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A river removed

A canoe descent of the Yukon's wild Snake River offers insight into the battle for a watershed and a meditation on the meaning of pristine landscapes.

What is wilderness? The thought turns on its side as our floatplane tips steeply, spinning on a wingtip into the alpine vale cradling Duo Lakes in the headwaters of the northern Yukon's Snake River. Below, brocaded in olive, mustard, and blue-green, themountainsides jut above jade spires and the puce darkness between them. The palette, characteristic of the delicate Taiga Cordillera Ecozone, is unfamiliar yet vibrant, and it's clear that it exists here in an undisturbed state — undisturbed, that is, by us.

The definition I've been mulling is a matter of degree to the human mind: not this, but that; some, but not all; us but not them. As many variants as special interests concerned with it. The problem is that all of these constructs are ours — relative and contextual. Real wilderness defines itself in functionality: the natural intertwining of landforms and waterways; the presence of indigenous, co-evolved plant and animal life; intact ecosystems operating the way they have since they arose.

There is room for humanity in all of this, since we are a part and not apart; it would seem, however, there is no quarter for the violation of functionality.

The idea comes more sharply into focus with aquatic ecosystems, which are more easily perturbed, their problems more readily distributed over large areas. Which is why our isolated destination, the Snake, is considered pristine. No roads. No residents. No development. A wild and rugged watercourse that we'll follow for 10 days and 300 kilometres to its junction with the Peel River.

The trip is canoe exploration first and foremost, though it will also offer insight into the current hot-button politics of protecting the entire Peel watershed, of which the Snake is the last of six rivers — preceded from west to east by the Ogilvie, Blackstone, Hart, Wind, and Bonnet Plume — to join the former's flow within the Yukon. On the protection side are several First Nations bands with traditional hunting grounds in the Peel, backed by commercial tour operators and environmental NGOs like the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) and Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). On the other side is the Yukon's traditional economic engine — the mining lobby — intent on preserving leases staked on uranium (Wind River), iron (Snake River), and oil and gas (Peel Plateau) deposits. An eight-year land-use planning process involving an arm's length commission of stakeholders just wound down with its compromise recommendations — which received overwhelming public support — rejected by a newly elected conservative Yukon government (see sidebar: Staking a Claim for a Watershed). The final fight for the Snake is on. A chance to experience it in its current state is an opportunity I can't turn down. If anything is instructive of valuing wilderness, it's a pristine river.

Weather perpetually threatens in the north, so it was no surprise that our pilot again attempted the drop-off at Duo Lakes on the greyest of days. In the tiny community of Mayo, some three hours southeast of Dawson City, we'd loaded gear into the high-powered Otter, lashed canoes onto pontoon struts, taxied onto the turbid and historic Stewart River, and put the hammer down. A viridescent quilt of forest and moss fell quickly away, riven by the blue of serpentine rivers, their bends bracketed by sandbars and parenthetic oxbows. On higher ground, geometric patterns testified to the processes that preceded the forests: dendrites of former drainages fell like dark veins between muscled ridges; trees grew in fractal scallops on the halting deposits of glacial retreat; circular lakes told a story of ice chunks once buried in the tundra. As calm plateaus gave way to sharp ridges we'd encountered the same lowering wall of cloud that had turned us back the day before, only this time we'd squeezed through a mountain pass just as the curtain dropped, and were now descending in a slow spiral onto Duo Lakes.

In no time, our group — myself, Whitehorse-based photographer Fritz Mueller and guides Blaine and Mary Walden of Walden's Guiding and Outfitting — plus our ton of gear and pair of canoes stand upon the shore, the plane reduced to a faint whine that tails off like the last note of a song, leaving us to the silence of a huge and dramatic landscape. Before we have time to contemplate it, however, the plane's engine is replaced by the buzz of a mosquito.

Like the Wind and Bonnet Plume Rivers, the Snake begins its northward flow in the Wernecke Mountains, part of the Mackenzie Mountains Ecoregion. Remote and rugged, the river carves through sub-range after sub-range, bisecting massive rock slides and braiding out into long gravel flats. Any doubts about who these waters belong to are put to rest while portaging to the river. Twice we trudge loads an hour over alpine scrub, ford a creek, beat through a maze of willows, struggle across a hummocky wetland, burrow through another strangle of willows and down onto the flood channels of the Snake. Mountains soar on both sides as we hump over the abundant tracks and dung of moose, caribou, wolf and grizzly — whose diggings for Bear Root, a favourite food, are everywhere.

