First Nation seeks ‘paydirt’ on mountain trails

Carcross/Tagish First Nation is trailblazing. It’s a new twist on an ancient story. For thousands of years, its people walked trails in the…

Carcross/Tagish First Nation is trailblazing.

It’s a new twist on an ancient story.

For thousands of years, its people walked trails in the region.

Today, members are opening some of those traditional footpaths to the world.

“Long before the gold rush, the First Nations people had trails all through that area,” said Patrick James, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s land-use team.

“Carcross/Tagish First Nation really envision the trail network as a resource for Yukoners, as well as visitors to Carcross, to enjoy,” said James.

The project began last summer and work is scheduled to continue on the lower reaches of the Montana Mountain this summer.

The vision is to build a network of trails, attracting local hikers and bikers and international adventure tourists, by re-tracing existing routes on the mountain.

Many of the paths follow traditional First Nations’ routes or roads from the heady, but short-lived days of the Windy Arm Stampede — an ill-fated silver rush led by Colonel John Howard Conrad.

The six-person land-use team is currently evaluating which stretches of the proposed 60 kilometres of trail are suitable for development.

“Environmental is one concern,” said James.

“The disturbance of the flora and fauna up there, there’s a lot of traditional medicines in the area.

“There are also wildlife concerns. We have a caribou herd that’s in danger of being extinct and we’re trying to bring that herd back. They utilize the area during the summer months.”

Because of their historic connections to the land, Carcross/Tagish people put great stress on preserving the area, said James.

This is why the team is moving forward with care.

“We wanted to make sure these things didn’t happen all at once,” he said in a recent interview.

“It should happen gradually, in phases.”

Montana Mountain has the potential to be a key attraction in the Yukon’s ever-expanding adventure tourism market.

It’s a different kind of “paydirt,” according to contractor Jane Koepke who is working with the First Nation.

“The Yukon is trying to market itself as a global wilderness tour destination,” said Koepke.

“Adventure and sports tourism is one of the fastest growing markets globally.”

Mountain biking is becoming one of the most popular outdoor sports, with a worldwide following from Wales to Colorado to New Zealand.

And Montana Mountain would be a more extreme and exotic location.

“It’s all about creating something that will help it establish a destination reputation,” said Koepke, noting word of mouth is invaluable marketing for adventure tourism.

Infrastructure is needed before the full tourism potential that lies along the mountain slopes can be harnessed, she said.

“It’s a matter of developing the industry without compromising what’s most precious to you.”

Those are the values the land-use team is currently weighing.

What kinds of facilities need to be built?

Where will they stand?

“The trail network will be developed to reach high standards of environmental protection and user enjoyment and safety,” said James.

All of these safeguards will be in place well before visitors flock the trails.

And some work has already begun.

Koepke and project assistant David Gatensby spent the fall bushwhacking along the mountainside, searching for overgrown trails.

“It was like a treasure hunt to find them,” said Koepke.

But find them they did.

This summer, local youth will be hired to help clean the trails up and build a rock garden near the foot of the mountain, said James.

The trail system will also be a source of outdoor recreation for local youth to get back out onto the land.

And it’s as much about the means as the end, said James.

“It’s creating partnership with the different youth groups as well as some of the economic opportunities,” he said.

“Developing tourism is a cornerstone for the future of our economy. The trails are kind of a starting point for a sustainable adventure tourism industry that respects local environmental and cultural values.”

The completion of Montana Mountain’s tourism paths is a few years off yet. The park is scheduled to open in 2008.