Snake River (Page 1 of 3)
The clash between conservation and exploitation plays out in the Yukon’s Peel watershed
By Leslie Anthony with photography by Fritz Mueller
|With their canoe and gear unloaded, trippers watch on shore as the Otter departs Duo Lake in soupy weather on its way to another rendezvous. (Photo: Fritz Mueller)|
What is wilderness? The thought, which has hovered all morning, turns on its side as our float plane tips steeply into the alpine vale cradling Duo Lake, in the
headwaters of the Snake River. Below, brocaded in olive, mustard and bluegreen, Yukon mountainsides jut above jade spires of dwarf spruce and the puce darkness between them. The palette is
unfamiliar yet vibrant. It exists here in an undisturbed state — undisturbed, that is, by us.
Yukon’s Peel Watershed (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic) |
The definition of wilderness that I’ve been mulling is a
matter of degree to the human mind: not this
some but not all; us but not them. The problem is that all
of these constructs are ours, relative and contextual. Real
wilderness defines itself: 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.
No matter the perspective, there is room for humanity,
since we are a part and not apart. It would seem, however,
that we must not mess with functionality — certainly not
with the functionality of aquatic ecosystems, whose components
are more easily perturbed and whose problems are
quickly distributed over large areas.
The idea comes sharply into focus as
we near our destination, the isolated
Snake River. The Snake is considered
pristine: no roads, no residents, no
development. It’s a wild and rugged
watercourse that we will follow for
10 days and 300 kilometres to its
junction with the Peel River.
First and foremost, the trip is an exploration by canoe. But
it will also offer insight into the 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’s boundaries (another, the Rat,
makes the Peel’s acquaintance in the Northwest Territories).
|See the Snake River route (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic) |
On the side of protection and conservation are First
Nations with traditional hunting grounds in the Peel, backed
by tour operators and environmental organizations, such as
the Yukon Conservation Society and the Yukon chapter of
the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. On the side of
exploitation is the Yukon’s traditional economic engine —
the mining and oil and gas industries — intent on preserving
leases that have been staked on uranium, iron and oil and
gas deposits. A land-use planning process involving an arm’slength
commission of stakeholders has been under way for
seven years. It is winding down after having recommended
to the Yukon government that 80.6 percent of the Peel
watershed be fully protected and the rest closely regulated,
a decision with overwhelming public support (see sidebar
). With a final decision expected this fall, the fight
for the Snake is heating up. A chance to experience it in its
current state is an opportunity I can’t turn down.
After all, if any place can school me on wilderness values,
it should be a pristine river.
Weather perpetually threatens in the Yukon, so
it was no surprise that our pilot had to make this second
attempt in two days to drop us off at Duo Lake. In the tiny
community of Mayo, some five hours southeast of Dawson
City, we had 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 quickly fell away, riven
by the blue of serpentine rivers, their bends bracketed by
sandbars and parenthetic oxbows. On higher ground, geometric
patterns testified to the meta-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. Arrays of circular lakes told
a story of leftover ice chunks buried beneath rubble.
Now, as calm plateaus give way to bucking humps and
sharp ridges, we encounter the same lowering wall of cloud
that turned us back yesterday. Only this time, we squeeze
through a mountain pass just as the curtain drops and
descend in a slow spiral onto Duo Lake. In no time, our
group — a Whitehorse-based crew consisting of photographer
Fritz Mueller and guides Blaine and Mary Walden of Walden’s Guiding & Outfitting — plus our tonne of gear
and pair of canoes are all on shore. The plane is 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 for contemplation, the drone of the
plane’s engine is replaced by the buzz of mosquitoes.
It is said that the Snake gets its name from a Gwich’in term
(literally translated as “large hairy worm”) and refers to a
myth about a giant serpent that swallows all the river’s boulders.
Like the Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers, the Snake
begins its northward flow in the Wernecke Mountains, a northern extension of the Rockies and part of the Mackenzie
Mountains Ecoregion. Remote and rugged, the river carves
canyons 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 when we begin portaging to the river. Twice, we trudge
loads one 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 land on
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.