When American army soldiers pushed the "pioneer road" for the Alaska Highway through the village of Champagne in 1942, they were crossing ground that had been occupied for over five thousand years. The indigenous population had seen enormous changes over the millennia. These included minor ice ages, the forming and draining of huge lakes, and the return of the forests. The highway was to cause another change.
Champagne had long been an important meeting and trading place for Yukon and Alaskan first nations. Coastal and Interior Tlingit and Tutchone came here from as far away as Nesketahin, Klukshu, and Klukwan to the south, and Hutshi, Aishihik, and Kloo Lake to the north. The first Euro-American trading post was established here in 1902.
In that same year, a wagon road was built from Whitehorse to Kluane Lake following a first nation trading trail. The trip to Whitehorse, for mail and supplies, took up to a week due to the mud holes and river crossings. The army pioneer road, in turn, followed the wagon road.
This time of fortune had its darker side. The illnesses that came north with the soldiers devastated the first nation population and almost wiped out Champagne entirely. In one family of twelve, only three members survived the epidemic.
After the war, most of the young people left to work in highway camps and larger centres. Despite the attractions of these other places, however, a few families stayed on to keep the ancient community alive.
* Southern Tutchone name meaning “sunny mountains.”
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