Returning for another load, sweaty, and engulfed in mosquitoes, Mary spots something rustling the willows ahead and calls out. Expecting one of the ungulates that has signalled its ubiquity by sheer volume of poo, we watch instead as an adolescent grizzly crashes across the wetland and up the hillside, flattening willows in its wake. It stops to look back several times, and, on its final turn along a mountain bench, feels safe enough to stand fully erect on its hind legs and aim its ears toward us. It's a fortuitous and thrilling sight so early in the trip.

We have our heads down lining the canoes down a canyon full of rapids the next day, but once the river breaks free of sheer walls and hairpin corners the wildlife parade continues. As we will on most days, we wake to rain at our sandbar camp. Standing on shore with a plate of pancakes during a break in the downpour, I hear a loud splash downstream and turn to see a large caribou swimming towards us from the other side. It's oblivious until the last second, when, sensing our presence, it turns into the current and disappears around the corner, it's head bobbing in an icy train of waves. The animal represents a cornerstone in arguments to protect the Peel, whose massive 67,000 km2 boreal eco-machine could comprise the largest protected area in the burgeoning Yellowstone-to-Yukon conservation initiative to re-link wildlife corridors disrupted by continental colonization.

"The Bonnet Plume Woodland Caribou is the only herd in North America that doesn't have a single road through its territory," notes Blaine, a wiry, wizened 20-year veteran of trips on the Peel's watercourses — with a baseball cap that looks to have accompanied him throughout — as he dishes out the last of the flapjacks.

Well, no human roads; we're inadvertently camped in the middle of a worn game trail, pounded down by generations of hooves. So far out here, humans are merely an annoyance.

That afternoon the river braids out for the first time and we bob below cliffs dotted with dirty-white puffballs — Dall Sheep munching the succulents they lust for — and crisscrossed by Peregrine Falcons. There's other birdlife aplenty: Golden and Bald Eagles keep an eye on us as they lurch between logjams, Mew Gulls and Yellow-legs guard their nests.

We make camp at aptly named Milk Creek, which funnels finely ground glacial flour from 2,758-metre Mt. MacDonald, highest peak in the Bonnet Plume Range. The alabaster flow, pouring through three channels into the teal-coloured Snake, yields an uncanny parfait. During a layover day here we light out on a four-hour hike to a nearby peak, following an animal trail through dense, spongy spruce up a ridge that plateaus into sparser trees and mossy hummocks. Underfoot is a riot of lichens and bryophytes — Reindeer Moss (caribou food), Dead Man's Fingers (eerily similar to the real thing), and even Fairy Parasol (grows only on moose dung). As we ascend, Alpine Lupins cradling large water droplets offer a ready source for a quick drink.

Climbing up off the river reveals the true breadth of the land. By the time we hit the scree of the upper slopes we can see 100 kilometres in any direction not blocked by a mountain. It's edifying to think this entire vista is unmarred and unoccupied, free for any animal — including us — to wander at will. That's a working definition for some conservationists.

"A wilderness is really a wild landscape where you can still roam free," says Juri Peepre, co-author of Wild Rivers of the Yukon's Peel Watershed, "I do think that wilderness is part of the Canadian soul."

Indeed. Cresting onto the summit ridge we spy a caribou silhouetted against an overlook of MacDonald, a stunning big-wall panorama of Himalayan proportions. Following game trails back to camp we wade through swaths of Bear Flower, a plant characteristic of the unglaciated areas of Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon collectively known as Beringia, yet another of the Peel's dimensions: a good chunk of the watershed missed out on the most recent Pleistocene party. This longstanding, unperturbed ecosystem holds significance for the future.

"One of the best ways that we can manage natural systems to ensure resilience to climate change is through protecting large habitat areas and ecosystems," notes YCS Executive Director Karen Baltgailis. "The Peel is exactly such a place — large, unimpacted, with linkages between different elevations, habitat types, and latitudes."

There are, in fact, few places left on earth to observe such large-scale diversity.

Except for the occasional rock garden, our days on the river are braids and eddies, braids and eddies. And now, a week into the descent, a particularly strong example of the latter rips in from the right. We brace hard across it.

"That's Iron Creek," says Blaine, which means we're pulling over. Iron Creek holds particular interest for outfitters like the Waldens.

Like most Yukoners, both arrived from other parts of Canada to fall in love with this wild land. Growing up in Calgary, Blaine, 56, had wanted to go into the woods and build a cabin since reading Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barren Lands. He answered an ad for a rafting guide in 1982 and has guided river trips ever since; in winter he runs sled dogs. Mary, 52, left Saskatchewan in 1988 to be a reporter at the Yukon News and later the CBC. She now focuses most of her journalism on protection of the Peel. One of their goals on this trip is to visit a site where, fifty years ago, the Snake dodged a bullet.

