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 6 of 9

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.

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