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Bookends: History Hunting Along the Dalton Trail October 24, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: History Hunting Along the Dalton Trail

By Dan Davidson

August 15, 2012,           Star, Aug. 17/12

– 761 words –


Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail

Exploring the Route of the Klondike Cattle Drives

By Michael Gates

Lost Moose (Harbour Publishing)

303 pages



When Michael Gates left a boring summer factory job in Alberta in 1971 to accept a friend’s invitation to join him doing archaeological work in the Yukon, he could not have known that it would be the beginning of 40-year obsession with the life and work of Jack Dalton.

Dalton was a resourceful, skilled and tenacious explorer, miner and businessman who could blaze trails where other men could not, could survive easily where others found it hard, would let no one and nothing stand in his way. Faced with terrain where the snow impeded his horses, he devised a set of snowshoes for them. Less admirably, when faced with men who got in his way he would not hesitate to beat them or, on at least one occasion, kill them.

As for the trail which came to bear his name, he basically stole it from the natives who had been using it for generations, improved it, and then charged them a toll, just like everyone else, to use it.

These days it’s hard to find what’s left of the trail. Gates says that both the Haines Road and the Klondike Highway use parts of it, but it’s not that obvious unless you know what to look for. Cabins and whole settlements have settled back into the earth and have, in some cases, been bulldozed to rubble as the search for precious and base metals continues.

Gates has travelled what he can find of the original route extensively over the years, going on foot, on horseback, by water and into the air as part of his history hunting. He has been able to verify key points along the way by comparing historic photographs with present day views. One example, Slaughterhouse Slough, near Fort Selkirk, is shown in the book.

The Dalton Trail was, in many ways, a better route than some of the others for getting to the Klondike once the gold discovery at Rabbit Creek prompted the Gold Rush after 1896, but it wasn’t as popular as either the Chilkoot or White Pass. It didn’t produce any imagery as iconic as the Chilkoot’s “Golden Stairs”. It was the best route for shipping livestock to Dawson City, and Gates contends that this fact was probably main reason why the town did not suffer the food shortage that everyone was predicting during the first three years after the Discovery.

The first wave of miners did, after all, get to the Klondike before the NWMP were able to impose their rule about bringing a year’s worth of food with you, and the fear of starvation really hex all the way south to Washington, where some truly amazing schemes to ship food north were concocted, some of them by people in high places. Maybe it was the altitude.

Gates has constructed his book as a combination history and memoir. The prologue tells the reader about one of his most recent trail hunts along the Dezadeash River. Chapter one gives the origins of the trail, as it was used by the Natives of the region. There follows the first of the alternating “interlude” sections, which relate the journeys Gates took in tracking down specific sections of the ancient trail. Both Pierre Berton and Dick North have used this device to good effect in some of their books, and it works well here.

The straight history chapters are dated, beginning with chapter two in 1890 and continuing through to 1902, and the final chapters go beyond, to when the success of the White Pass and Yukon Route finally put and end to the Dalton Trail’s advantage. The last cattle drive was in 1906 and then the trail was forgotten.

It real was pretty much forgotten too. Gates notes that it gets hardly a mention in any of the major Gold Rush histories, Berton’s included. It was seeing it forgotten and traces of it being destroyed that launched Gates on his career with Parks Canada and to his retirement project as the History Hunter.

This is an interesting history, assisted by a look at the life and motives of the writer and a good selection of black and white photographs, both historical and current. Gates uses these to good effect when he lectures on this subject at is book readings. IF you have a chance, take one in.






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