In the Yukon, a public consultation just ended in January about the future of the Peel River watershed, one of the most pristine, remote wilderness areas left in North America.
The consultation follows 2017’s landmark Supreme Court decision setting aside 80 per cent of the Peel watershed as a wilderness preserve, leaving 20 per cent open for resource extraction. The decision was hailed as a victory by First Nations groups and conservationists, who had taken the Yukon government to court over its attempt to open up most of the watershed to mineral extraction. It remains controversial in a territory where mining has been the mainstay of the economy for well over a century.
With all this in play, I, along with my cousin Terry Camsell and my son Graham McGuffin, set out for the Peel in July 2018 on a Royal Canadian Geographical Society-funded expedition. We were re-enacting the first mapping expedition of the Peel Watershed in 1905, led by RCGS founding president Charles Camsell. Camsell is my great-grandather (Graham’s great-great) and Terry’s great-uncle.
Camsell set out to map and explore the mineral possibilities in the watershed following rumours of gold strikes along the nearby Wind River. The expedition departed in the spring of 1905 from Ottawa and involved months of preparation and travel, including by train, steamship, mule train, river boat and canoe. Camsell led a team of six explorers, including his brother Frank and the Métis guide Louis Cardinal, on a journey that covered some 4,000 kilometres in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Armed with Camsell’s Geological Survey report and his map, we flew into Whitehorse on July 14, gathered up our gear and supplies for the trip and then headed north to the Peel. Here are five highlights of the journey from my expedition journal.
Tuesday, July 17.
Our first day was the northern version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
In our case: van, float plane, portage and canoe.
We were up at 3 a.m. for a five-hour van ride, pulling a trailer with our Tsunami kayak, a 17-foot Prospector canoe and gear. Our gear includes two 60-litre barrels of food and two large dry bags carrying tents, clothes, sleeping bags and a utility bag with all various other utensils and items we’ll need.
Nothing but the essentials, as there are strict weight restrictions for the float-plane trip into the mountains.
The flight from Mayo on the Beaver aircraft was lovely, over lakes, forest and muskeg, and then directly between jagged MacKenzie Mountain peaks.
We landed on a tiny lake called McCluskey, in a mountain valley. A group of Germans was camped there — not unusual in the Yukon. Germans love it here. There are direct flights to Whitehorse in the summer. They reported sightings of moose. They also pointed to the dark clouds above and said they were staying put for a couple of days to wait for the weather to clear.
Not us! We’re on a mission! So with rain spitting down on us and temperatures around 12 C, we portaged our gear down the 300 yards to the stream that will carry us to the Wind River.
A good bit of northern travel advice is to heed the warnings of those who went before you.
Our guidebook (the excellent Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed by the late Juri Peepre and Sarah Locke) recommended lining the stream to the Wind. “More than one party has flipped canoes in this innocuous little stream.”
It’s a pretty clear warning. But lining here involves trailing alongside your canoe in glacial cold water while scrambling over rocks and up and down muddy river banks. It’s a foot numbing experience, so we looked at water levels, which seemed reasonably high, and decided we could manage to paddle.
To be transparent, Graham and I thought it would be fine; Terry was less certain. So off we went paddling down the fast, narrow stream. Smooth sailing at first, but about 500 yards downstream, Graham, paddling solo ahead of us in the kayak, got hung up sideways between two rocks. With no room to get around him in the narrow stream, we bumped right into him, swung sideways and over we went.
It’s a very sad feeling watching as your canoe fills up with water.
We hopped out, pulled it to shore, bailed it out and then, eating some crow, lined the canoe for a numbing two hours to the Wind, which, happily, was navigable. We got back into our canoe and paddled for two more hours.
July 22, 2018.
Camped at the convergence of the Wind and Little Wind rivers. Sitting here on the river’s edge, I have one Tragically Hip lyric running through my head: “I have my hands in the river, my feet back up on the bank. I look up to the Lord above and say, Hey man, thanks.”
When we arrived at our campsite last night, a long gravel and meadow island, we walked up to a ready-made fire pit and Terry said: “You can tell Dene People made this. It’s built for comfort.” True enough. Around the fire pit are logs raised on stumps, perfect seats to sit and stare into the fire.
Terry’s comment is a good reminder that this remains the traditional lands of the Gwich’in People. The Wind was their winter hunting ground. In the spring, they’d load up provisions into moose-hide boats and ride the high waters from the snow melt down to the Peel where they’d spend the summer. The last of the moose-hide flotillas came down in 1929, but the Gwich’in continue to live off and manage this land to this day.
And while Camsell was the first to officially map this country on paper in 1905, it was well mapped in the oral traditions of the Gwich’in for centuries before. Terry is part Gwich’in and we’re looking forward to meeting his relatives in Fort McPherson, the only sizeable community in the Peel watershed. Being downstream from much of the watershed, Fort McPherson would have potentially suffered the most from any consequences if the Yukon government had opened much of the Peel to mining exploration, as they’d proposed to do.
I want to note that Camsell’s map and his Survey report, 113 years old, have been our most useful and accurate guides to long stretches of this river. We’ve taken to reading the relevant parts of his report out loud in the evening, plotting out the day ahead.
July 23, 2018.
