Faded Footsteps in the North

 OR HOW I RESEARCHED MY KLONDIKE RELATIVES WITHOUT GOING BROKE

For years, I have known that my grandfather, Raoul Poulin, and 3 of his 4 brothers went to the Yukon to participate in the Klondike Gold Rush. I had gathered as much information online as possible, but always believed that I could discover more if I went there.

After dreaming about a trip North for so many years, I decided to go to the Yukon to conduct primary research, hoping to find more information on the men who walked these historic trails and paths, crossed rivers and rapids, and lived in and around Dawson City during the rush. I would travel alone – a 60+ year old woman – in a remote area of the world – in a country whose customs and currency I was unfamiliar with – and with no support system at all. I knew no one there.

Before my Yukon launching, I would be hosted for 4 days and nights by newly discovered double 2nd cousins in Ladysmith, B.C., then travel by ferry to Mayne Island for a 2 day visit with another 2nd cousin. We all feasted on Pacific-caught Dungeness crab, King Salmon and prawns. Within a few days I would be well rested for my first research destination – Whitehorse. Hostels would suffice for my lodging, as this was no tourist vacation but a working, no-frills trip. No rental car. No gas to buy. I had my backpack and my Sketchers Shape-Ups. I was not coming to the Yukon to play, but to search for faded footsteps in the North.

Whitehorse sits in the center of what looks like a crater; surrounded by limestone mountains too numerous to count¸ with roads that sparkle in the sun. I would be in Whitehorse for almost a month, so I planned my trip to take advantage of the $26.00 monthly bus pass that would get me to my hostel, or downtown, or to the Yukon Archives (my primary source of information from this Territory). If not on a bus, then I was walking with my backpack, usually with a good 20-25 pounds of paper. The bus transported me up Two Mile Hill Road (which is at least two miles higher than the downtown area) to the Yukon Archives each weekday where I would conduct most of my research. The staff at the YA were very welcoming, patient and friendly. The gals there remembered my name from earlier telephone calls and online transactions over the years, and here I was in person. I was thrilled.

Whitehorse has many wonderful restaurants. For breakfast, I would recommend the Java Connection. These gals quickly learned my morning routine. While I would eat my freshly-baked muffin or breakfast sandwich and rich coffee, they would pack a great sandwich and beverage for me for lunch, and do it so that when I ate it at noon, the sandwich was still dry, and not soggy.

As a coffee aficionado, I sought out the best coffee possible and found it at the Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters. I would have paid triple for those cups of magical delight. Their coffee shop is in the back room of a bicycle shop, with hand-woven willow fencing in the outdoor seating area. Very chic. Because I was traveling in summer months, there would be more than 11 hours of daylight each day, so I was prepared to face sleeplessness.

For splurging on a gorgeous dinner, there is nothing that can surpass the Klondike Rib and Salmon Barbecue. You cannot come so far in the world and then dare leave without tasting caribou. Next on my list is the High Country Inn with its giant Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) guarding the entrance. The Best Western Gold Rush Inn is another hopping spot where you can meet local colorful authors, like the well-known Michael Gates, and discuss his latest book or article each evening.

On weekends I took in each and every city event going on from the Sunstroke Music Festival at the Shipyards Park to weekly flea markets. The Shipyards Park features a charming Whitehorse Trolley that provides a 2-mile ride by the Yukon riverfront from one end of downtown to the other, complete with local history presented by period-costumed conductors. The south end of the Trolley line offers a lovely tour of the dry-docked sternwheeler, the SS Klondike looking pristine in white wash. Look up and right from the ship to see eagles in the trees, or walk across the rotary bridge and turn right to discover the beaver homes along the Yukon River on a small walk adjacent to the river.

The top of Two Mile Hill Road is concentrated with wonderful attractions: the Canada Games building, the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center, the Yukon Transportation Museum (I spotted the thermometer in the hood ornament of one of the old cars), and the fabulous Yukon Arts Centre.

Bring your camera (set on flash) to the MacBride Museum for capturing close-up shots of bison, bears, caribou, gray wolves, arctic fox and other wildlife. MacBride houses many dioramas and artifacts. The Yukon Visitor Information Center shows short films of mining history and gives out booklets, pamphlets and posters in various languages on local wildlife, fauna and flora, fishing and birding. The staff here is welcoming and answers all your questions in many languages..

McBride Museum, Whitehorse, Yukon

McBride Museum, Whitehorse, Yukon

My search was not limited to dead ancestors. I met a broadcaster spokeswoman for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) and asked about local Poulin’s living in the area. I was hoping to find some living descendants. Before I knew it, Russ Knutson from the CBC had earphones on my head as we unfurled the details on my search on public radio. Within an hour, feedback phone calls from the broadcast confirmed that I had a living descendant, First Nation Tlingit 2nd cousin. A good year later, I discovered an additional cousin who actually worked for the radio station. This 3rd cousin was delighted to connect with me, even if after my visit had ended.

I met a woman, Sue, who broadcasts the news in her First Nation language to the First Nation peoples of Fort McPherson. Her volunteer broadcast is the only outside news that this community receives. As a child, Sue remembered that her dad was offered to portage cargo from McPherson to Whitehorse. To accept this lucrative job, he and other men had to first hunt and kill nine moose. Next the women of the village divided the meat, skinned and prepared the hides by stretching. Then 11 other, older moose skins were gathered from the people in the area with the new 9 skins. All 20 were stitched together into one large boat. They were now ready to transport the cargo. When the job was complete and the First Nation guides arrived in Whitehorse, the boat was unstitched and participating families received one or two skins as payment for their efforts. That’s cooperative living.

