Alan Innes-Taylor was a real gentleman. And for me, as a young radio reporter in the '60s, he was an invaluable source of historical knowledge about the Yukon.
Whenever I wanted to know something about the river boats, or dog teams, or Mounties or wilderness survival, I turned to Innes-Taylor for the answers.
He was born in England in 1900 and emigrated, with his family, to the United States in 1906. A few years later, the family moved to Ontario. Young Alan served as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
In 1919, at age 19, he moved to the Yukon and, in 1920, he joined the RCMP. He once told me that during his five-year stint with the Mounties, he never arrested anyone. Crime, he said, didn’t happen very often.
In his late twenties he began a long association with Yukon River boats, first serving as a purser on the sternwheeler Whitehorse.
He once estimated that he had logged almost 26 thousand miles on Yukon river boats. He knew their captains well and often told funny stories about how various locations on the river got unofficial names, such as “Scatterass Bat.” I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.
In 1929, he worked with the Treadwell Yukon Mining Company at Keno. In 1930, Innes-Taylor’s northern knowledge would serve him well, half a world away from the Yukon.
He was invited to be the dog driver on an American expedition to the South Pole led by Admiral Richard Byrd. It was a journey of exploration to a largely unknown land, on foot, by dog team and by aircraft, as Byrd would become the first to fly over the South Pole.
On a second expedition in 1933, Innes-Taylor was promoted to chief of field operations.
He spent the next two years in the Antarctic and became renowned for his knowledge of the little-known continent. When it was over, he was invited on lecture tours throughout North America.
During World War II, he worked for the United States War Shipping Administration and was commissioned as a Captain in the United States Army Air Corps stationed in Greenland, where he taught Arctic survival.
From 1950 to 1953, Alan was recalled to the United States Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and commanded the Military Air Transport Command Survival School in Idaho.
Such was his world stature in things northern, that he also trained international commercial airline flight crews of Air France, KLM and SAS in Arctic survival.
For Scandinavian Airlines he wrote the highly acclaimed survival manual “This is the Arctic.” He also introduced special survival gear such as exposure suits and multi-person sleeping bags.
After the 1960’s, he spent most of his time in the Yukon where he made important contributions in recording the Yukon’s history, while working to set up the Yukon Archives.
He also wrote and recorded a radio series called “The Rivers of the Yukon”, describing his fascinating trips to Yukon historic sites.
Yet, whenever I met or talked with Alan Innes-Taylor, he was modest about his incredible lifetime of achievements which earned him two American Congressional Medals for his work on the Byrd Antarctic expedition, a Carnegie life-saving medal, and a member of the Order of Canada.
For all his world travels, his home was the Yukon, where he died in 1983.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
He kept expecting to reach a bald hill - or butte - but again and again, the river took him away from his elusive geographic feature.
He wrote: " a conspicuous bald butte could be seen directly in front of our raft no less than seven times. I called it a Tantalus Butte, and was glad enough to see it disappear from sight".
Tantalus was a son of the Greek God, Zeus.
The Northern Tutchone people had a less heavenly name for the hill. To them, it was known as Gun Tthi, or worm hill.
Legend has it that a giant worm lived in the hill. If people made too much noise while travelling on the river, the worm would cause a bid wind that would swamp their boats.
In 1887, the famous Canadian geographer, George Dawson, reported that coal outcrops in the area provided a source of fuel for prospectors and trappers.
At the turn of the century, Captain Miller, who operated the steamer Reindeer, discovered a coal deposit six miles from the Five Finger rapids.
A Dawson City newspaper reported that: "The mine is located right beside the river and Captain Miller has already built a wharf 115 feet long. The quality of the coal is very good and fit for general use. He will soon be able to get out about twenty tons a day. He certainly has a bonanza as coal, in that section of the Yukon, will be a godsend to steamers and railroads".
However, it turned out that the coal was of poor quality, with a high ash content. The White Pass railway, which was expected to become a major buyer, brought its coal from Vancouver by ship instead.
In 1903, Captain Miller sold the mine to the Fiver Fingers Coal Company and then opened the Hidden Treasure coal mine just above Carmacks.
By 1906, the mine, now called the Tantalus Coal Mine, produced just over five thousand tons. In 1907, production rose to ten thousand tons per year.
Although the quality was better here than at the Five Fingers deposit, the few steamboats that tried to use it soon resumed burning wood.
After 1918, production at the Tantalus mine dropped to a few hundred tons per year, primarily for use by homes and businesses in Dawson City.
In 1922, the mine was closed and thus began a series of openings and closings from 1938 to 1967, including mining coal for heating the plant at the United Keno Hill mines in the Mayo area.
In 1970, the Anvil Mining Corporation re-opened the Tantalus mine, using the coal at their Faro lead-zinc mine for heating.
In the mid-1970s, production peaked at about eighteen thousand tons per year. The Tantalus Coal Mine shut down for the final time in 1982, when the mine at Faro closed.
Tantalus Butte is an important part of Yukon history. George Carmack built a trading post at the foot of the Butte in 1893, with the idea of developing the coal seam. Three years later he and his two partners discovered gold on Bonanza Creek, and his dream of a coal mine obviously lost its glitter.
His flirtation with coal mining is commemorated today, however, in the community named Carmacks, the town that grew up near his trading post and the Tantalus Butte coal deposit.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
The lot in life for Oblate Priests who made the long journey from France to the Canadian north was to provide spiritual guidance in very isolated communities. It was no different for Father Jean Mouchet who arrived in Canada from France in 1946 to serve at Telegraph Creek.
Ten years later, he was posted to Old Crow. By 1982, when he left the community, he had become the driving force in a special program that made world class skiers out of an unlikely group of people.
Father Mouchet had developed a love for cross-country skiing while serving with the French Ski Corps during the Second World War.
In Old Crow, the physical fitness of the people astonished him. He realized that breaking trail on snowshoes all day with a dog team is an activity that develops strength and endurance.
In 1959, a team of Norwegian physiologists visited Old Crow and discovered what Mouchet already knew. Many people in Old Crow had the physique and endurance of Olympic athletes. Throughout the 1960s, however, the lifestyle changed. Snow mobiles replaced the dog sled and modern amenities meant they spent less time on the trap lines.
Because of these changes, he could see their self-esteem drop, and so he decided to use cross-country skiing to see if he could reverse the trend among the young people.
By 1967, with the support of the Yukon Territorial Government, he founded something called T.E.S.T., the Territorial experimental ski training program.
He later travelled to Whitehorse and Inuvik to set up the same program. The benefits of the T.E.S.T. program were quick and dramatic. Two skiers from Old Crow, and two from Inuvik, qualified for the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin