Liz Hansen said she would walk around the rapids.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this place,” she said, stepping out of the raft onto a stony beach. “When it comes to nature, I don’t take chances.”
Liz’s assessment was good enough for me. The slightly stooped Gwich’in grandmother had never run a river before unless you counted trips on the Mackenzie River in her late husband’s motor launch. No matter. For the past 10 days, her ability to see signs of danger--of storms and grizzly bears--invisible to the rest of us, had been almost infallible.
We were on the Snake River in the northern Yukon Territory, about 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Liz had been a paddler in one of the expedition’s two rafts. I had been in a canoe. As others prepared to take on the rapids, she began walking slowly over the short, steep portage. I followed.
We stopped on a rocky promontory 50 feet above the river--now a frothy ribbon that corkscrewed its way through a narrow passage known only as “second-to-last” rapids. The raft Liz had just vacated would have to enter the canyon on the far right to slip by a boulder in midstream. Then, the six paddlers would have to maneuver sharply to the left to avoid being swept into a canyon wall. They didn’t make it.
From above, it looked as if the raft were being drawn up the side of the canyon wall by pulleys. After it flipped, I looked for six heads in the water and saw only four. The nearest place to attempt a rescue was 100 yards downstream, below the mouth of the canyon, where the banks were level with the river and you could throw ropes to people in the water. It would be a race making it down the faint, twisting trail before the overturned rafters floated by.
There were 12 of us on the trip, including four who had no previous experience in whitewater. Three of them were on the raft that capsized. We were a mixture of Yukoners, Canadians from Toronto, Ottawa and Newfoundland and two Americans. There were three artists and a filmmaker; an administrator of an environmental foundation; a lumberjack turned special education teacher; an outfitter’s wife; a community organizer from Old Crow, an aboriginal settlement near the Alaskan border; and Liz, a Yukoner now living in Inuvik, a native community in the Northwest Territories. We had two guides, Jill Pangman and Kate Moylan.
The trip was organized by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society as part of a campaign to win protection for the Snake River and its environs--one of the largest and most vibrant examples of Canada’s shrinking wild places. Better known as the Peel River Basin, it is a land of ferruginous mountains and emerald tundra that is coveted for its mineral wealth as well as its natural beauty.
The countryside around the Snake, which flows into the Peel, is fast becoming one of the most passionately contested areas in northwest Canada. Roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, it was formed when glaciers receded from its winding river valleys 13 million years ago. Walled off by a phalanx of mountain ranges, the basin has remained undeveloped, unpolluted and uninhabited except for seasonal use by a handful of native hunters, fishermen and outfitters.
The participants for this trip had been chosen less for their outdoor skills than for their ability to sway public opinion in favor of preservation. Hence, the artists and the Indians. Liz Hansen’s people, the Tetlin Gwich’in, are one of four native communities, or First Nations, with land claims in the Peel River Basin.
Only two of the 12 men and women on the trip had been down this river before--once.
That didn’t seem to worry the people who organized this expedition. They seemed confident that the trip would pay off, no matter how challenging it was. From their own attachment to wild country, the organizers knew how it can hook people. Wilderness often forges its strongest bonds with those it most sorely discomfits. From the safety of our homes, we have a way of looking back on the toughest trips as blessed ordeals.
At Canadian customs in Vancouver, an agent asked me the purpose of my visit. When I told her I was going on a wilderness trip down a river she had never heard of, she seemed perplexed.
“For two weeks? What are you going to do? Are you going to fish?”
I told her I wanted to see the countryside. She shrugged, then stamped my passport and waved me on.
On the flight north from Los Angeles, I noted a passage from “the Last Wilderness,” by Nicholas Luard. As he set out 25 years ago to explore Africa’s Kalahari Desert, Luard struggled with fundamental questions about wilderness: Why is it worth holding onto? Why would anyone put the well-being of predatory beasts and birds of prey ahead of the needs of human beings for coal or gas or heating oil? Luard admitted he didn’t have an answer, and it made him angry with himself, as well it might anyone who believes that wilderness should be preserved. How can you protect such places, whether in Africa or the subarctic, if you can’t assign a value to them? I repeated Luard’s unanswered question to my traveling companions.
“Maybe you can’t answer until you have been lost in the wilderness,” replied Moylan, who would be at the helm of the raft when it flipped in the rapids.
We assembled in Whitehorse, the Yukon’s capital, and from there drove six hours to Mayo, a village on the edge of the bush. On a bright July morning, one of the last sunny days we would see, we boarded a Black Sheep Airlines floatplane for a 125-mile flight to Duo Lakes, near the headwaters of the Snake. In northern parlance, the “bush” refers to places where civilization’s imprint is not yet legible. The word conjures images of a boundless thicket, but what we were seeing from 5,000 feet was a tight formation of low, cone-shaped mountains reaching to the horizon like a herringbone sleeve.
Below us, nearly a century ago, a squad of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, all veterans of the bush, became disoriented and died of starvation and exposure. The fate of “The Lost Patrol” has prompted the same kind of scholarly obsessing that has dogged Custer’s Last Stand. Historians can’t decide whether to view either tragedy as a fool’s errand or a heroic struggle. Custer dismissed the warnings of Indian scouts that the foe he was up against was too numerous and powerful. The leader of the Lost Patrol rejected the services of an accomplished Indian guide willing to lead him and his men across the Peel River country.
It would be just as easy to get lost there today. There are no buildings, no roads. The maps are largely devoid of place names, the map makers having chosen to ignore the original place names, such as Tr’idaoodiuch’uu, meaning rough, hateful waters, or Chitr’iniinjil, for a treacherous section of the Peel River where five members of a hunting party drowned.
The floatplane put down on a teardrop of a lake, and we set up camp on a high bench a mile from the Snake, which is too narrow and shallow for a plane to land. That evening, taking stock of our gear, we discovered a serious omission. The oar frame for one of the two rafts had been left behind. There were plenty of paddles, but a single set of oars offers more leverage and drive than paddles in rough water--especially when the paddles are in the grip of novices.
Kate Moylan drew two parallel, meandering lines in the sand. Between the lines she placed pebbles and twigs. “Tomorrow, you will be there,” she said, pointing to the river of sand. “There are bigger rivers with bigger rapids, but the Snake is not to be underestimated, and you need to know how to handle it.”
As traveling parties go in the Yukon, we were not unique. Among the thousands of fortune hunters who struggled over Chilkoot Pass and braved the Yukon River’s Whitehorse Rapids on their way to the Klondike gold fields in 1898 were artists, journalists, businessmen and politicians. Most were cheechakos, tender feet, like many of us. Quite a few of them drowned.
A.K. Ibister, the first white man to provide a written description of the Snake River, was a clerk for the Hudson’s Bay Co. who slogged his way to the headwaters in 1840. In Ibister’s day, the Yukon Territory was the object of a fierce rivalry between British and Russian fur traders. The purpose of Ibister’s expedition was to forge alliances with as many Indians as possible. Aboriginal people had been living here since well before the time of Christ, hunting and trapping. Neither side in the 19th century struggle for control of the Yukon’s natural resources could prevail without their help.
The same is true today, as conservationists vie for control with energy and mining interests. Both sides court the natives. They don’t own all of the land, but they must consent to any plans to develop it.
Liz Hansen was the last to arrive in camp. She’d flown south from Inuvik with a pilot who had never been to this place and had trouble finding it. Flying in after midnight, the sound of their distant circling was like that of a mosquito probing for a hole in your tent. Liz said later she held up a map for the pilot to read as he searched the crepuscular skies for his destination. He was beginning to fret about having enough fuel to fly home when he found the tiny lake where we were camped.
Liz stepped gingerly from the cockpit. She was wearing a polyester rain suit and a baseball cap secured to her head by a nylon scarf.
“I need a cigarette,” she said, stepping into a waiting canoe.