In the early 1960s, California-based Standard Oil (now Chevron) cleared an airstrip several kilometres distant on a forested plateau to conduct oil and gas exploration. It didn't find any, but, 14km up this formerly unnamed creek, its geologists discovered, according to Chevron, "the second largest undeveloped iron ore deposit in the world at 20-30 billion tonnes of resource." Known as the Crest deposit, Chevron currently holds 525 leases on it in the Yukon totalling 27,827 hectares. While remoteness has kept the find in the ground, the long-abandoned staging site is rumoured to be contaminated; the Waldens want to see for themselves.

The gravel bar we pull out onto is peppered with hematite-jasper ore, blood-red and alien amidst the light-coloured cobble. It's strangely beautiful but a potential disaster for the Snake. Iron extraction is a messy business.

In contemptuously spitting rain we hike far up the creek before turning into the bush. It's difficult going through mosquito-swarmed spruce and then outright swamp toward an unmapped destination. Suddenly I come across old cut trees clad in thick moss. Immediately we find oil cans, aviation fuel barrels, an airplane pontoon, and other big-ticket garbage near the grown-over airstrip and dilapidated plywood shelters used as a fall hunting camp by outfitters. Chevron's trash encourages hunters to treat the area as their own modern-day dump. We discover suppurating car batteries and rusted-out fuel drums whose contents have percolated into the soil. Here grizzlies, attracted to oil, have created mud baths. Likewise for an old fuel tower leaking oily water into a large, well-trodden puddle. The tower is now a rub, wisps of grizzly hair attached to bolts and the jagged edges of rusted metal.

Despite being small and removed, not only is the site contaminated and continuing to be, it's also affecting local wildlife. If this is the cost of but one tiny, unfulfilled wilderness transgression, what would an entire mine complex and network of roadways beget?

After remaining mute for half a century, in 2011 Chevron publicly committed to a two-phase, government-monitored clean-up involving both removal of debris and soil remediation. The clean-up, however, might be a double-edged sword: although belated and welcome, it's also necessary if Chevron holds any hope of acting on its stakes before they lapse, and fits with the mining industry's newfound façade of good corporate citizenry.

"We have to restore and bring back the land to a level where it conforms to the initial landscape... I'm not saying that was happening 30 years ago, but these days that's the way we conduct our business," says Claire Derome, President of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. "A mine will not be allowed if significant environmental impact cannot be mitigated — that's the law. [But] mining is one way where people living in the community can earn a living, and without that there's very little else that's taking place here."

This seems simplistic, but what do I know? I'm just an ecotourist.

The last of the mountains has swept off to the horizon and the river now runs opaque as it cuts into the prodigious sediments of the Peel Plateau. Wind and squalls fill the air with fluffy Cottonwoods seeds that, like the snowflakes they resemble, stick to everything. It's still raining, however, and the water is rising, growing browner and nastier, adding the hazard of new channels roaring through gravel bars crowded with old logjams.

Day 10, our last on the river is grueling, the dangerous flood conditions demanding careful cornering maneuvers. For 50 kilometres we skirt threatening sweepers, islands of collapsed riverbank, and enormous floating trees that only hours before had stood tall on ground they'd occupied for hundreds of years. It's a stark lesson in the dialectic of wild rivers — their eternal tearing down and building up.

Eventually the water slows and grows bigger, flowing through soaring cutbanks peppered with mineralized nodules from much further back in time. These contain the fossils Mary has read about in the journal of Charles Camsell.

Camsell was born in the north and travelled extensively throughout the Yukon and Northwest Territories for the Geological Survey of Canada. Emblematic of the old school explorer/bureaucrat, Camsell felt the only way to appreciate Canada was to see its north — with an eye to both the riches of experience and the riches of development. As such, his travels in the region comprised the first comprehensive report, in 1906, on the Peel and its tributaries. Years later, in Ottawa, Camsell's journeys inspired him to start the Canadian Geographical Society.

Mary hopes to find the deposit Camsell describes on this section of river: a small stream-mouth stacked high with oxidized, iron-rich nodules. Pulling over at a likely looking alluvial cone we're greeted by what indeed seems the fossil trove heralded by Camsell: sharp, ochre impressions of brachiopods, ammonites, and other molluscs; trilobites, coral fans, worms and their tracks. A scattered brilliance of organic art. "Look at these things," laughs Mary, ecstatic to make the rediscovery.

Back at the canoes, the omnipresent wind lifts sandstorms off the towering walls, encouraging us to depart before these slap us in the face with contact-lens-finding accuracy. Behind we leave one of the watershed's many paleontological treasures. Not as impressive as the Mammoth tusks Blaine famously plucked from the banks of the Upper Peel, perhaps, but of enduring scientific interest nonetheless.

