Posts Tagged ‘peel river history’

Early Days in Campaign to Protect Peel Watershed

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

When I walked into a small Vancouver courtroom in 1992, the odds did not look good for the Bonnet Plume River. Facing the judge, a battery of stern-faced lawyers was ready to make the case for the federal government and the company that wanted to develop a mine beside the river.

Our legal team consisted of one lawyer, Stewart Elgie, with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. He told me that our group, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, had a 50-50 chance of winning this particular fight. The case revolved around a 60-kilometre long winter road that had been bulldozed in to a large block of mining claims on the Bonnet Plume River. We had challenged the federal government’s environmental review of the project.

The Bonnet Plume was soon to be honoured as a Canadian Heritage River, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the Nacho Nyak Dun in their land claims negotiations, so at least some people out there thought this river was special. Yet the future of its clear waters and free-ranging caribou would be decided in a courtroom 2,500 kilometres away from this remote northern valley. Surely, I thought, we can’t delegate judgment on thousands of years of biological evolution and the destiny of a wild mountain river to a legal game of chance.

I had journeyed down many remote rivers before canoeing the Bonnet Plume in the summer of 1988, but I had never before experienced a watershed like this one. The aquamarine Bonnet Plume, with its sister rivers the Wind and Snake, carried in their crystal waters all the fascination of the Yukon wilderness. The space, infinite light, the escape from time itself, the never-ending gnarled and saw-toothed mountains, opened a new window on the meaning of wild.

Looking back now, I can see how that two-week journey changed my life. Growing up in a quiet town on the edge of the woods, I had always felt a kinship with nature, but here –on the Bonnet Plume — I realized that without help, extraordinary places like these would soon disappear, even in the Yukon.

In the early 1990s, when prospectors for Westmin Mining Corporation, exploring for copper, staked the flanks of the Bonnet Plume valley, they did so with the historic privileges afforded by the Yukon’s free-entry mining law, which grants powerful rights to those who first lay claim to the land. They knew they could knock down trees, bulldoze roads, dynamite, and utterly transform the land on their claims away from public scrutiny.

We wanted to take a closer look at Westmin’s operation and a generous local pilot donated the use of his two-seater Piper Cub. Soon I was up in the air, photographing the flattened spruce trees along the winter road leading to the airstrip and new mining camp. One corporation was on the verge of setting the direction for the Bonnet Plume valley. After seeing this giant scar on the landscape, I knew we could not accept surrendering this wild river to a money play in the southern penny market.  If this northern wilderness was to be diminished, where would we draw the next boundary for nature? It was time to confront the belief that mining exploration was exempt from environmental safeguards, and the only place we could do that was in the courts.

We lost that case on the weight of legal minutia, but we won an important point. The judge conceded the federal government was obliged to consider how mining could affect a Canadian Heritage River. Twelve years later, the airstrip, drill pads, and mining camp were long since abandoned — another legacy of the Yukon’s archaic frontier mining laws. The company found less copper than anticipated and metal prices dropped, so they packed up and left.  The company’s promised jobs and bright future for the Village of Mayo evaporated as quickly as the claims had been posted. For its part, the federal government realized its antiquated mining regulations, allowing for extensive exploration work without any environmental review, were no longer tenable. It dusted off long-awaited rules to improve the way mining companies carry out exploration work in the Yukon.

by Juri Peepre, excerpt from “Wild waters, sacred places” in Three Rivers: The Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness. Harbour Publishing, 2005.


Stories From the Peel Watershed

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Tough travellers on the Wind River

“After a day of cold rain, this campfire alongside the Wind River casts a welcome circle of warmth. While we huddle around the flames, Neil Colin roasts strips of dried duck, part of his stash of country food from home. Neil is a Tetl’it Gwich’in elder from Fort McPherson, NWT, a small community perched on the banks of the Peel River, surrounded by the stunted spruce and wetlands of the Peel plateau.

Those lowlands seem a world away from the rugged country through which we travel now. Across the river, the imposing profile of Royal Mountain occasionally breaks through the mist, dominating the ranks of mountains lining the river. All his life Neil has heard stories of this landmark and the traditional homeland surrounding it. It is where his ancestors once hunted caribou in the mountain valleys and stalked snowy white Dall sheep among the limestone peaks.

Goldrushers named Royal Mountain. They struggled up this route on their way to the Klondike, and some spent a winter further downstream in a bleak encampment dubbed Wind City. The Gwich’in helped them survive. They also guided the Royal Northwest Mounted Police on winter patrols by dog team through this country. The Tetl’it Gwich’in live more settled lives now, but ties to the land are still strong, as Neil makes clear while carving off chunks of roasted duck: 

“You live in Fort McPherson and it’s nothing there. Only RCMP, missionary. The only place you live good is up in the hills. Everybody made dried fish all summer, shoot ducks, shoot geese. We used to go way up to Timber Creek to get caribou; pack all of our meat with dogs down to the boat and back home! It’s the only way you live good. Out there on the land is where you live good.”   – as told by Sarah Locke, 2008

The bishop who ate his boots

One of the North’s most renowned missionaries, Bishop Isaac Stringer, was almost at death’s door when he stumbled into a Gwich’in camp on the Peel River at the end of a 51-day ordeal. In September, 1909, he and a companion had started up the Rat River with two native guides, headed for the Yukon River and Dawson City. They let their guides go once they crossed the mountains, but ended up abandoning their canoe on the Bell River as it froze early that year.