This was Liz’s first visit to the Peel River country, but she is linked to it as much as any native. Her grandfather, Robert George, shot game to feed miners during the 1898 gold rush. Her great-uncle Esau George was the guide who offered his services to the Lost Patrol. Annie (George) Robert, Esau’s mother and Liz’s grandmother, was born in 1881 in a bush camp on the Wind River--in the heart of the Peel Basin--not far from where the ill-fated Mountie patrol lost its way in 1910.
I came to know Liz over morning tea. She was usually up before anyone else, collecting firewood and boiling water for the first pot.
“White man’s ax,” she said, whacking away with a dull blade at a dead willow branch. Bundled up in her rain suit, Liz was shaped like an owl. She regarded me warily, as an owl might regard a troublesome species. In her mid-60s and widowed twice, Liz had the forbearance of someone who had spent a lifetime ministering to the inept--husbands, in-laws and grandchildren. As she fingered the ax, it was evident life would be no different in a camp full of city-bred white folk.
She showed me how to sharpen the blade with a piece of shale. It was the first of several lessons in camp craft. From Liz, we learned to spread a layer of spruce boughs at the entrance of our tents to keep the dirt out, to keep heated rocks at the feet of our sleeping bags on the coldest nights and to treat the cuts that plagued city-softened hands with spruce gum.
Liz was born near the Caribou River, about 300 miles north of where we were, but she said she had heard her grandparents speak fondly of their trips up the Wind, the Snake and the Peel. “It was like hearing stories of where life began.” She had another reason for taking this trip. Her husband had died earlier in the year, and she wanted to travel far from the familiar places that bore the keenest memories of her marriage. “I find I have to keep going. I need the distraction of the land.”
As a child in the bush, she said, she’d learned how to survive on her own. She’d come back for a refresher course.
I was eager to ask her the question I had put to the rest of the group about the value of wilderness.
She looked at me quizzically.
“That’s a white man’s word,” she said. “We don’t have a word for wilderness in our language.”
Today, the Peel River Basin is a sanctuary for 100 species of birds and mammals, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, grizzly bears, wolves, mountain sheep and moose. The western reach of the basin is the winter destination for the same migrating caribou herd that births its young every spring 1,000 miles away in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The basin may also contain one of the largest untapped deposits of coal in North America, a huge cache of iron and millions of cubic feet of methane gas lodged beneath the coal seams. Exploiting these resources would transform the heart of the basin into an industrial zone of open pit mines, gas wells, power plants, pipelines and roads, not to mention the inevitable waste products--including toxic residue and runoff--some of which would wind up in the air and in rivers. The rewards of such a mammoth enterprise, say its promoters, would include at least 1,000 jobs and a large measure of economic independence for a region historically dependent on Ottawa.
Frontiers beget dreams of empire, and the Yukon, with barely 30,000 people scattered across 200,000 miles of mostly roadless forest and tundra, remains in many respects a frontier. Schoolteachers receive a $2,000 annual travel allowance because the Yukon is still considered a hardship posting. The Peel River Basin, 100 miles from the nearest road, remains virgin territory because it is a lot cheaper and easier to extract coal, gas and iron from more accessible places. That situation could change. Promithian Inc., the small Vancouver-based mining company that is promoting the Peel River development plan, needs a lot of help--$3 billion worth--to proceed. But it has financial and political backing from the Yukon government, which set aside a conservation plan that had been in the works under a previous administration.
In response, local environmentalists set out to build a broad Canadian constituency for preservation. Working with native allies for the past five years, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has conducted extensive inventories of the mammals, birds and plants of the Peel River region. Last year, the society began recruiting artists and writers, hoping to produce a series of books, documentaries and art exhibits. In its own way, the group set out to answer the question that naturalists such as Nicholas Luard have grappled with for the better part of a century. What is the value of wilderness?
We prepared to shove off under a gunmetal sky, a north wind rifling raindrops in our faces. In this part of the world, summer temperatures can fluctuate from near freezing to the mid-70s, sometimes on the same day. Our weather would hover at the low end of the range, and we would see snow more than once.
