The tone for this river trip is set the first evening: There will be fish.
The Suzukis whip out their fishing rods soon after arriving at the confluence of the Hart River and Elliott Creek and, by dinner time, they have pulled a slew of grayling from the crystal clear, startlingly green waters of the deep eddy.
David Suzuki fries them to perfection in safflower oil over the campfire, and leaps up to do the dishes after the nine of us have feasted, making something else very clear. He might be Canada’s most famous and celebrated environmentalist; he might be a celebrity who has starred in a feature-length documentary based on his life and work; he might be 75-years old; but he is not about to sit around and let others wait on him.
Our friend Jill Pangman guided the Suzukis on the Firth River years ago and had been trying to entice them to the Peel Watershed ever since, as has David’s son Troy, a carpenter/filmmaker who lives in Dawson City.
The schedules finally aligned for David, his wife, Tara Cullis, their daughter Sarika and her boyfriend – rafting guide Chris Rhodes – to join Pangman and Troy for this trip.
Yukon photographer Marten Berkman recorded the journey while my husband, Juri Peepre, and I were invited along because of our history with the watershed.
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Much of the wonder of the Peel lies in its panoply of wild mountain rivers – all beautiful, each distinct.
The next morning, before launching our small flotilla of two canoes and a raft, we discuss the journey ahead, including how the Hart differs from other rivers in the Peel.
For one, it starts more slowly than tributaries such as the Snake and Bonnet Plume on which canoeists have to put their paddling skills to work right away. This slim asparagus-coloured river will allow plenty of time for gazing at the limestone and dolostone peaks of the North Ogilvies before whitewater demands our attention. I look forward to the contrast between these grey scree-covered ranges and the colour-splashed Wernecke Mountains we travelled through last summer on the Snake.
And that is what is so wonderful about this landscape: At 68,000 square kilometres, the Yukon portion of the Peel alone has room for six major river tributaries, three different mountain ranges, two distinct herds of woodland caribou and a whole whack of other diversity.
Twice the size of Vancouver Island, it also offers the space to immerse oneself for weeks in a truly wild place.
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“It is horrifying! Have you read Sea of Slaughter?”
On our second night David has become increasingly worked up as the campfire talk skips across a range of marine topics: coral reefs, fish farms, the state of the world fishery – it’s all depressing stuff. And his family is all too aware of the trajectory such conversations tend to follow.
“Dad can be really positive sometimes, I swear,” interjects Sarika.
“I’ve just got to shut up,” agrees David.
But very quickly there is push-back from the non-Suzuki contingent. We do not want him to start editing himself, and we assure him that we’re members of his core audience: We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. Rant on.
Also, we want to talk about the future of this vast region with both him and Tara – co-founders of the David Suzuki Foundation. The Peel planning commission has recommended protecting 80 per cent of the watershed, so there is hope that this long campaign finally could achieve its goals.
Now that the ground rules are clear, the conversational floodgates are wide open. David regularly hauls magazines and manuscripts out of his tent for select readings: Corporate Knights, a forthcoming book on the Stikine River.
The topics are as eclectic as they are stimulating, and always filtered through the eyes of the renowned scientist who discovered “spectacular” mutations in temperature-sensitive fruit flies decades ago.
When a person has scrutinized such diversity in an organism as clone-like as a fruit fly, it is no stretch to look at the vast sweeps of taiga surrounding us and imagine the unseen varieties of life. Take those seemingly uniform slopes of white spruce for example.
“If you sample the DNA from trees from five different rivers, my bet is that you are going to find huge differences in genetic diversity and that is the power of the whole system,” says David.
“As changes happen, as we go from an ice age to a warm period, you draw on the diversity of the genes for the best one for the new conditions.
“Nature actually selects to keep diversity.”
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At our first layover camp, it is warm enough to swim in the river. Downstream the sun sets west of the heart-shaped mountain which inspired the Gwich’in name for this river – Edrii njik – and soon an ethereal light show begins to play out around us.
At first, the spotlight falls on individual trees across the river, transfiguring them into luminous marquee stars of the forest. Later the roving light suffuses the clouds with colour, and seeks out individual features on the peaks upstream – highlighting first a golden ridge, then a magenta cirque, a violet summit. It is otherworldly; it is the North.
The next day we hike high above the river, and look out over a fantastical landscape shaped by endless weathering instead of glacial ice. In canyons downstream, rocky outcrops called tors form flying buttresses and slender spires.
There is no need to talk about wilderness out here: It is all around us. But David’s words from earlier in the trip still resonate.
“To me the issue of wilderness is the issue of human survival. Every bit of wilderness is priceless to me. We should be paying people to protect and enrich wilderness.”
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The weather begins to change as we pass the last of the castellated ridges. Peregrines screech at us from the misty summits and we are thankful for the sighting.
We have seen fewer animals on this trip than on any other journey in the Peel, and it has been so marked and unusual it has made some of us uneasy.
Downriver, the clouds descend and rain turns the river a roiling chocolate brown. Tarps sprout like colourful mushrooms over the leaky older tents, and the Peel veterans all look downright soggy as we huddle under the cooking shelter.
There’s a lot to worry about.
If the Peel is in flood when we reach it tomorrow, its demanding rapids could be unrunnable and the plane might not be able land safely at the designated takeout on the river.
Tara lightens the mood by reminding us we don’t need to worry about our guests.
“Well, you can decide to be miserable and wet, or you can think of how warm and cozy we are under this tarp,” she says.
Point taken. But we are still relieved when the rain stops the next day. We manage to run the canoes through most of the Peel’s swollen rapids and, with a bit of strategic lining down the steepest drops, we avoid having to unload the boats and portage.
We had considered taking two days for this intense section of river, but with no decent campsites in sight, we pressed on, landing at this gravel bar at nine last night. Now we have a full day to unwind and contemplate the journey while waiting for the plane.
Also, we have time to judge the entries in our trip-long contest – the stone hearts we have been collecting from gravel bars for the last two weeks.
We had intended to declare a winner – the heart of hearts – at the end of the journey. But after everyone reveals their treasures and lays them across the black sand, choosing just one seems beside the point.
Sarika’s hidden heart, Marten’s fossil heart, Troy’s maroon grayling heart – together they embody the collective memory of our journey. Each is a physical graspable link to a great campfire conversation or hike or one of many meals of grayling.
There’s another reason our contest seems out of place – it has been overshadowed by the real thing. Yesterday, Chris proposed to Sarika at the confluence of the Hart and Peel rivers. They have known each other since they were teenagers. She accepts.
We know the Peel is enshrined now in the Suzuki family history, and we leave inspired by our shared experience here.
But on the long flight back to Mayo, looking down at the vast expanse of land below, I can only hope that the Peel’s future will soon be secured, and it will always follow its own natural rhythms.
Sarah Locke coauthored Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A Traveller’s
Guide with Juri Peepre.