They tried to return to Fort McPherson, but lost their way in the mountains, ran out of ammunition, and were reduced to boiling the soles of the Bishop’s sealskin boots for sustenance. When they finally found help, they were close to the spot where the bodies of the Lost Patrol were found just over a year later.

Lost Patrol

In 1910, Sergeant Francis J. Fitzgerald of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police was selected to lead the annual winter dogsled patrol between Fort McPherson and Dawson. It was the first and last time that the patrols, which usually started in Dawson, were run in this direction.

Fitzgerald had travelled the 760-kilometre route once, but in the opposite direction and over a slightly different route. His four-member patrol set out from Fort McPherson on December 21, 1910, with a minimum of supplies. Fitzgerald made his second mistake on New Year’s Day, when he dismissed a Gwich’in man who had guided them for five days over the long overland section of the route. Fitzgerald was relying on another patrol member to find the route.

They struggled back towards Fort McPherson, eating their dogs as they went, and encountering severe weather; in Fort McPherson thermometers recorded temperatures as low as -60 Celsius. Still Fitzgerald clung to faint hope:

February 3: Men and dogs very thin and weak and cannot travel far. We have traveled about 200 miles on dog meat, and have still about 100 miles to go, but I think we will make it all right, but will have only three or four dogs left.

He made his last entry two days later. When the patrol did not arrive in Dawson, Corporal W.D. Dempster was sent to find them. He found the first two bodies 35 kilometres from Fort McPherson; both were emaciated, one had committed suicide. Fitzgerald and Carter made it another 10 kilometres before dying. The patrol members never learned that they had been selected to attend the coronation of George V in London the following year.

The Mad Trapper

Albert Johnson arrived in Fort McPherson in 1931, purchased a boat-load of supplies, and then headed for the Rat River where he built a small fortified cabin. After a Gwich’in complaint that he had been interfering with traps, the RCMP went to investigate, and the Mad Trapper of Rat River began to earn his name.

When two officers arrived at his cabin, Johnson refused to talk, so they returned with reinforcements and a search warrant. Johnson shot and wounded one of the four men. Even when the police returned with a larger group, they were unable to flush Johnson out of his cabin; finally they blew it up with dynamite. Johnson survived, and held them off for another day from a tunnel underneath his demolished cabin.

When the authorities retreated again to regroup, Johnson escaped, triggering one of the longest man hunts in RCMP history. The police pursued him by dog team for 48 days, crossing the Richardson Mountains in blizzards with temperatures dropping to -40 C. When they cornered him in a canyon, Johnson shot and killed an officer before climbing a cliff at night to escape again.

“The Arctic Circle War,” as it was known, had people across the continent glued to their radios. To catch Johnson, the RCMP enlisted the aid of famed pilot “Wop” May to track down the killer and resupply the pursuers. This was a first for the RCMP, as was their use of two-way radios in the field. They caught up with the fugitive along the Eagle River, where Johnson wounded another officer before he was shot to death.

Excerpts from Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, 2008.

Ancient Peoples of the Peel

Sunday, November 20th, 2011


Geologic artistry in the canyon country of the Hart River.  J Peepre.

In traditional times, the rewards of life on the land were hard won. People travelled great distances to survive, carrying their livelihoods with them as they hunted, and shaping their lives to the ways of the animals on which they depended.  They fashioned all they needed—weapons, boats, cooking utensils, even boats– from stone, wood and the many different parts of caribou and other animals. Home was where the animals were—the winter hunt camps, the summer fish camps.

For the Tetl’it Gwich’in, the Peel was the centre of their world. They called it Teetl’it njik, meaning “along the head of the waters.” Tetl’it Gwich’in means “people who live at the head of the waters.” They were mountain people, hunting caribou throughout the valleys of the Richardson and Ogilvie mountains for most of the year. In summer, they descended to the Peel River and fished.

Other First Nations also travelled the mountains and valleys of this vast region during their yearly cycles. The Nacho Nyak Dun are “big river people,” and live on the banks of the Stewart River in Mayo, Yukon, south of the Wernecke Mountains. They are the most northern of the Yukon’s Tutchone First Nations, and their lives are oriented mainly towards the Yukon River, which runs roughly through the middle of Tutchone traditional territory.

But the Peel watershed has always been important to them as well. They would climb into the Wernecke and Ogilvie Mountains to snare Dall sheep as its meat was a special delicacy, and its supple soft skins were used for making children’s clothing. When barren-ground caribou wintered in the Peel watershed, the word would spread and they travelled over the mountains to hunt them. In more recent times, Nacho Nyak Dun also trapped and prospected in the Peel watershed.

