Wings over the Dalton Trail

We were about to break the bonds of Earth in a quest for Yukon history. The little Cessna taxied out onto the asphalt strip and Alkan Air pilot Ray…

We were about to break the bonds of Earth in a quest for Yukon history.

The little Cessna taxied out onto the asphalt strip and Alkan Air pilot Ray Wilch received the go-ahead for take-off.

He revved the engine and we sped down the runway, defying gravity and taking wing.

Our aim was to follow the Dalton Trail from the air and determine its course. You may recall, if you are a regular reader of this column, that earlier in the summer, I wrote about my search for signs of the famous Dalton Trail (History Hunting on the Dalton Trail — June 27).

On that trip I went in a small inflatable boat with Ron Chambers guiding me down the Dezadeash River.

Our little foray in search of the old walking path in late May did not provide me with the information I needed.

We did not find evidence of the trail, but our search was inconclusive.

What if we hadn’t walked far enough away from the river? What if the signs of the trail were faint where we had put ashore.

Farther down the river, the low-lying land was flat and swampy, not exactly the best ground for exploring the terrain. In the end, my search for the remains of this trail left me thirsty for more than I had found.

My next plan was to consult aerial photographs, so I went to the Energy Mines and Resources library where aerial photograph technician Pam Walden helped me find my way through the thousands of air photos in the collection.

Unfortunately, the photographs were taken from very high altitudes and the coverage was sketchy at best.

In one photograph, I thought I detected the tell-tale line of a path snaking along the Dezadeash Valley south of Champagne. Was this the trail?

Again, an answer was elusive; the line disappeared into the marshy land beside the river, and I couldn’t find it in any other photos.

Fortunately, thanks to the generous support of the Yukon Foundation, and Alkan Air, I had enough money to charter a small airplane for a couple of hours to make another sortie — this time, from the air.

The plane banked to the southwest as we climbed and the signs of civilization were soon left behind. With map in hand, we soared over the rust-coloured rocky pinnacles to the west of Whitehorse.

On one barren peak we saw three mountain sheep, and little sign of a human imprint.

We descended when Kusawa Lake came into view. Through the haze and dull overcast, we could see Frederick Lake in a valley between Kusawa and Dezadeash Lakes.

Here, in 1890, Jack Dalton and E.J. Glave, the first Europeans to visit this region, encountered a First Nation encampment. Dalton and Glave were discovering what the Southern Tutchone had always known was there.

Beyond Frederick Lake, we banked to the left and with Dezadeash to our right, winged south toward the Chilkat Pass summit, into light rain.

With darkening skies before us, we came in low over Klukshu village and combed the right side of the shoreline along Klukshu Lake. The terrain beyond was irregular in character, with a number of small lakes and large tracts of beetle-killed spruce spreading out across our vista.

We caught a glimpse of a road below us and circled. It was a tote road leading to someone’s cabin. A couple of times, we caught glimpses of paths, but nothing that we could follow for any distance.

Over the Dezadeash valley, we were tantalized by evidence of paths on exposed treeless hillsides, but lost them in 100 metres. Circling over the area, we could find no extension of these fragments of trail.

We soared over the site of Pennock’s Post, a gold rush cabin that Ron Chambers and I had located back in May.

We could not see the decaying remains of the cabin from the air, but other details, which were obstructed by the ground level brush, stood out clearly from our eagle’s perspective.

On a good trail, it could take us two or three days to walk to this point. By air, we covered the same ground in 20 minutes.

We continued our flight path down the Dezadeash River, criss-crossing the valley in search of the elusive trail, and emerged from between two mountains to fly over Champagne.

During the gold rush, this was a stopping point for stampeders, called Champlain’s Landing; it was named for Paul Champlain, a gold rush hopeful who had worked for government geologist J.B. Tyrrell. The name of the place was eventually corrupted to the more colourful Champagne.

North of the Alaska Highway we caught frequent glimpses of the trail, one over which I had hiked many years ago.  From the ground, the trail seemed to have a strong direction, and sense of purpose.

From the air, I could see the course irregularities of terraces, knobs and depressions in the valley, which, without the presence of a trail, would have left me a confused and disoriented hiker in a short time.

Eventually, we crossed over the site of Hutchi, a derelict Southern Tutchone village that was home to 200 people. Gradually, they were drawn away to Champagne after the turn of the 20th century.

Beyond Hutchi, the Nordenskjold River meanders a sinuous route through a narrow valley. Again, we picked up the trail, which, in some places, shows four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle tracks.

Times have changed from when it was accessible only by foot or by horse.

We flew over a plot of land, which had recently been cleared, presumably for a homestead, and a truck road leading from it disappeared into the hills to the east.

Beyond Braeburn, we banked sharply toward the south and made our return to Whitehorse.

Again, my efforts to locate the presence of a trail along this historic route were unfulfilled. I was able to sight the trail over terrain, which I had hiked several times before.

 In the area that I was most interested in, however, between Champagne and Klukshu, the glimpses of the route were frustratingly sparse.

Perhaps I shall have to strap on a backpack and strike out on foot to find the trail.

In the 110 years since the gold rush, the forest has taken over. What was once open country has now grown in. What was once grassy pasture for thousands of head of livestock, is now extensive plots of spruce.

Vistas have changed or been hidden by the forest. Paths have been covered by moss and leaves. The imprint of history has been softened and blurred.

From the sky, the land has a different look to it, one that was not known to past generations of people who travelled this land.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.