The Tatshenshini River Valley is part of the Alsek basin and the only “coastal” river system in southern Yukon. The Tatshenshini River originates in British Columbia and flows north through a canyon into the Yukon. In the valley below, the river turns and flows south west through another larger canyon (visible in the distance) and then back through the mountains to join the Alsek before emptying into the Pacific at Dry Bay.
The Yukon portion of the Tatshenshini basin was a crossroads, a place where people travelled to access different natural resources and meet with neighbours and the coastal Tlingit traders. Overland trails ran from the river north and east to Dezadeash, Aishihik and Kusawa lakes, north west past the Alsek River to Kluane Lake and southeast to Chilkat Tlingit country.
In the 19th century, the Tutchone of the upper river travelled to Dry Bay in dugout canoes; the return trip was done on foot. They also travelled down-river from here to meet the early salmon runs. The Tatshenshini River is now a popular destination for wilderness rafting trips, passing through unspoiled wilderness featuring salmon streams, glaciers, and mountains rich with minerals. It takes ten days to raft downstream from here to Dry Bay on the Alaskan coast.
The Tatshenshini River, with its rich salmon resources, is the region’s lifeblood. The headwaters of the Tatshenshini are where most of the river’s king, sockeye and coho salmon spawn.
Very few people live in the river basin today, but in the nineteenth century the river supported a relatively large aboriginal population. During the fishing season, people from as far away as Dry Bay on the coast and Aishihik and Hutshi in the Yukon travelled to various points along the river, swelling the basin’s population during the fishing season.
Shäwshe, a Tutchone village southwest of this lookout and between two major salmon spawning creeks, was the permanent and seasonal villages situated up and down the Tatshenshini River. The fish were gaffed or caught in traps which are still used today at nearby Klukshu village. Dried salmon were packed away to be eaten later in the year.
In the second half of the 19th century, flood and disease (likely smallpox) struck the basin’s Tutchone and Tlingit residents. By the time the first non-native explorers descended the rivers in 1890, only the Tutchone villages in the Yukon portion of the basin were populated.
The Haines Road follows the trail of a 19th century overland trade route leading to and from the Tutchone village of Shäwshe, also known by the Tlingit name of Neskatahin. Twice a year, in late winter and mid summer, large parties of Chilkat Tlingit traders from Klukwan, near the coast, came here to trade European trade goods for furs and skin clothing. Trading sessions included considerable feasting and storytelling and marriages that strengthened trading relationships between the families of trading partners. Most Shäwshe residents were bilingual, speaking both the Tutchone and Tlingit languages.
Trade networks extended in many directions from Shäwshe. The Tutchone and the Chilkats traded with interior groups and with the Tlingit and Tutchone people living along the lower Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers. When the fur trade was at its height, the Tlingit established more trading villages further down the river.
Trading opportunities in the region encouraged an American, Jack Dalton, to establish the basin’s first trading post near Shäwshe in the 1890s. During the Klondike Gold Rush, Dalton developed the First Nation routes to and from Shäwshe into a commercial pack trail. Eventually it became the road that you are driving today.