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.

click to flip through (6) Mary Walden takes in the Yukon's wilderness from the window of a beaver aircraft
  • Mary Walden takes in the Yukon's wilderness from the window of a beaver aircraft

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.

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