“I think we ought to have a prayer before our journey begins,” Liz said. We formed a circle and joined hands while Liz prayed in her native language. Her friend, Gladys Netro, translated. “Heavenly Father, we ask you to guide us safely down this river. It is fast water.”
The Snake splashes out of the Mackenzie Mountains, flowing north in a serpentine course between the Mackenzies on the east and the Wernecke Mountains on the west. Millions of years old, the countryside looks as if it is still in the throes of adolescence. Maybe it’s the stubble of spindly spruce trees, or the acned tundra, grooved with frost heaves and recent avalanches, or the mercurial river itself.
Normally, there is enough water in the Snake’s upper reaches to float a heavily laden raft. Not this year. As a result, we began our journey waist deep in the river, pushing and pulling the rafts across endless rocky shoals, traveling five to 10 miles a day at most. We needed to average 20 a day to make a planned rendezvous at a Gwich’in encampment near the confluence of the Snake and the Peel. Black Sheep Airlines would be there to take us back to civilization, providing we weren’t late.
Plunging in and out of the frigid water, then paddling furiously to stave off the shivers, we struggled against an inclement mood that hovered like the foul weather. The artists complained that they had no time to appreciate the scenes of nature they had come to paint and sculpt. Now and then, we would look up from our toil to see a moose and her calf or a line of caribou daintily picking their way across the river in front of us. Then, all too quickly, we would refocus on the work at hand, lest a misstep on the slick rocky bottom cause a headfirst tumble. At least one of us would be soaked through by the end of each day.
In the account of his 1840 exploration of the Snake, A.K. Ibister also wrote of daylong struggles against the river “when the everlasting tow-line was again thrown out, and the same unvarying round of tramping, tugging and wading had to be repeated. Occasionally, the monotony of the march was enlivened by a moose or a bear appearing on the river’s brink.”
Ibister was traveling upstream, but in other respects, the two trips--163 years apart--seemed eerily similar. He wrote of “not a few complaints of numbness in the limbs, produced by wading in water whose temperature was scarcely above the freezing point, even though it was the middle of summer.”
Despite our slow start, we decided to take a break from the river and spend a day hiking up a long, trailless valley to the base of 8,200-foot Mt. MacDonald, the second-tallest mountain in the Yukon. We had no trouble getting there; the mountain loomed like a ghost ship in the gray morning light. Over lunch we ignored the wispy clouds lazily cocooning around the mountaintop until Liz announced she was returning to camp. Looking back toward the river, we could see nothing through a thick curtain of drizzle and fog. We fell in behind Liz, though like most of us, she had never been here before.
She pointed out what many of us had missed on our way to the mountain--innumerable signs of grizzly bear presence, including tracks everywhere and steaming piles of fresh scat.
Liz was wryly philosophic about bears.
“They say a female bear is less likely to attack a female person because she knows we bear children like she does. You take your chances with a male bear. Sometimes, if you don’t act afraid, you can make him to go away just by doing this.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “But I shouldn’t be talking about them. There is an old saying that a bear can hear you thinking bad thoughts about him. If you don’t let those thoughts come into your mind, you are less afraid.”
Liz seemed entirely unafraid as she meandered through willow thickets. Her shoulders hunched, she walked with a bit of a list. I feared for her balance until it became clear her uneven gait was more suited to the lumpy terrain than our own purposeful striding. She stopped frequently to pick blueberries and blackberries and comment on the surprising array of food that seemed to grow in every thicket.
“I’ll tell you what wilderness is,” she said. “Wilderness is our store. These days, you might say it’s our boutique since it appears to be getting smaller. Everything in it is premium quality--the game, the fish, the water, the air. And, it’s free. That’s why we don’t want people coming in here and messing it up the way they have down south, where you come from,” she said, looking at me. “How many places like this do you have left?”