Their life revolved around chinook salmon, which spawn every summer in the Stewart, a tributary of the Yukon River, which has the world’s longest run of migrating chinook salmon. In traditional times, the late summer runs of spawning salmon were immense—a natural spectacle on a par with the movement of the great herds of barren-ground caribou. At favoured fish camps, such as Fraser Falls, the Nacho Nyak set up weirs and wove funnel-shaped fish traps out of willow branches. Everyone stayed busy catching, cleaning and drying fish—setting aside large quantities of dried salmon for winter.

The seasonal round was similar for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in—“people of the river” in their Han language. They now live in Dawson City, where the annual run of salmon on the Yukon River is still a seasonal highlight. In fall the Han used to move north to hunt, trap and pick berries, and their traditional territory includes parts of the Hart River watershed and the entire Ogilvie and Blackstone river drainages.


(adapted from Wild Rivers of the Peel Watershed, 2008)


The Wind, the Snake and the Bonnet Plume…

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

How did these rivers get their names? This excerpt from Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, reveals some of the intriguing people behind the history (© Juri Peepre & Sarah Locke, 2008).

The Enigmatic Bonnetplume

“Somewhere in the Ogilvie Mountains, in an unmarked grave, lie the remains of Andrew Flett Bonnetplume, the Gwich’in man after whom the Bonnet Plume River is named. While never a chief, he is the only aboriginal person in Canada whose name graces a Canadian Heritage River. But trying to pin down how that came to be, and how a Gwich’in man gained the French-sounding name of Bonnetplume— can be a bit like grabbing at a leaf floating on fast water—it remains just out of reach.

Bonnetplume shows up regularly in the historical record, but the man remains an enigma. He had many different names— Scottish, French and Gwich’in. And even among his own people, noted for their epic journeys through challenging country, he was known as a wanderer. But there is one theme that crops up again and again with this man—if people are talking about gold in the Peel river country, Bonnetplume seems to be somewhere in the picture.

But first the names: In Gwich’in genealogy documents, Bonnet Plume’s mother is known as Ch’ihwhiingah or Chigweenjaa, meaning “throwing things out of the house” or “sweeping or throwing dust away.” She worked as a cleaning woman at several different Hudson Bay posts in the Mackenzie District, and her children possibly had different fathers. In that era, when aboriginal children were baptized they were often given the names of local HBC employees, so the first part of Bonnetplume’s name can be traced to Andrew Flett, an Orkney man who served at Fort McPherson from 1863 to 1875. In HBC account books from Flett’s time at the post, the Gwich’in man is referred to as Bonnet de Plume, and the source of that name remains elusive.”

Canyon on the Bonnet Plume. © Juri Peepre

“Jane Charlie, one of Bonnetplume’s granddaughters, says she has often wondered about her French name. She was told that Bonnetplume had been adopted by a French couple working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, but if a Frenchman named Bonnetplume worked for the HBC, the reference is buried deep in their well-kept records.

In 1893, the French count Edouard de Sainville, with the help of two Gwich’in guides, tracked a canoe up the Peel River to the mouth of the Bonnet Plume. Leaving their boat there, they walked about 40 kilometres up the tributary, crossed the mountains to the west and walked down the Wind River and back to their canoe.

De Sainville was following up on native reports of gold in the mountains. He found no precious metals, but he explored further up the Peel than any previous European and produced a map that was invaluable for the goldrushers who travelled that way five years later. On his map he did not name the Wind River, but the Snake is labelled the “Good Hope River,” and the Bonnet Plume River bears its current name.

De Sainville returned to France the following year, and published only a short account of his time in the North before dying a few years later. In it he describes his trip along the upper Peel as “one of the most perilous which I have ever undertaken.” One can only speculate whether the French count encountered a Gwich’in man prospecting for gold in the upper Peel River country, and decided to name the Bonnet Plume River after him.”

– Sarah Locke

For more information on the campaign to protect the Peel watershed, visit:

Setting up camp on the Bonnet Plume. © Juri Peepre

Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A Traveller’s Guide

… is your complete source for planning a trip to the Yukon’s vast north-eastern wilderness – and learning more about the natural and cultural history of this inspiring landscape. Published in 2008 by Juri Peepre and Sarah Locke, the book is available from Yukon outdoor and bookstores (Mac’s Fireweed, Up North Adventures), Mountain Equipment Co-op (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto), and on-line from

Wild Rivers is an essential companion to help you navigate the Three Rivers country (the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume), as well as the Peel, Hart, Ogilvie, Blackstone and Rat rivers. This well illustrated field reference will be a welcome gift for your friends or family who are thinking about a future northern canoeing or hiking trip.

The book features detailed river descriptions, maps, landscape and historic photos, tips on river travel in the Peel region, and engaging descriptions of the flora, fauna, geology, human history and conservation story. For more information, see About Our Book posted in the right margin.

Contact Us

To order the book directly from the authors, send a cheque or money order payable to Juri Peepre, 1575 Windermere Loop Road, Windermere, BC, V0B 2L2. Price: $24.95 + $1.19 GST + Shipping = $32.00 CDN. For more information, phone 250-688-1005, or post your comment or question in this blog.