July 15, 2012 Features & Images » Feature Story

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

Page 4 of 9

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.

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