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The Peel River Watershed: The Endangered Wilderness of Canada’s Yukon

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by Peter Mather, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Terri Cairns, enjoys her perch above the Wind River as the midnight sun sets in the far North of Canada’s Arctic.
Terri Cairns, enjoys her perch above the Wind River as the midnight sun sets in the far North of Canada’s Arctic.

From the front seat of our Cessna 172, the wilderness below seems limitless. The turquoise waters of the Wind River weave and grind their way through regiments of jagged multicolored mountains before disappearing over the horizon. After months of planning, our small team, including film maker Andy Maser, is about to begin a three week wilderness canoe trip in one of North America’s most remote and beautiful locations. With the help of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), our International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) coordinated trip will take us through 350 miles of pristine wilderness, after which we’ll spend a week in the Gwich’in community of Fort McPherson on the banks of the Peel River.

A wilderness the size of Scotland, the untouched wild headwaters of the Peel Watershed are a breeding and nursing ground for wildlife.
A wilderness the size of Scotland, the untouched wild headwaters of the Peel Watershed are a breeding and nursing ground for wildlife.
 Our iLCP lead expedition, allowed us to spend 16 days canoeing one of North America’s most scenic and tranquil rivers - The Wind River.
Our iLCP lead expedition, allowed us to spend 16 days canoeing one of North America’s most scenic and tranquil rivers – The Wind River.

The Wind River is one of six wild tributaries which, together with the Snake, Bonnet Plume, Hart, Ogilivie, and Blackstone rivers, create the greater Peel Watershed. These rivers constitute one of Canada’s most beautiful and intact natural areas. Delivering the waters of Canada’s vast northwestern arctic, these stunning mountain rivers are the lifeblood of an ecosystem with unsurpassed ecological integrity. The unspoiled splendour of the greater Peel Watershed—encompassing an area the size of Scotland—is home to a plenitude of free-ranging wildlife including bears, wolves, wolverines, and herds of caribou, and its extensive wetlands provide a perfect breeding and birthing area for birds from across North America and beyond.

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Pacific Loon - Thousands of lakes and ponds line the lower Peel River. These extensive wetlands are critical migratory waterfowl nesting and staging areas, for loons, swans, geese, ducks and a myriad of boreal songbirds.
Pacific Loon – Thousands of lakes and ponds line the lower Peel River. These extensive wetlands are critical migratory waterfowl nesting and staging areas, for loons, swans, geese, ducks and a myriad of boreal songbirds.

For 30 years, Yukon First Nations and their conservation allies have worked for watershed protection, and in 2004 the Government of Yukon embarked on a Land Use Planning process with the four local First Nations. After 7 years of consultation, a resulting Land Use Plan, representing an agreeable compromise of all interested parties, recommended 80% protection of the watershed.

The boreal forest of the Northern Canada and the Peel watershed are the lungs of the planet. They clean our air and are a critical factor in mitigating climate change.
The boreal forest of the Northern Canada and the Peel watershed are the lungs of the planet. They clean our air and are a critical factor in mitigating climate change.
Wildlife include a host of high-profile species such as grizzly bears, wolverine, wolves, and immense caribou herds. Smaller animals such as lynx, fox and martin are abundant throughout. This curious fox kit rests on its’ den near the headwaters of the Peel.
Wildlife include a host of high-profile species such as grizzly bears, wolverine, wolves, and immense caribou herds. Smaller animals such as lynx, fox and martin are abundant throughout. This curious fox kit rests on its’ den near the headwaters of the Peel.

In early 2011, under pressure from the mining industry, the Government scraped that Land Use Plan and within 6 months created an industry friendly plan that does little to protect the watershed. The struggle to protect the Peel Watershed has now reached the Yukon Supreme Court, pitting the pro-mining Yukon government against aboriginal and conservation groups. The legal battle could well continue for several years.

There is long and checkered history of poor mine management in the Yukon with devastating environmental consequences. South of the Peel watershed, the abandoned Faro Mine sits in disrepair. Clean up and remediation of the mine is expected to take take at least 400 years and cost over a billion dollars.
There is a long and checkered history of poor mine management in the Yukon with devastating environmental consequences. South of the Peel watershed, the abandoned Faro Mine sits in disrepair. Clean up and remediation of the mine is expected to take take at least 400 years and cost over a billion dollars.

The First Nations who have called this land their home for thousands of years—the Tetlit Gwich’in, the Nacho Nyak Dun, the Trondek Hwich’in, and the Vuntut Gwichi’in—want 100% protection of the entire watershed. At the end of our canoe journey, respected elder Abe Wilson in Fort McPherson poignantly explains why they seek this goal. In his fish-smoking shack on the banks of the Peel River, he shares his concerns about development in the Peel while hanging freshly caught Conies and Whitefish. “If they ever pollute our river,” he says, “that’s the end of us. Everything will be destroyed.”

Abe Stewart, from the Gwich’in community of Fort MacPherson, works with dried fish on the banks of the Peel River. Abe is one of many Gwich’in leaders fighting to protect the clean waters of the Peel Watershed for future generations of his people.
Abe Stewart, from the Gwich’in community of Fort MacPherson, works with dried fish on the banks of the Peel River. Abe is one of many Gwich’in leaders fighting to protect the clean waters of the Peel Watershed for future generations of his people.

Our voyage through this watershed has revealed that protecting the Peel is about more than protecting wilderness and wildlife—it’s about the indigenous people of the Peel determining their future, while safeguarding our own.

“Our Elders brought us up on this river,” Abe Wilson continued. “They taught us, you take care of this water, you take care of that land. It’s gonna take care of you.”

Roy Vittrekwa spends summers at the family fish camp on the banks of the Peel, learning  traditional activities such as hunting moose and drying fish from his grandparents.
Roy Vittrekwa spends summers at the family fish camp on the banks of the Peel, learning traditional activities such as hunting moose and drying fish from his grandparents.

To learn more about the entire Peel River Watershed and what you can do, please visit www.protectpeel.ca or plan a trip on one of these great mountain rivers, and help protect them for the next generation.

Stay tuned for the upcoming release of Andy Maser’s film about the Wilderness Headwaters of the Peel Watershed.

 

Comments

  1. Nora Lande
    September 24, 6:24 pm

    Very enjoyable. My g grandfather John Flett was born in Peel River in 1852. His father was Andrew Flett HBC and his mother was Cachosa Gaucher of Laird.

  2. Terry Lawhead
    Seattle
    August 9, 2015, 11:03 am

    Absolutely stunning photos and narrative, thank you for your work. I hope to travel through that country in late August. I will show my respect.

  3. Beatrice Karrer Ulrich
    Baltenswil, Switzerland
    December 7, 2014, 11:43 am

    I have no words at all, but surely, I agree!