Posts Tagged ‘ratriver’

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.

Yukon Government Tries to Discredit Peel Watershed Land Use Plan

Monday, January 3rd, 2011


The Yukon government has attempted to toss out the findings of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, saying that the conservation oriented land use plan must be re-done to make more room for mining, roads and other industrial development.

In a widely acclaimed plan released in 2009 with strong public approval, the Commission recommended 80% protection for the watershed, including well known major tributaries such as the Wind, Snake, Bonnet Plume and Hart rivers. The affected First Nations have called for 100% protection of the watershed.

The Yukon government’s vague media statement released on the eve of the holiday season, asserted that “…proposing a high level of protection for such a large portion of the region… is inconsistent with the Yukon government view of the final [First Nations land claims] agreements.” This is a bogus argument, clearly not shared by the First Nations who have spent 5 years working on a land use plan for their traditional territories that reflects the spirit and intent of their land claims agreements.

While the current government is challenging permanent wilderness protection in the Peel watershed, it has committed to extending the staking moratorium for another year, while the land use plan is finalized. Earlier during the planning process more than 10,000 mining claims were staked in the watershed, compromising the ability to create protected areas. While the government is reluctant to protect nature, it does want to protect these existing mining claims.

The Yukon government and the First Nations must now work out a final response to the Planning Commission so that a land use plan can be approved in 2011.

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Campsite on upper Snake River at Reptile Creek.  ©  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. 


Governments to Decide Peel Watershed’s Future

Friday, October 15th, 2010

After ten months of public comment on the Peel Watershed Land Use Plan, the final recommendations prepared by the Planning Commission will now be appraised by the Yukon and First Nations governments, with a decision expected in the new year. In a far-sighted plan, the Commission called for 80% of the watershed to be protected, including well known major tributaries such as the Wind, Snake, Bonnet Plume and Hart rivers.  Even so, the Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’on dek Hwech’in First Nations say their goal is to protect 100% of the Peel watershed, a message that was re-enforced in well attended community meetings in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

The majority of northerners and many other Canadians, have spoken clearly and forcefully about their desire to protect the Peel watershed – this was the dominant message conveyed during 8 public events held earlier this fall, and in submissions to the Yukon government. At the Mayo meeting, Elder Jimmy Johnny said,

“It doesn’t matter how much money the mining and exploration companies bring into the Yukon, what matters is the water, the fish, the people.” (quoted by Mary Walden in )

In response, the Yukon government has begun its campaign of fear to discredit the publicly supported conservation plan, and tout the old “multiple use” solution of industrial development “balanced” by an absolute minimum of protection. One hapless Minister went so far as to suggest singling out the tourism industry for a tax to pay for protecting wilderness – he later withdrew his remarks after a strong reaction from the community. Robert Alexie Sr., at a meeting in Ft. McPherson, offered a much more robust interpretation on the economics of conservation when he said, “If we leave that alone, if its protected, our people will be wealthy for the rest of their lives.”

Duo Lakes near the Snake River headwaters

From a ridge high above Duo Lakes, you can see the Snake River valley disappear to the North.Photo: J. Peepre

The public consultation period may be over, but the political conversation has warmed up – and the public, conservation organization, First Nations community, and tourism industry voices still need to be heard until the Yukon government finally gets the point: Yukon people and Canadians from across the land want to protect the Peel watershed! It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for this government to create a permanent and priceless legacy for people, and for the wild life of the Yukon’s celebrated boreal mountains and waters.

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New Momentum to Protect the Peel

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Public Comments on Peel Plan Due October 1

The Yukon government will accept public comment on the recommended Peel Watershed Land Use Plan until October 1st. Earlier this year the Peel Planning Commission called for 80% of the watershed to be protected using a variety of conservation tools, such as parks, wilderness areas, and habitat protection areas. (See information posts below)  While Yukon NGOs and affected First Nations generally support the plan’s direction, First Nations have stated their goal of protecting 100% of the Peel watershed.

The Yukon government needs to hear from Yukoners, Canadians and global citizens who support protecting this vital constellation of wild mountain watersheds in Canada’s boreal forest.

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Lone bull caribou on a ridge above Reptile Creek

Lone bull caribou on a ridge above Reptile Creek

First Nations Ask Chevron to Give Up Iron Ore Leases

Two Yukon First Nations, the Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in, have asked Chevron Canada and the parent company, based in San Ramon California, to recognize the First Nations’ desire to prevent industrial development in the region by giving up their large block of iron ore leases next to the Snake River, in support of protecting the watershed. The company has not responded to the First Nations repeated requests.

Earlier this year, Yukon NGOs also approached Chevron to relinquish their iron ore interests and participate in a major conservation achievement.  But this summer the company said it was not interested in giving up the leases.  The remote and inaccessible Crest iron ore deposit is unlikely to ever be developed,  and in any case is a minor asset for Chevron – what advantage does the company see in ignoring the First Nations and public conservation interest, just to maintain a risky mineral property and perpetuate the conflict?

I paddled the Snake River again this summer, and was struck once more by the sheer beauty and diversity of the watershed.  During our walks into the mountains and valleys next to the river, we watched dozens of mountain caribou, Dall’s sheep ewes and lambs, and striking two-toned  blond and brown grizzly bears feeding on the slopes.  In the Mount MacDonald area, the giant dark peaks and deep valleys mottled with luxuriant bearflower meadows are the essence of the “magic and mystery“ turn of phrase often used to evoke the spirit of the Yukon.

As the Snake River nears the edge of the mountains at Iron Creek, row upon row of castellations guard the ridges.  The valley is broad now, and to the north the low horizon marks the start of the Peel plateau.  It’s here, within habitat for sheep, caribou and grizzly bears that Chevron’s Crest iron ore deposit lies. The idea of a massive open pit mine in this place, with swaths of industrial roads cut into the valleys and along the banks of the Snake River seems impossible to contemplate.  Chevron has little to gain from developing or selling this dormant mining property, but could instead show genuine corporate leadership and contribute to protecting the beauty and life of the Snake River for all time.

Approaching the Canyon Ranges and Chevron's Crest iron ore leases

Approaching the Canyon Ranges and Chevron's Crest iron ore leases

For more information and to take action, visit: