Going far, perhaps too far, into the Yukon wilderness
A remote canoe trip in Canada's Yukon Territory.
The New York Times
We watched the pot closely, feeding the fire beneath it with whatever damp, gnarled sticks we could scavenge from the tree-starved tundra around us — but still it didn't boil.
Our ultraviolet water purifier had just burned through its second (and final) set of batteries, and we had then discovered that our backup mechanical filter was jammed. Now, halfway through our 12-day canoe trip down the Snake River in Canada's Yukon, we faced the prospect of spending hours each day boiling water to drink. It was Mike who finally raised the obvious alternative.
"What about just drinking straight from the river?"
The Snake is one of three majestic paddling rivers, along with the Wind and Bonnet Plume, whose waters flow north into the Peel River en route to the Arctic Ocean. The Peel watershed is famous for what's not there: no roads, no development, no human settlement, in an area larger than West Virginia. We were over 100 miles from even the rudest cart track.
So we drank, dipping our bottles into the racing current and lifting them straight to our lips. The lack of an intermediate step felt strange after years of careful purifying on backcountry trips: transgressive but liberating, like skinny-dipping. After a few cautious sips, I gulped down the rest of my bottle.
But more unnerving challenges than dead batteries confronted us on this journey.
We had traveled far to reach this pristine void. With my friends Mike Wilson, Tim Falconer and Steve Watt, I had flown to Whitehorse, the Yukon Territory's capital city. An outfitter then drove us and our rented canoes five hours north to a remote floatplane base; finally, we took a 90-minute flight to the Snake's headwaters high in the Mackenzie Mountains. Harry, our pilot, swooped low to show us the river — a sheer cliff on one bank overlooking braided channels that twisted through the tundra — before circling back to a tiny lake a mile away where he splashed down to drop us off.
Our flight had taken us over the camps of several prospectors. More than a century after the Klondike gold rush, the spirit of the sourdough still animates life in the Yukon. The absence of gold is what has kept the Peel unspoiled for so long — but with soaring resource prices and a warming climate, a new generation of miners and drillers is eager to tap the region's other mineral and fossil fuel deposits.
In February, the territorial government rejected a planning commission's recommendation to protect 80 percent of the watershed, calling it too restrictive. For now, the Peel's future hangs in limbo — reason enough, we decided, to explore one of North America's last truly wild places before it's too late.
As the last echoes of the floatplane faded in the distance, we made camp in a clearing on the lakeshore, and a light rain began to fall. Mountain slopes creased with fingers of snow loomed thousands of feet above us in every direction; the low ground was smothered by a tangle of shrubby willow rising to our chests. With reindeer lichen as tinder, we eventually coaxed a feeble flame from a pile of damp twigs to grill our steaks.
The next morning, we hauled our gear across the tundra and pushed our canoes into the river for the first time. Unlike the "pool-and-drop" rivers we were used to, in which steep rapids alternate with stretches of placid flat water, the Snake drops almost 4,000 feet with no waterfalls or unrunnable rapids. The current pushes you along relentlessly at upward of 10 mph — and once you press play, the only way to pause the action is to spot an eddy along the shore and spin your canoe into it.
The roar of the current was deafening as we shot down the river, bounced and jolted by waves that curled over the sides of the canoe and drenched us. We had already stopped to bail three times when, as the river narrowed into a zigzagging canyon, near disaster struck. Rounding a tight corner, we took on water once again — but before we could get to shore to bail, we were swept into the next rapids and capsized. Mike and I suddenly found ourselves thrashing desperately across the current toward the rocky shore, each clinging to a pack, as our upturned canoe hurtled down the river to oblivion.
Our salvation: The canoe eventually slammed into a rock in the middle of the river and held fast, close enough to retrieve, and was angled just enough that the force of the water crashing against it didn't fold it around the rock like a piece of tinfoil. By the time we managed to get the canoe unpinned, recover our belongings, and find a place to camp, it was 7 p.m. We had taken all day to cover the first five miles of a 175-mile trip.
We didn't paddle anywhere the next day. Instead, we nursed our bruises and dried our sodden clothes. Where the clear waters of an incoming creek collided with the silty turquoise flow of the main river, we cast flies and pulled out half a dozen fish for dinner — iridescent Arctic grayling and a Dolly Varden trout. And throughout the day we wondered, silently and to each other, whether we had ventured too far into the wilderness.
Moods brightened the next morning. Blue sky broke through the clouds, and, as miles flowed by with no further mishaps, we began to relax and take in our surroundings. Mountains on either side of the river formed a corridor stretching toward the horizon. High on the rocky hillsides we spotted thinhorn Dall sheep; above us, a bald eagle soared.
We camped that night at the inlet of a creek whose waters were as white and opaque as full-cream milk, colored by limestone sediment from a massif to the west. We'd descended far enough that scraggly black spruce interspersed with spindly beech now lined the riverbanks, providing fuel for a roaring campfire — though the flames seemed dull and lifeless compared with the bright light of the midnight sun.
In the week that followed, we settled into a pleasant rhythm. The river flowed so quickly we only needed to paddle three hours a day, allowing us to spend lazy mornings fishing and exploring the ridges and valleys around our campsites. We watched a beaver and a mink swim across the river, and we plucked bright red stones from the gravel banks — chunks of hematite that betrayed the presence nearby of one of the world's largest deposits of iron ore, whose rights are held by Chevron.
(For both practical and ecological reasons, fires in the Yukon wilderness are left to burn unhindered unless they approach settlements — a policy that, however sensible, we found unsettling when we spotted clouds of smoke on our final day of paddling. As the day wore on, the smoke got closer and closer, until we finally pulled ashore half a mile short of our destination. The confluence of the Snake and the Peel, where we were due to be picked up by floatplane the next morning, was burning.
In other parts of Canada, many "wild" rivers are lined by a band of trees only a few hundred feet thick. Not far up the banks, you'll find swaths clear-cut and crisscrossed by logging roads.
No matter how high I climbed along the Snake, I saw nothing but more valleys and more ridges. It was intoxicating, to pick a point in the distance and wonder: Has any human ever stood there? But as the smell of smoke filled our nostrils, it also seemed very lonely.
Mike dug the satellite phone out of his pack and called the floatplane pilot. As he described the situation, I heard what sounded like laughter on the other end.
"It's been burning for 10 days?" Mike said. "Oh . . . I guess we'll see you tomorrow then."
Reassured, we paddled to the rendezvous point, and pitched our tents for the last time. Above us, the sun and the smoke and the clouds mingled in a postapocalyptic red haze. Showers of pebbly rock periodically splashed into the water from hundreds of feet above as the current ate into the cliffs on one side of us; on the opposite bank, tongues of flame danced a half-mile away. Shortly before midnight, the sun dipped behind the hills, but its light lingered all night.