Teslin means ‘Long Narrow Water’ in the Tlingit language. It is a tiny village that contrasts sharply with Watson Lake, hinting at prosperity and pride. Homes are generally neat, constructed of natural logs or of clapboard painted brown. The natural setting defies description, with snowy rocky mountains, pine covered hills, and ice-covered lakes everywhere you look. Teslin boasts a couple of museums, a heritage centre, a post office, a community rec centre, an RCMP detachment, a clinic, and a general store that sells all manner of groceries at very reasonable prices.
The only museum open today was the wildlife gallery here at the Yukon Motel. Entrance is free, with donations being welcome. I was impressed by the quality of the exhibits, showing mounted animals indigenous to the Yukon. All animals died of natural circumstances, of course, including one beaver who drowned when it fell through some thin ice while trying to cross Lake Laberge one spring.
I then set off on my bike to explore Teslin’s streets. I found several placards explaining the history of this place. In Dawson Creek, you get the American version of the Alaska Highway building story. In Watson Lake, you get the Canadian side. And in Teslin, you get the final piece of the puzzle, the First Nations’ story.
Until the building of the Alaska Highway, the Tlingit, and other First Nations in the Yukon, still lived with the rhythm of the land. Teslin was a meeting place for trade, but not a permanent settlement. When the Alcan roared through, the nearby community of Johnston Town eventually emptied as residents sought the amenities that came with the great by-way–schools, jobs, health services. The soldiers who blazed the trail of ’42 also brought with them diseases against which the Tlingit had no immunity. A way of life was slowly wiped out as the local economy moved passed fur trading, trapping, and hunting. It would be naïve to say that the building of the Alaska Highway was entirely a good thing. Some First Nations paid for this thoroughfare with their very heritage.
It is also important to note that unlike the impression given in the American and Canadian stories, the soldiers who built the first tote road through the wilderness did not do so on their own. Rather, they employed native guides for whom this wild land was home.
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