We spent two days in the shadow of Mt. MacDonald, getting to know each other better and enjoying the brief respite from our hod carrier’s routine of loading and unloading heavy packs and food barrels from the rafts and canoes. We ate blueberries for breakfast and dinner, in scones and pancakes and impromptu sauces. We caught grayling below a small set of rapids, and when the fishing hole played out, Liz brought out a packet of smoked white fish and inconnu she had brought with her from Inuvik.
We tried to take advantage of the brief interludes between rain squalls to dry out wet clothes. But it was a futile chore, made more so by a marauding fox that carried off the smaller bits of laundry. We could see our breath the morning we broke camp, and there was snow on nearby hillsides.
Below Mt. MacDonald, the river deepened as streams poured in from the east and west. We didn’t have to worry anymore about running aground, but a more voluminous river presented new hazards. Shallow, stair-step rapids that had been a delight for the canoeists were replaced by spinning eddies and standing waves that billowed out from cliff sides. Safe passage often meant skirting big waves on one side of a channel while avoiding dead trees or “sweepers” that stretched into the river from the opposite shore.
We took advantage of the long northern days and made up time paddling into the endless twilight. But fatigue and glare took a toll. Late one evening, a wrong turn by one of the more experienced canoeists, Gladys Netro, led to a collision with a sweeper. Gladys and another woman lay pinned between their canoe and the downed tree for several minutes until one of the rafts showed up. The current made a water rescue impossible. So, while people on the raft took hold of the canoe, others on shore used a rope to make their way down a steep embankment to the nearly horizontal tree trunk and pull the canoeists to safety.
Liz reminded us later around a campfire discussion that we had neglected to say a prayer that morning before embarking. “Our ancestors knew these rivers were dangerous, and they didn’t travel for the fun of it,” she said, speaking of the time when the Gwich’in made their way down the Peel and its tributaries in moose-hide boats.
“The women always walked because the boats were too full of game. If one of the boats sprung a leak, you’d stick a needle and thread in a dog’s collar. The men would call to the dog and it would swim over to the leaky boat.
“If the moose-hide boats didn’t capsize in the rapids, or if nobody drowned, people on the shore would shout and fire their guns. It was a life full of danger, but they talked about it as it gave them great pleasure.”
Two days later, we pulled up beside “second-to-the-last” rapids. The Snake churns with rapids for most of its length, but there are only two major sets. Unless they are expert paddlers, canoeists should walk around both of them. Competent rafters usually make their way past the two stretches without much trouble. Jill Pangman, a guide who had run the Snake once before, rowed the raft that carried most of our food and supplies and made the passage look easy.
Kate Moylan blamed herself for what happened next. She and Jill had just switched rafts. All morning, Kate had been at the helm of the one with two oars, relying on her skill to lever around tight corners. Now she sat in the paddle raft, which is maneuvered by teamwork rather than a single oarsman. The skipper sits in the stern, sets the course, tells the paddlers to pull left or right and uses her own paddle mainly as a rudder.
The rapids here dogleg sharply through a narrow canyon. Kate said later she didn’t gauge the force of the water pulling the raft toward the canyon wall on the right and failed to give the paddle-left command soon enough. When the raft began climbing the wall, and she realized it was going to flip, she said her greatest fear was of hypothermia, a debilitating reaction to cold that can render people helpless in frigid water.
No one was exposed for long. The overturned raft floated smoothly through the rapids, its passengers clinging to the sides, and avoided the one remaining obstacle, a large boulder in the middle of the river at the mouth of the canyon. Two people were briefly caught under the raft, but they resurfaced. Onlookers hurled ropes from shore and helped move the raft into shallow water and safety.
Little was lost and no one injured. Still, the rafters sat quietly by a campfire for the better part of an hour, warming up and slowly emerging from the private abyss where close calls can take you. Those of us who had not been on the raft sat slightly removed from the others. We had missed the big spill and were feeling both relieved at our good fortune and slightly lesser for it. There had been a fork in the trip. Half of us had been lost in the wilderness--if briefly. Half not.
A vote was taken whether to return to the river or call it quits for the day. A majority opted to keep going.