We’re camped right at the mouth of Hungry Creek. From the cliff face of the aptly named Mount Deception opposite our campsite, we’ve seen peregrine falcons swooping down from their nests, clinging high up the cliff. At the base is a set of rapids we’re eyeing closely. They roar hard along the cliff face, with several large boulders visible and from our position on the river, we have no option but to run them, given how strong the current is.
Rapids are one thing. Then there are the sweepers! If you’re going to dump paddling down the Wind, it’s probably going to be because of sweepers: trees that fall in the river and cling with their roots to the shore. As the current rounds the river’s corners, it draws you into the banks and you need to paddle furiously to avoid getting sucked into the wake of the sweeper, which will flip you sideways and swamp your canoe in a heartbeat. Today we experienced a different kind of sweeper threat: near decapitation.
Terry and I got drawn toward shore in a particularly sharp bend in the river. We brushed through some branches and came out fine. We then saw a firm, gray seven-centimetre-thick bare branch coming right at our heads. Paddling hard, it missed Terry by inches on his left.
Our stern pulling toward shore, it was coming right at my throat as the current pushed us forward. I dropped my paddle and threw up my hands thinking the branch would give. It didn’t. I dropped onto my back as the branch flew inches overhead.
I then popped back up, grabbed my paddle, now floating in the river beside me, and paddled hard to the middle of the channel. All well in the end. Wrists a bit sore from trying to grab the branch. Note to self: don’t do that!
July 27, 2018.
Yesterday gave us the most hair-raising moment on our trip.
On Thursday, we left our campsite near the bend of the Peel and paddled straight north. In his kayak, Graham caught sight of a stretch of shallow fast-water and cut left around an island to catch it. Fast-water, let alone rapids, are becoming a rarity now that we have left the mountains. We went right expecting to see him soon. I can still picture his grin as he cut hard to the left, leaving us behind. There are tons of islands in this lazier section of the river, covered in poplar and willows. The islands are usually 100 yards long at the most.
But the island between Graham and us turned out to be six kilometres long. Graham’s fast water proved to be so shallow that he had to get out and drag for long stretches, a kilometre or more. Assuming he’d fallen way behind, he paddled hard when he got back into deeper water. We also hit shallow and very slow stretches of river, so were also not making great time. I began to worry after a few kilometeres of being seperated.
When Terry and I eventually reached the end of the island there was no sign of Graham.
Becoming seriously worried, and with no way of communicating with him (a mistake), we decided to shoot off a bear banger (kind of a firecracker/flare combo to keep grizzlies at bay) hoping that if he was upstream he’d come to us, if he was downstream he’d wait. We waited for 30 minutes and still no Graham. We continued downstream to a point where there were no more islands and only a single channel that he’d be paddling through if he was behind us. We set off another bear banger and waited again for more than 30 minutes. Still no Graham.
Growing more worried, we paddled downstream, planting an extra paddle into the riverbank, with a note scrawled in big letters in the mud telling Graham to keep coming.
We continued on, worry building. At what point do we fire up the satellite phone and contact police? At what point do I tell my wife? Terry rightly pointed out the police wouldn’t do anything for at least 12 hours, and I’d just be worrying Renee unnecessarily. More hours passed as we paddled north, blowing the emergency whistles on our life-jackets and calling Graham’s name as we went, hoping at each bend that he’d be there.
At another bend in the river we were planting our extra kayak paddle uprght in the bank and starting to write another message in the mud when I heard what sounded like Graham saying hello or help. At first I thought it was my mind playing tricks. I asked Terry if he heard anything. He replied “I think I see something ahead on the right side of the river.”
I started shouting Graham’s name. A voice replied. It was Graham with his kayak, pulled up on the river bank several dozen metres ahead. We paddled quickly to him. When we reached him, I hopped out and we gave each other a huge hug. “I was really scared,” he said. “Me too,” I replied. I’ve never felt so relieved.
Saturday, July 28.
Camped on the least muddy section of a very muddy shoreline. Rain finally stopped around 7 a.m. 75 kilometres to go. We paddled as hard as possible. With the weather cooperating a bit more, we decided to push on for Fort McPherson. As we paddled we passed by Gwich’in fish camps along the way.
As we passed one of them, the people outside waved us over. “Come up for a coffee,” they shouted as we went by. It was after 10 p.m., but the camp was bustling with life. We needed a break, so we pulled in. There we met the Snowshoe family. Several generations were gathered for the weekend, eating smoked whitefish by the fire, playing cribbage, music playing. Eighty-year-old Mary Snowshoe is the matriarch. She’s been coming here her whole life. “I never went to school. All my knowledge is from this land, taught to me by my parents. And I want to pass that on to my kids,” she told me.
As we headed out, the bright Arctic sky began to darken. Storm clouds were bearing down from the north toward us. Soon we were pushing again into headwinds and driving rain. We moved past the riverbank at what felt like a crawl. We were on the water for more than 12 hours today. Every part of me is aching.
Finally, well past midnight, we reached the very muddy end to our journey. I hopped onto the shore and immediately sank a foot into the mud and wiped out. But James Ross, a former Chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in, was there to meet us despite the late hour. He brought us into the fish camp of Ernest and Alice Vittrekwa who insisted that we come in and warm up by the fire and have some tea. We wisely took them up on their offer, and soon felt human again. Northern hospitality is an amazing thing. After we’d warmed up, Ross took us to the hotel in Fort McPherson, the very comfortable Peel River Inn, where we happily checked in, had hot showers and will now sleep on a non-gravel surface for the first time in two weeks.