As someone who has always been very interested in Yukon history the Fort Selkirk Historic Site was definitely on the list of places we wanted the visit during the year we lived in the Yukon. But how to get there since there is no road access? Located near the confluence of the Yukon and the Pelly Rivers, the historic site is best accessible by water.
I asked at the Whitehorse Visitor Center about how to get to Fort Selkirk and they put me in touch with a farmer named Dale Bradley. We soon realised that it might be difficult getting there. It is a very rough and slow 50km drive from the Pelly Crossing to the Pelly Farm. You need a truck with high clearance. From the farm you have to take the boat to Fort Selkirk. Or you have to get to Fort Selkirk by canoe. Today it has no road access but it was an important transportation and communication hub in the past. We chose to drive to Pelly River Ranch and had farmer Bradley bring us to Fort Selkirk by boat. In winter, when the Yukon River was frozen, the only way to travel between Whitehorse and Dawson City was by the “Overland Trail” (the White Pass Company operated a stagecoach business on this road). The Overland Trail did not go straight through the Fort Selkirk location but there was a small road connecting Fort Selkirk to that trail. Sternwheelers on their way to Dawson City, the Dalton trail and the government telegraph line all met here. There was even a runway.
The Fort Selkirk area is one of the most colourful chapters in the short written history of the Yukon. It was here that Robert Campbell, who had the title of Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company, established his ill-fated trading post in 1848.
Later, it became one of the largest towns in the Yukon and was even proposed as the capital of the territory.
But the history of the Fort Selkirk area did not begin with the arrival of Robert Campell. For more than 10,000 years people have hunted, fished, camped and travelled throughout the central Yukon landscape according to the Yukon Government Department of Tourism and Culture website. Archaeological studies carried out in the 1980s at the Fort Selkirk site revealed artifacts and traces of old camps preserved in the ground that provide a window in the long and eventful history of the site.
We were there on June 8, 2016 and apart from a few canoeists, we were the only visitors that day. Frieda Alfred, the niece of Danny Roberts, took us on a walking tour. Alfred and Roberts are both members of the Selkirk First Nation. She gave us great insights into the lives of native and non-native people who have called this place home. Alfred had spent a lot of time here and she knew many interesting stories to tell. Her uncle was one of the last residents of Fort Selkirk. He and his wife Abby were the sole remaining occupants of this once thriving community when everyone else moved to Minto and Pelly Crossing in the 1950s after the sternwheelers ceased to run on the Yukon River and the store closed.
Today, Fort Selkirk Historic Site with its assemblage of 40 old buildings sprawled along the high shore of the Yukon river, is exceptional for the quantity and quality of its artifacts and the good condition of its buildings. To the Selkirk First Nation, it is part of their homeland – located within the Traditional Territory of the Northern Tutchone – and a place for spiritual and cultural renewal.
For others, it is a cherished reminder of the past, a rare glimpse into the Northern Tutchone way of life, and a look at the history of trade and settlement in the north.
The Fort Selkirk Historic Site is co-owned and co-managed by the Selkirk First Nation and the Yukon Government. It can be reached by canoe or by boat (for example, Time Out River Boat Tours: www.YukonRiverTours.ca).
Free boat trips are provided yearly on Canada’s Parks Day, which is July 15th.
For more information about the Fort Selkirk Historic Site go to YukonHistoricPlaces.ca.