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The North

Facts About Faro

Interpretive plaques and a heavy hauler now mine only history in Faro. Photo courtesy Government of Yukon

In 1953 prospectors staked a claim near the Pelly River in the Tintina Trench, an ancient fault line that is an extension of the Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia. The discovery of this massive lead-zinc deposit sparked a boom the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the north since the feverish days of the Klondike Gold Rush. Almost overnight Faro sprang from the wilderness, a purpose-built company town. At its peak in the early 1980s, 3,000 people lived there and its namesake mine was briefly the largest open-pit lead and zinc operation in the world, accounting for a staggering 35 per cent of the Yukon’s entire economic output. The mine shut in 1998; Faro’s glory quickly faded, sharing the fate of many a boom-and-bust town. In May 2004, the town of Faro launched a sheep-and-crane viewing festival, in honour of both the Fannin’s, and the sandhill cranes that fill the skies above the Tintina Trench every fall with their southward migration.—Andrew Findlay

Fleeting Glimpses

Wildlife in Yukon Territory proves elusive

By Andrew Findlay

Autumn comes early in the Tombstones, painting the tundra in jewel colours. Photo by Robert Postma, courtesy Government of Yukon

Mist rolls across a landscape turned crimson by the chill of approaching autumn. It’s the middle of August; fall arrives early in the north. For most of the morning a friend and I have followed a small but elusive herd of woodland caribou through the alpine tundra of Tombstone Territorial Park, about a 90-minute drive north of Dawson City.

The mountains around us, black and brooding obelisks, live up to their ominous name—the Tombstones. Underfoot, there is a thick spongy carpet of mosses and lichens, delicate sieve-cup lichen and fluorescent reindeer lichen. For caribou, lichen is often breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We pause behind a ridge, lowering our bodies close to the ground, and watch. The swish of air through thickets of willow tricks my eye into perceiving the movement. Are those legs or the spindly stalks of willow shrubs?

I came north to see wildlife beneath the expansive skies and the virtually people-less landscape of the Yukon. At 186,272 square miles (482,443 square kilometers) the territory is almost twice the size of the United Kingdom, yet has a population of just 40,000, most in the capital Whitehorse. A similar number of people would be crammed into a single London borough. That’s why the Yukon has a special magnetism for people fatigued by the frantic trappings of modern life, a place to be humbled by landscape so vast that technology and the other distractions of civilization seem inconsequential in comparison.

Up here in the wild Tombstones, life for now has indeed been reduced to a few simple essentials—staying warm and scanning the horizon for animals. The mist rises, lowers, then rises again and suddenly they appear, a half-dozen caribou, black snouts aimed in our direction, their grazing interrupted by the scent of humans carried on the breeze. That is life as prey, constantly alert to clues and signals in the environment; survival depends upon it. Then just as quickly as they appear, the caribou vanish like the ultimate illusionists into the swirling mists of the temperamental mountain weather.

A week earlier I had gone in search of Fannin’s sheep, a Yukon wildlife anomaly, in the Anvil Range above the town of Faro that sits smack in the centre of Yukon. For thousands of years before lead and zinc put this region on the map, Fannin’s sheep ranged the adjacent mountains.

The story of their origins is infinitely complex. Initially scientists considered them to be a distinct sub-species of wild sheep, along with others found in North America—Stone’s and Dall’s, or thinhorn sheep, and the Rocky Mountain, California and desert bighorn sheep. Research has shown that Fannin’s are genetically Dall’s sheep, but with unique dark-colored flanks and mottled white neck that came about through the effects of interbreeding and isolation, before and during the last ice age that ended some 10,000 years ago.

Today more than 2,000 Fannin’s sheep spend their summers in the Anvil Range north of Faro and winters in the lightly snow-covered forests near the Pelly River.
Though I managed to spot a few Fannin’s sheep high on a windy ridge in the Anvil Range, the glimpse was fleeting. Wild sheep are loath to grant predators the advantage of height and I was no match for these creatures of the mountains.

I have more luck with the woodland caribou. The sky has lifted and for the first time I see the razor-cut tops of the Tombstones. As we descend toward the valley bottom we cross a patch of old snow, dimpled with caribou tracks, and then we see them again briefly gathering on a hillock, wary as always. And that is the last trace we see of those animals, swallowed like us by the vastness of the Yukon sky and landscape.