By the end of the day the canyon is in shadows. Now it's just about making time on a big, brown worm. When the Snake debouches into the Peel it is with little fanfare other than a strong eddy line to be ridden carefully north. Having already received five major rivers, the Peel is here already huge. A few kilometres further, along a sweeping wall of sediment towering a hundred metres above the water, we arrive at Taco Bar.

Marked by a protected eddy that's easy for a plane to taxi on, Taco Bar (so-named for one pilot's revered dinner creations) is the pickup point for those with no desire to tack on the extra four-day paddle to Fort McPherson. It's also the terminus of CPAWS's 2003 "Three Rivers Journey" in which 18 nationally prominent artists, writers, journalists and photographers joined folks from Yukon and NWT communities in separate, simultaneous journeys down the Wind, Bonnet Plume and Snake Rivers. After weeks on the water, members of the Tetl'it Gwich'in First Nation welcomed the paddlers with an elders feast on Taco Bar. Creative works generated from this journey were assembled into a touring show that attracted international attention to the unique cultural and ecological values of the watershed.

There are no elders on Taco Bar to greet us, but bear, moose and wolf tracks are abundant, insects legion. We spend a last, contemplative evening circling a driftwood fire, sharing tea and river stories, the melancholy of accomplishment tempered by finality. We retreat to our tents thinking we'll have a leisurely morning, time to take one last sip from this cup of splendid isolation.

The plane, however, shows up at 7:00 a.m., hours early in a bid to beat an approaching front. We haven't even had coffee, but pack, load and take off in a time frame that can only happen in the north. Winging back to Mayo we skim jackknifed waves on a sea of empty mountains. The first glimpses of cabins or airstrips elicit flashes of annoyance, as if these tracings somehow violate our experience. Misplaced as such zealotry may be, it says everything about the importance of protecting intact landscapes: we instinctually crave the connections they offer.

In the end we're back to the beginning: what is wilderness? Is it no human footprint or very little? Does long use and transient habitation by First Nations qualify or disqualify? Without consensus, we look to nature, where one thing is clear: whatever the answer, it cannot contradict the first principals of ecosystems, or involve only piecemeal protection. A mine may benefit society, but only as long as the resource or changing economics of demand last, and comes with both environmental and economic price tags for the inevitable clean-up. But true wilderness — the type that the Earth doesn't make anymore — offers wealth in perpetuity.

"The Peel is still raw and wild — unlike anywhere else in the country. Development would end that, forever," James Munson once wrote in the Yukon News. "Forever can't be mitigated."

More information about outfitters operating in the Peel watershed:

Positions and information on the Peel land-use process:

Staking a claim for a watershed

The Peel watershed land use process grinds as slowly as Mount MacDonald's glaciers in northern Yukon.

In December 2009, after seven years of consultations, the independent Peel Watershed Planning Commission recommended that 80.6 per cent of the region be withdrawn from staking and protected, and that 19.4 per cent become Integrated Management Areas, where mineral, gas and oil could be accessed only if there were no significant environmental deterrents. A round of public consultation revealed more than 90 per cent support for the plan.

In February 2010, the commission received a formal response to its recommendations. There were no surprises: First Nations felt the proposal was inadequate, insisting on 100 per cent protection; government said 80.6 per cent protection was far too much and sent the commission back to the drawing board. The mining lobby was equally unimpressed.

"The area we're talking about is huge," says Claire Derome, president of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. "It's 15 per cent of the Yukon, which would add to the 14 per cent that is already protected. You'd jump to having close to 30 per cent of the Yukon set aside. This is way beyond anything that exists in Canada."

At first it was thought that the slow pace of decision-making would prove helpful to conservationists. The Yukon is again experiencing a boom due to the strong price of gold and demand from China, with a rash of new claims and increased work on established claims outside the Peel watershed. Would this much activity elsewhere in the territory make it more palatable to set aside a large, intact wilderness like the Peel? In fall 2011, after another round of public consultation, the commission returned its final plan, a compromise in which only 55 per cent of the watershed would be permanently protected, 25 per cent conserved with periodic reviews to decide if it should open to development, and various uses allowed in the remaining 20 per cent. The Yukon government reserved judgment on this as it went into an election.

In February, 2012, the Yukon's new premier, Darrell Pasloski, a former federal Conservative Party candidate, rejected the recommendations outright. Conservation groups and First Nations immediately accused the government of gutting the commission's widely supported compromise, forged through eight years of study and bitter debate.

"They are proposing to completely change the plan and open up the Peel watershed to roads and industrial development," says YCS executive director Karen Baltgailis of an attitude few can understand.

"The Yukon is in the middle of the largest mining boom in history," says Mike Dehn, executive director of the CPAWS Yukon Chapter. "Given how well the economy is doing, it's hard to justify the government's plans for the Peel."