Tawatinaw and the Klondike Gold Rush

1:24 p.m. on October 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Sometimes, the more interesting hikes are close to home.

Trying to beat its competition for furs, the Hudson Bay Company opened a cross-country trail connecting the village of Edmonton to the Athabasca River. This opened up access to the Peace River area (sold to settlers as a new Eden) and to points farther north via the MacKenzie River system.

Dubbed 'The 100 mile Portage', the route wound through muskeg, dense forests, heavy underbrush, and along marshy streams and rivers. Tales of horses left for dead, abandoned freight, and frozen travellers abounded, but within a few years, the village of Athabasca Landing was established.

Then, in 1896, there was a bit of a gold strike up north. Word didn't get out until the following year, and then the rush began. Most of the Klondikers caught a ship from Seattle or San Francisco to Skagway, Alaska, climbed the Chilkoot Pass, then built themselves a boat to float downstream to Dawson City.

In Athabasca Landing, news of the gold strike arrived many months before the rest of the world heard about it, carried by trappers and traders along the river system.

A couple of the locals took their river boat and headed downstream on their way to the gold fields. When news of their departure arrived in Edmonton, the local merchants decided to market the route as the 'poor man's overland trail' to the Klondike. A local newspaper reporter sent out a cable to the European papers extolling the virtues of the route, and Edmonton's somewhat questionable claim to being the gateway to the Klondike was established.

Businesses in Edmonton made a fortune in the next couple of years outfitting the prospectors, and around 800 people floundered their way up the Athabasca Landing Trail carrying their gear. Most made it to the river, but because the generous merchants in Edmonton were happy to send them north as late as October, the bulk of them got frozen in as they followed the rivers farther north to the Arctic. Not one actually arrived in time to stake a claim.

For those of you who aren't into it, I apologize for the history lesson, but personally I find the story to be an interesting one. And knowing that I'm hiking down trails that were part of such an iconic event in North American history is to me a unique experience.

The Tawatinaw Valley is just a little notch in the prairie, but as well as a couple of farms, it features a ski hill with some nice cross country trails up at the top. Access to those trails is via a section of the old Athabasca trail, and a hike through the area gives a glimpse into the history and the economic evolution of the area.

The original trail follows a ridge to on the eastern flank of the valley. Later on, a railway was built along the stream below, and travel on the trail was reduced to farm access. In modern times a good highway was built a few kilometres to the west of the valley, and the famous trail became nothing more than a narrow, winding gravel road through the bush.

Our hike started at the cross-country trail head. We followed the ski trails, now groomed in preparation for winter, along the ridge and through a series of loops up and down the valley. The terrain on top is more open parkland, which is why the Athabasca trail goes through there, but every loop down led into the shelter of the forest.

Really just a nice hike on a cool autumn day, but a few interesting things to see along the way. I'll let the photos do the job:

Walking along the valley top:
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A bit of a bushwhack:

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then down into the valley. Abandoned farmhouses, with...
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a curious window in the outhouse;

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(yes, that's an old TV screen)

Back up to the ridge and down through a pasture. Lot of cattle tracks in the frozen mud, but moose and deer as well.

Nice trails and nice people:


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Quick stop for (a very chilly) lunch on top...
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more cow paths..
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... and back to the cars for the 1.5 hour drive back to Edmonton.

6:08 p.m. on October 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks for sharing Peter, I'm glad you also explained the areas history.

How cold was it during the day of the hike?

Mike G.

9:24 a.m. on October 30, 2012 (EDT)
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Not bad. Highs of around -5° at Tawatinaw and as you saw, a grey, cloudy day. Quite a nasty wind on top of the hill where we stopped, so we chose a more sheltered spot. I told people to layer up right away, but they still got chilly after sitting for a few minutes.

12:42 p.m. on October 30, 2012 (EDT)
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Nice to hear about this route. While the Chilkoot Pass way was the most famous route to the Klondike, a number of "all Canadian" routes were established. One that I thought about doing for years, was to go up the Rat River. Some of you might have heard of this river because it was the site of one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history, when a trapper killed several mounties and others in the 1930's. There was a route established in 1898 that left Fort McPherson and tracked up the Rat with canoes, crossing over the divide, then down the Little Bell and Bell to the Porcupine and then up the Yukon to Dawson. I abandoned the idea, though not because of the difficulty of tracking up the Rat, but because I learned how slow the Porcupine is. 

I love the TV screen window. The old timers were nothing if not "green" in using available materials.

August 31, 2014
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