover from a construction site in Dawson City a treasure trove of more than 500 silent films that had been buried in the permafrost. Canada’s National Film Archives and the US Library of Congress have since restored the reels, which contain many classics that were thought to have been forever lost.

Gates is still hunting. He hopes to complete a book on the Dalton Trail, and he’s also working on another title on George and Martha Black, a husband and wife team that held Yukon’s seat in Parliament for three decades, from 1921 until 1949.

History Hunting in the Yukon is published by Harbour and “shipping as we speak,” said Gates. It will be available at Mac’s Fireweed Books for $18.95.

A book launch will be held at the Old Firehall on March 30 at 7 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at