That night, Jose Mansilla-Miranda, one of the artists who had been aboard the raft that flipped, came to the evening campfire carrying a guitar. A native of a mountain village in Chile who now lives in Ottawa, Jose spoke English haltingly and had kept to himself for much of the trip, often setting up his tent apart from the rest of us. On this evening, he was unusually animated, first struggling to express his reaction to the day’s events in words, then producing the guitar. He played fiercely and faultlessly and sang equally well in a high, hoarse vibrato, serenading us in Spanish with a medley of folk tunes.
“Until today I had no idea how strong this place was,” he said afterward. “It teaches you in one moment that your life is worth nothing and worth everything.”
The next day we easily navigated the last set of big rapids, a 50-meter stretch of waves and boils that required little maneuvering.
The Snake was a different river after that, a gently rolling, deep green carpet of water that passed between high earthen cliffs and dense forest. Nature’s beauty, at last, consumed our attention.
Tufts of cotton from balsam trees drifted over the river. A pair of peregrine falcons screamed at us and strafed our canoes as we paddled beneath their cliffside nest. Peregrine numbers are dropping across much of the Yukon. Ornithologists suspect climate change is causing the falcon’s food sources to disappear. But there is no sign of a population crash along the lower Snake, which, like the rest of the river, is still safe from most manmade perils.
A mile downriver from the falcon aerie, a grizzly stood on the shore, still as a rock, and watched us pass, its blond fur flashing gold in the slanting light.
Late on our 13th day on the river, just ahead of another storm, we approached the confluence of the Snake and the Peel and the encampment of Liz’s people. Most of them had traveled nearly 100 miles up the Peel from their homes around Fort McPherson.
The Gwich’in had prepared a feast of moose and wild duck. As our ragged flotilla approached the camp, about 50 people stood on the shore, shouting and firing rifles in the air.
We gathered under the canvas top of a shelter that resembled a small circus tent. Our hosts included members of the Canadian parliament and the territorial legislature and several chiefs and mayors of First Nation communities in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Their speeches echoed sentiments we had heard often from Liz and Gladys--fears that industry would despoil the region, driving out the wild herds and fouling the water.
“If this wilderness is industrialized and the caribou and the other wildlife driven away, a lot of the people in the 18 [aboriginal] villages would vanish and their culture with them,” said Larry Bagnell, the Yukon’s lone member of Parliament.
Nicholas Luard, writing about the African desert, also addressed the cultural costs of destroying wild places. It was his way of answering the question he had posed: What is the value of wilderness? He described it “as the reference library of our past” Everything in it--lions, antelope, falcons--"carries within itself a quantity of unique information, . . . acquired at over millions of years in circumstances that can never be duplicated.” Kill off a species or destroy a habitat, Luard wrote, and you tear out a chapter of man’s cultural history.
Yet, for most of us, wilderness and culture are mutually exclusive concepts, the one implying an absence of human presence, the other an abundance of it. After our two-week immersion in the wilds, we had come out awed but shaken, still not sure about the proper role of humans, if any, in the ancient world from which we sprung.
Meanwhile, our hosts, the Gwich’in, raucously celebrated their own sense of belonging as they devoured platefuls of barbecued moose meat and reminisced about life in the bush, oblivious of the arctic wind that was tearing at the tent and blowing frozen raindrops in our faces.
Liz tapped me on the shoulder. She wanted to introduce me to a friend, Eileen Koe, who lived near Fort McPherson at the northern edge of the Peel River Basin. She had a story to tell about the winter 30 years ago she had spent on the Snake. “We traveled for days with dogs, trapping marten and wolverine,” she began. “We made camp after camp in the bitter cold and snow. It was the most painful, lonely period of my life, but I learned to survive.” She said that her brother had committed suicide shortly before, and she had hoped to find a refuge from her sorrow in the bush.
“That land sustained me,” she said, pointing toward the river we had just come down.
Liz passed me a plate of meat.
“Moose heart,” she said. “Eat it before it’s all gone.”