I snapped photos of the Yukon River Quest, an annual water race from Whitehorse to Dawson by canoe and kayak. My next destination was Dawson City, so I flew to Dawson in advance of incoming canoes and kayaks; ready to catch photos at the end of the race. What a thrill getting photos of the start and end of the race.

Air North is the premier airline of choice for these two hops; Vancouver to Whitehorse, then Whitehorse to Dawson. Because Dawson has no public transportation, no rental cars and no taxis, I was advised to flash $10.00 in the air just before landing in Dawson, loudly asking anyone to give me a ride to town. The airport building is locked up tight 10 minutes after disembarking and downtown Dawson is 20 miles away, with nothing but road and bears in between. My $10.00 landed me a cozy ride in a vintage VW microbus to the George Black Ferry, ready to cross the Yukon River to Dieter’s place, the Dawson City River Hostel, where again, I would be roughing it for few dollars. This lodging spot is unique in the world: no electricity, Japanese-style baths with buckets of cold and hot water, an eclectic assortment of cabins, outhouses, and a to-die-for view of the majestic Yukon.

Each morning, the clouds would nestle in lower than the surrounding mountains, almost touching the top of my head, and slowly lift as if obeying my personal wish. Never have I breathed such cool, clean air in my life. I made a point of breathing in and out deeply while there. Where, during the rest of my life, will I ever find such pristine air again?

In Dawson, I repeated my earlier Whitehorse routine. Not the typical tourist, I was up at 6 AM, waiting for the Ferry to cross from West Dawson into downtown Dawson, I quickly discovered the best coffee in town. I had breakfasts and lunches at the Triple J and Eldorado hotels most days. Evenings I would head off to the Bonanza Market for a custom piled-high sandwich and cold drink, then a leisurely walk to the ferry, crossing the Yukon River again and nestling in for a quiet supper in front of my cabin – the one with the glorious view. Every evening the spectacular Klondike Spirit, a vintage paddle-wheeler slowly made its way up and down the river, giving me a custom front row seat as it blew its nightly whistle. The clouds would drop just a bit closer to my head as a deeper calm than I had ever experienced overcame me each night.

Most days, I researched further in the Dawson City Museum which offered tours, presentations, period dioramas and rooms loaded with period artifacts and wildlife. This building was a glorious walk into the 1900s. Their Klondike History Library and Archives houses a collection of true heritage treasures. With local period maps on the walls and files of indexed newspaper clippings, I was right at home and in my glory, discovering 22 dead descendants and 1 live one.

The First Nation people in Dawson and I have a unique connection. My great uncle married a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in woman. I needed to find their graves, take photos and discover as much of their lives as possible. I visited the Dänojà Zho (Long-ago house) Cultural Centre by way of introducing myself and requesting a visit to their nearby camp in Moosehide. I was a white woman, alone, not even a Canadian¸ asking for this special privilege. Armed with a list of two dozen separate life events and dates that proved my connection, I convinced elders that I was respectful, serious and had a legitimate connection to one of their beloved ancestors. I was surprised to find my great aunt’s name on the cemetery listing, along with names of her parents, siblings and children. This great aunt’s father, Sam Smith, was the initial First Nation constable in Dawson, highly respected and reputed to be as fair as he was tough. As I walked among the graves (called Spirit Houses by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in of Moosehide Village), I could visualize this aunt’s hard life.

Among many colorful locals in Dawson, I met Ed Jones, an honorary Yukon Order of the Pioneers (YOOP) member. Ed and wife Star Jones have volunteered for decades in Dawson cleaning up brush, setting fallen crosses back up, fighting to preserve long-forgotten Dawson graves. Ed was kind enough to accompany me while we searched the proper graveyard for my other buried relatives. We discovered one grave and with patience and a coating of shaving cream, the sun’s moving rays slowly revealed faded, indiscernible words on a weathered, white-washed cross. It was my great uncle’s first wife. As this one grave marker was the only one left standing that was readable, Ed was very surprised to connect the weathered, white marker with a person hoping to make the connection. I think I made his summer as much as he made mine.

Systematically, I scoured the city for more information. The talented greeters in period costume at the Yukon Visitor Information Center in Dawson offered free area maps, hiking and trail maps, booklets on gold creeks, and historic videos. The staff is every so patient, speak multiple languages and are eager to help everyone.

In Dawson City, Parks Canada’s mission is preservation, maintenance and marketing Canada and its natural resources. Among those resources are thousands of Gold Rush-era photos of surrounding creeks that the public can search. I had a wonderful time searching for my great uncle’s cabin on 8th Avenue, now long gone.

Canada Day is an annual, nation-wide celebration that brought out a parade of red fire engines, red cruisers, red vehicles, painted ladies of Diamond Tooth Gerties’, red-uniformed Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), red vintage cars and red-tattooed children.

Babe Titus Jr on Canada Day in Dawson

Babe Titus Jr on Canada Day in Dawson

With free food and plenty of games for the children, it was a great holiday. I especially liked the Slowest Bicycle Race Ever that the Dawson City Museum held for the kids.

Part of my traveling requirements included cheap lodging as all the hotels in the Yukon are a bit too pricey for a retirement income, so staying at hostels in Vancouver, Whitehorse and Dawson allowed me to extend my stay to 2 months. Eating 3 meals a day out is very expensive. It adds up fast and what I really free money for was native art and crafts. As my research paperwork increased, I mail overflow papers back home – no sense suffering increased fees and straining the suitcases for the flight home.

Before I left the US on this trip, I had organized my entire itinerary by day, saving me valuable time, allowing me to concentrate on the few spots I would never want to miss. After all the wonderful experiences that the North afforded me, I’m hungry for more and dying to grab my backpack and return.

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One thought on “Faded Footsteps in the North

  1. What a wonderful story of your Yukon trip & so very well written. Thank you so much for sharing. congratulations & a great beginning!

    Like

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