World of Words: History as a Smörgåsbord

“Think of our history as a smörgåsbord, upon which there is more than you can possibly eat,” says Michael Gates, author of the new book, History Hunting in the Yukon, published by Harbour Publishing.

As Gates’ popular History Hunters column in the Yukon News shows, he gets personal about Yukon history: “I have always delighted in exposing some of the misconceptions and clichés about our history,” he says.

His vignette about Francis Muncaster explodes the myth that “the Yukon is no place for women” and paints a portrait of a woman as comfortable in a ball gown as in a pair of miner’s britches.

“The stuff that I learned in high school was so terribly dull that it turned me off of the subject,” said Gates. “It was only later, through my own accidental encounters with the history here, that my interest was rekindled.”

Following Gates’ adventurous arrival in the territory, he embarked on a long career with Parks Canada that gave him plenty of opportunity to be on hand for history in the making.

Watch the video about raising Dredge Number 4 in Dawson, and there’s Michael Gates explaining how it was done.

Check the shelves at Maximillian’s Emporium and there’s Gates’ first book, Gold at Fortymile Creek. It’s an account of the earliest miners working pick and shovel long before the big strike at Rabbit Creek.

Although it’s not the book Gates originally proposed for publication, History Hunting is a direct result of the Yukon Writers’ Conference last spring.

At a 10-minute appointment with Harbour’s senior editor, Howard White, Gates offered Gold at Fortymile Creek with a two-page backgrounder and outline. White doubted sales would justify the investment, but countered with the History Hunterscollection idea.

“Why hadn’t I thought of it myself?” Gates said. “This was fertile ground in which to grow a book.”

After a brief exchange between the two, Gates signed a contract. Then the real work started. “There were three stages where I was intensely busy.”

First, in drafting the manuscript, Gates and his wife revised the columns twice for submission on Oct. 21.

Then, working with an editor, Gates “went over the manuscript, tearing it apart, clarifying, modifying and sculpting it to meet the publisher’s standard of style.” It was due by early December.

Last, was the final layout. Gates found the design concept excellent, but after consulting local booksellers, suggested a different photograph be used. “In this regard, the booksellers have more influence than I did.”

Gates maintains he is not the only history hunter: “History hunting is the intersection where place, historical events and human curiosity meet. There are plenty of others here in the Yukon who qualify as history hunters,” he says.

That’s good, because there’s more history here than Gates has time to explore. He’d like to scour the Canol Road and Watson Lake areas, as well as the Silver Trail. Like a feast, “You make selections on the basis of what you think looks tasty and enjoy the meal.”

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