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 7 of 9

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.

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