Niko wants to become a professional ski guide. It’s a bold and somewhat unprecedented dream for a kid from Carcross. To that end, for the last few winters Niko has been tail gunning for Yukon Alpine Heliski, a unique operation that has expanded on the local tradition of camping at the high mountain passes separating the Yukon interior from the Alaskan ports of Haines and Skagway. Owner/operator Peter Wright uses a contract helicopter, RVs, and mobile sauna to chase fresh snow across the region—a quirky setup reminiscent of early days in Valdez. In the spring, Niko and Pete scouted a bold new 90 kilometer route, traveling jumbled, heavily glaciated terrain. Months later, Niko is still buzzing from the experience.
Before leaving, we stopped to visit Niko’s mom, Donna Geddes. In the populated southern Yukon, carrying out a traditional lifestyle requires every technological advantage. A quick survey of the property revealed the full gamut of state-of-the-art boats, ATVs, and snow machines—the tools that Donna and her husband, master carver Keith Wolfe Smarch, use as needed to live both on and off the land. Tired after 27 days at a remote alpine camp, her annual moose hunt was successful. The massive carcass—enough to feed four families for most of the upcoming winter—was hanging in the shed. She traced out the final butchering cuts for me. “My kids grew up not knowing about gristle.” Even so, moose are scarce—as hard to come by as a powder day in the fall.
In a boardroom in Carcross early this past summer, a respected Elder describes the seasonal movements of caribou on Montana Mountain to decision makers in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation government. A young voice is up next, respectfully correcting certain details and expanding upon others, confident and knowledgeable in the topic at hand. Those gathered listen with a mixture of pride and surprise. The voice belongs to 25 year-old Shane Wally, who has amassed a decade of firsthand knowledge about the mountain owing to his membership on—and for the past four years, leadership of—the S2S trail crew.
In 2006, Shane was the only kid in town with a decent mountain bike. Skinny, shy and helmet-less, he would spend hours building plywood ramps to launch his bike. It was his first job, and there was much to learn. Each morning he would dash to the local gas station to acquire the day’s provisions: packaged hamburgers, a bag of chips, and a few cans of energy drink. A heavy camouflage jacket barely kept the rain out on the miserable days. It took time for his humour, creativity and bush smarts to emerge. One particular day, mindful of his Elders’ teachings, he led the crew around the remains of a bull caribou as a show of respect. Later that summer, after I chose a terrible “shortcut” that resulted in wet feet for the entire crew, Shane quipped: “Never follow a white guy through the bush.” His insecurities, eroded by time on the land, gave way to its day-to-day rhythm.
Still, the patterns of small town life were hard to break. Sometimes Shane was late for work, other times he failed to show up at all. During his fourth season on the crew, he passed out in a snowbank on his way home after a party, an all-too-common story in a part of the world where suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for aboriginal youth. Slowly freezing to death, Shane awoke just in time, alive. The following summer, “the Wallyman” emerged. Towering at 6’3″, he broke axe handles and shovels with his seemingly boundless strength. Crafting hand-built singletrack became his passion and motivating a new generation of youth, all of whom watched in awe, his calling. He was a young man discovering his inner and outer strength.