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Thirty six hours in the Peel

Karen Baltgailis' vision of the Peel was fading. Actually fading. So we had to cut our trip short. The 54-year-old conservationist was at Bonnet Plume Lake in the Peel Watershed...


Karen Baltgailis’ vision of the Peel was fading.

Actually fading.

So we had to cut our trip short.

The 54-year-old conservationist was at Bonnet Plume Lake in the Peel Watershed with a group of international journalists, an artist and an elder on the eve of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s final report, which would set the tone for the coming debate over the future of a wilderness region twice the size of Vancouver Island.

A journalist from California bailed on the junket at the last minute - I got the call to fill that empty seat, packed my poncho and buckled in.

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In the two-hour flight between Schwatka Lake and Bonnet Plume, the plane weaved through the mountain passes, flying over some of the most stunning landscapes I’d ever seen. Low mountains covered in velvety green, seen from only a few hundred feet up. Taller mountains, with imposing spires and gravelly slides, flashing the reddish hue that tells of iron or the blue-green of copper.

Our pilot pointed out a giant tawny scar amidst the green, the old Faro minesite - it seemed that nature wasn’t interested in reclaiming that area.

We spotted a few other small mining operations on the way - and a new airstrip being cut out at the Rackla Belt site just south of the Peel Watershed.

The season had been busy, said the pilot, noting he’d been shuttling tourists, hunters, biologists and miners in and out of the Yukon wilds. One story involved a team of Chinese mining execs heading into the bush in business suits with their own chef in tow.

Our destination was Widrig Outfitting’s camp, a small collection of cabins nestled into a clearing on the north side of Bonnet Plume Lake.

Bunked together in a spacious log cabin that was also home to an unwelcoming colony of wasps, were the journalists: Jay Canode, a producer from Colorado, used a tiny point-and-shoot camera to tell environmental stories in HD for American television networks, me, a local camera-slinger, and Paul Watson, a Pulitzer prize-winning writer and photog from the Toronto Star, who’d spent most of the last decade in Afghanistan.

In another cabin were the hosts: Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, and an endless supply of information on the fight to protect the Peel. She spent most of the trip trying to get the sat phone working.

Whitehorse artist Joyce Majiski and Na-Cho Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny arrived a bit later. Majiski spent years working as a wildlife biologist and wilderness guide in the Yukon. She was part of the campaign to save the Tatshenshini-Alsek River area in the 1990s.

Johnny, a diminutive fellow with a sparkle in his eye and a lifetime of experience in the Peel, wanders the bush with a Nikon and a Winchester in hand.

Our first order of business was a hike to the top of the hills overlooking the camp. Easier said than done - there aren’t any hiking trails in the wilderness, and we were not above the treeline - so we bushwhacked our way up. The view from the top was unspoiled wilderness in every direction.

Later that evening, back at camp, Johnny was looking through his binoculars, his arms resting on the hitching post used to tie horses during hunting trips. “Look down there,” he said, pointing about a kilometre down the lake.

I took the binoculars, and tried to see what he did.

“Moose? Bear?” I couldn’t make out anything in the half-light, but I’m sure Johnny knew what he was looking at. But for me, no wildlife sightings yet.

The next morning, Chris Widrig landed his Super Cub at camp to pick up supplies for his other site - the alpine Goz Lake - used for sheep hunting. (The camp at Bonnet Plume is used for moose and bear.)

He drank a cup of coffee, chatted a bit and was off again, just like that.

We piled into a small motorboat and headed east to the headwaters of the Bonnet Plume River, an area of low bush, braided streams and gravel beds. You could get pretty far out across the river, without getting your feet wet hopping from gravel bar to gravel bar. I recorded some babbling brook sounds on my digital recorder - you never know when you’ll need babbling brook sounds.

Johnny did some TV interviews with the river and craggy mountains in the background. And we explored the area - finding wolf and moose tracks, and fur snagged in some branches. Jimmy dug up a root and ate it -“medicinal,” he said.

Still no wildlife sightings though.

Baltgailis managed to connect to the YCS office in Whitehorse on the sat phone - she was waiting to hear the final recommendations of the Peel Watershed Land Use Planning Commission.

“Fifty-five per cent full protection!” she said, repeating news delivered by someone at the other end of the connection.

It started raining. We hauled the boat up the river until it was deep enough to use the motor again - then sped back to camp.

After nearly a day in the Peel - I was settling into a relaxed mood. I had two more days to pick these folks’ brains and really get into the issues.

But it didn’t happen.

Over lunch, Baltgailis said she was leaving the trip early - she was losing sight in one of her eyes, something she recognized as retinal detachment, and needed to head out right away.

A sat phone call was made, and a few hours later we were flying through a pea soup fog on our way to Mayo.

I saw a moose from the plane.

Postscript: Baltgailis reports her eye is now fine. However, on the eve of the territorial election, the vision she shares for the Peel Watershed remains hazy.

Ian Stewart is the Yukon News

staff photographer.