How to Ignore Gold

To the North’s Native peoples, miners were chasing the wrong thing. The gold rush changed local lives anyway

By Ed Readicker-Henderson

In the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, would-be miners hired Native Indians like this woman to carry the required ton of provisions across the treacheroud Chilkoot Pass. Photo copyright Anchorage Museum B70.22.44, Alaskastock.com

Right about the time the great Klondike gold rush was fading into myth and legend, the once hopeful miners sitting back with their feet up in front of fireplaces down south and telling lies to their kids about the glory days searching for color, someone thought to ask Chief Isaac what he’d thought about it all.
Isaac was the leader of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the First Nations people who had lived and hunted and fished around the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers for thousands of years. He was a man who had followed the land’s seasons until he knew every valley, every rill, like his mother’s face.
“It all right white man come dig deep, catchem my gold on my creeks—that all right,” Chief Isaac told a reporter who couldn’t spell from the Dawson Daily News in 1915. “Letem white man have gold. Injun no eatem gold. But Injun wantem caribou…whiteman he go shootem caribou which belong Injun. Caribou my meat. I no shootem horse. I no shootem whiteman cattle.”
And there’s the part of the gold rush legends that usually gets left out: what did the locals do when the stampede started? What happened to the people who had no interest in gold?
Back in 1898, Chief Isaac looked at the mud, the violence, the drunkenness of Dawson, and got his people out of there, relocating them upriver to the village of Moosehide—where there’s still a regular celebration of the Chief’s life and legacy.
But that wasn’t far enough. As game grew more and more scarce in the rush years, many of Isaac’s own people had no choice but to join the cash economy. And so the riverboats that plied the Yukon came to be crewed mostly by First Nations men, men who had spent their lives on the river in canoes. And in the forests, men who had once fed entire villages with their hunting skills, became woodcutters for a few cents a day, feeding ship engines that could burn through a cord an hour.
Of course, not all Native groups had it so bad. Further south, the Tlingit and Chilkoot actually had it pretty good. Although the main gold-rush trail—from Skagway or Dyea to Bennett Lake—passed right through their territory, it was through a chunk that they didn’t use much. In fact, local legend says the word “Skagway” originates in a Native term for “only white people are stupid enough to live where the wind blows that hard.” A more correct reading of the Tlingit “Skagua” or “Shgagwei” would be “a windy place with white caps on the water.” But just because the Natives didn’t use the land much didn’t mean they couldn’t control it. They controlled freight hauling on the passes, charging unheard-of sums: $1 per pound, at a time when two bucks was a really good day’s wage. Most Chilkoot porters could easily carry 100 pounds (45 kilograms) on a trail that went straight up a snowy mountain; one man became a legend for getting a 350-pound (159-kilogram) barrel up to the peak. And, unlike the Tr’ondëk, who were essentially evicted from their homes, pushed out by the stampeders, here the territory in question was really only useful as a path to somewhere else. The miners left with hardly a trace, except that the Natives now had a lot more guns, which made hunting the still-plentiful game a whole lot easier.
Right when the streams and rivers of the Yukon had all been claimed and the flood of gold was starting to dry up, a far richer strike came to light: gold on the beaches of Nome. Everybody who hadn’t made their fortune in the Klondike packed up and headed west, to the continent’s edge, for the North’s last great gold rush.
But those beaches were never an important spot for the Natives. Nome sits on a rolling plain, in tundra the color of musk-ox underfur. Beautiful, but not useful for hunters. About 15 miles (24 kilometres) south of town, though, is a wetland in the middle of a stopover, the migratory flyway for hundreds of thousands of birds. Traces of Native settlement there date back centuries. Why move? Why pay any attention to all these newcomers standing in freezing-cold water and sifting dirt?
Of course, since the rush petered out, Nome has changed. The town is now predominantly Native, a hub for dozens of villages scattered around the Bush. Nome still has people working the beaches, though, searching for that glint of gold, even as Native hunters return, caribou strapped to the ATV they bought in the local grocery store, just an aisle or two over from packaged meat they don’t really count as food.
More than a hundred years since the world’s attention first turned to the riches of the North, miners and locals continue working out the best ways to live in the same landscape.