Yukon 2: On Track

Carcross. Welcome magazine, a publication by Yukon First Nations Culture & Tourism in my seat pocket on the Air North plane to Dawson City, was where I first I heard of this town. “Carcross,” I wrote and underlined in my journal: “Four sacred mountains, migrating swans, Emerald Lake.” (Translation: Magellan, we should go there.)

A few days later at Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City, our guide Sammy told us about children from his First Nation being taken away in the early 1900s to the residential school in Carcross. Obviously at that time, the town wasn’t named for a car crossing. Early stampeders to the Klondike called it “Caribou Crossing” after the herds that migrated the narrows, but soon after the name was abbreviated to Carcross. After meeting two of its residents, Shane Wally and Dominic Smith-Johns, we realized Carcross is on track to international name recognition—and if its name changes again, it’ll likely be whatever the words are for “Bike Crossing” in the Tagish language.

Arriving in late afternoon, the first attraction Magellan and I saw was Carcross Commons, rail cars fronted with colourful First Nations art and repurposed as shops selling the ubiquitous ice-cream cones, T-shirts and jewellery. Closer inspection erased my initial disdain. One shop specialized in maple syrup aged in whisky barrels formerly used by Yukon Brewers. In another—“a woodie and a hoodie”—artists in residence were selling handmade products made from reclaimed wood and Yukon-inspired clothing.

We wandered, aimlessly.

We noticed real railcars, elegant and old-fashioned, on a narrow-gauge track. Who doesn’t love a railroad town, especially Magellan whose family tribe grew up in Biggar, a hub for the Canadian National Railroad.

We wandered over to the railway bridge from which young people were jumping off into the Nares River. Wondering if the railway was still active, we approached two of them with the question. Yes, they told us, it travels between Carcross and Skagway, a distance of about 112 kilometres. And the service to Whitehorse, roughly the same distance, might be restored, they said.

“Any hiking trails you’d recommend around here?” we asked. They described a few, then, their faces suffused with enthusiasm, they told us what Carcross is really known for—mountain biking.

“Do you know about Singletrack to Success?” Shane asked us.

Our ignorance only amped their eagerness to tell us the story—and a marvellous one it is.

“Let’s see, I’m twenty-nine and been doing this for thirteen years so that means we started building mountain bike trails in 2006,” Shane began. “A bunch of us go out everyday all summer. You know Montana Mountain? Our Mountain Hero Trail on Montana made the International Epic Trails. Dominic and me just got back from a conference where we did a presentation on how we built it.”

We kept asking questions, sensing how proud they were of Singletrack’s success. How many other Epic Trails are there in Canada? Five. Are girls involved in trail building? Yes. Who uses these trails? Locals (the town has a population of about 450 people) and tourists—three thousand of them every summer from all over the world. That explained Carcross Commons and the reason railway service was reactivated in 2006 after it ceased in 1982.

Proud to be leaders, Shane talked about the benefits of mentoring younger kids in this outdoor endeavour. “I was the youngest when I started, just sixteen, so I know what it’s like. I love the feeling of seeing these kids grow into the job.”

Magellan and I continued down the road to our destination for the night, my train of thought drifting back to our chance meeting with these two young men. I wondered how Singletrack got started, if they got paid for their work, if the program had legs…” And I wonder if you pay to ride the trails?” Magellan asked.

I found the answers in an award-winning documentary called “Shift.”

Carcross is beautifully situated in a valley between Bennett and Nara Lakes with mountains rising to 2500 metres. When the Tagish settled their land claims in 2005, they hired a tourism consultant named Jane Koepke who helped them develop a plan and target their visitors: bikers, hikers, and boaters. “You’ll have to build trails if you want bikers,” she advised.

Traces of trails created in centuries past by the Tagish Athapascan and Inland Tlingit wind throughout the mountains above Carcross. A tramway for a silver mining operation used to run on the epic Mountain Hero—a trail initially charted by Sam McGee, a road and trail builder in real life but more renowned as the fictional corpse in Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

Singletrack builds on this trail-blazing legacy. It creates sixty jobs for local youth every summer and pays each worker $25 an hour. So far, these young people have rocked and ramped, bermed and bridged about forty kilometres of trails—which they also maintain. “I didn’t know I could build something so cool, so epic. I love that feeling,” Shane says. It’s being called “the new Yukon gold rush.” But community leaders know that a world-class destination doesn’t compare to the internal rush of pride that Singletrack has created, a modern track for success on traditional land, a story surely as exhilarating as a bike ride down Mountain Hero.

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Carcross provides an online guide to a walking tour of the town, which has quite a history. Skookum Jim, a Tagish First Nation person, lived here and is one of the guys credited with finding the nuggets that started the Klondike Gold Rush. One of the few prospectors who died wealthy, he left money to a trust to improve the health and education of First Nations people in Yukon.

Pinbike has a video made by Lee Lau as he biked some of the trails.

SHIFT is a half-hour documentary about a group of indigenous youth converting traditional trails around their hometown of Carcross, Yukon, into a world-class mountain biking destination—transforming their community and themselves along the way. The program has legs: it’s been copied nearby in Haines Junction, Yukon, and in the US in Flagstaff, Arizona. There is no fee for riding the trails on Montana Mountain but after SHIFT was released, a fund was set up through Sport Yukon and more than $30,000 has been raised for the Singletrack to Success Program.

Watch it and you’ll see why it was the winner of the “People’s Choice Award” at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film Festival, “Best Film on Mountain Culture” at the 2017 New Zealand Mountain Film Festival and “Best of the Festival” at the 2017 Fernie Mountain Film Festival. Shift was also screened at the 2017 Tromso International Film Festival, Lookout Wild Film Festival, Alpin Film Festival, Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, DC Environmental Film Festival, Available Light Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival Adventure Series, Picurt Film Festival and Dawson City Short Film Festival.

9 replies
  1. Spice
    Spice says:

    That sense of enjoyment shines in the eyes of the young adults we met up there, too. And you got to ride the train and hike the Chilkoot!

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Rose Anne Pescod says:

    Enjoyed your posts……yes it does bring back memories for Dave and I. Carcross was so little and un commercial when we were there…..I have to say it was one of my favourite places…especially during our courtship. Dave and I actually hopped the train in Carcross…also I remember the little church in Carcross, truly it was a place that spiritual I felt the most connected ever.

    Thanks so much for your story, your travels….the Yukon will always be a big part of our lives….we met there, we loved the territory so much.

    Reply
    • Magellan
      Magellan says:

      It was heart warming to see the pride these teenagers and young adults had in what they are accomplishing. And their ability to work between indiginous and regional governments for approvals and funding.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Barry MacLeod says:

    Love the engineer, appears to be clad in period attire, looks right at home, of course he is an engineer, isn’t he?
    Nice ride on the White Pass and Yukon out of Skagway, very awesome scenery, of course, all of the Yukon is a treasure of scenes to please the eyes.
    Nice to see the young ones involved in making Carcross come alive again, awesome story.
    Cheers

    Reply

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