Snake Run

By Leslie Anthony, photography by Fritz Mueller

A canoe descent of the Yukon’s turbulent Snake River offers a view of a watershed battle and a meditation on the meaning of wild spaces

What is wilderness? The thought, which has hovered all morning, turns on its side as our float plane tips steeply into the alpine vale cradling Duo Lake, in the headwaters of the Snake River. Below, brocaded in olive, mustard and bluegreen, Yukon mountainsides jut above jade spires of dwarf spruce and the puce darkness between them. The palette is unfamiliar yet vibrant. It exists here in an undisturbed state — undisturbed, that is, by us.

The definition of wilderness that I’ve been mulling is a matter of degree to the human mind: not this but that; some but not all; us but not them. The problem is that all of these constructs are ours, relative and contextual. Real wilderness defines itself: the natural intertwining of landforms and waterways; the presence of indigenous, co-evolved plant and animal life; intact ecosystems operating the way they have since they arose.

No matter the perspective, there is room for humanity, since we are a part and not apart. It would seem, however, that we must not mess with functionality — certainly not with the functionality of aquatic ecosystems, whose components are more easily perturbed and whose problems are quickly distributed over large areas.

The idea comes sharply into focus as we near our destination, the isolated Snake River. The Snake is considered pristine: no roads, no residents, no development. It’s a wild and rugged watercourse that we will follow for 10 days and 300 kilometres to its junction with the Peel River.

First and foremost, the trip is an exploration by canoe. But it will also offer insight into the hot-button politics of protecting the entire Peel watershed, of which the Snake is the last of six rivers — preceded, from west to east, by the Ogilvie, Blackstone, Hart, Wind and Bonnet Plume — to join the former’s flow within the Yukon’s boundaries (another, the Rat, makes the Peel’s acquaintance in the Northwest Territories).

On the side of protection and conservation are First Nations with traditional hunting grounds in the Peel, backed by tour operators and environmental organizations, such as the Yukon Conservation Society and the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. On the side of exploitation is the Yukon’s traditional economic engine — the mining and oil and gas industries — intent on preserving leases that have been staked on uranium, iron and oil and gas deposits. A land-use planning process involving an arm’slength commission of stakeholders has been under way for seven years. It is winding down after having recommended to the Yukon government that 80.6 percent of the Peel watershed be fully protected and the rest closely regulated, a decision with overwhelming public support. With a final decision expected this fall, the fight for the Snake is heating up. A chance to experience it in its current state is an opportunity I can’t turn down.

After all, if any place can school me on wilderness values, it should be a pristine river. More...[opens PDF]

Read the rest of this 14-page feature article in the June 2011 issue of Canadian Geographic.