By Peter Lesniak
My canoe partner on a recent trip down the Wind River was the chief executive officer of a luxury resort in the Republic of the Maldives, half a world away. Literally.
I found that intriguing, considering that cluster of about 100 coral islands in a remote part of the Indian Ocean is the quintessential exotic tourist destination, right up there with Bora Bora and Fiji.
Why would anyone from that earthy paradise travel all the way here on their holidays? Could it possibly be the turquoise waters, ample wildlife and too-numerous-to-name crags of the Wind’s watershed are every bit as unique, exotic and rare as anything the fabled Maldives have to offer today’s tourist?
“Wilderness,” as a writer friend of mine put it, “is where people go to reconnect with their dreams. It is where you go to find magic, places where you are not in control, and where the out-of-controlness forces you to be alive and alert, to be in the moment in ways that you rarely are anywhere else.”
But wilderness is vanishing rapidly worldwide, thanks to an ironic combination of neglect and abuse.
The members of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission were well aware of that fact, as well as the uniqueness of all five major rivers in the watershed, when they completed their final recommended land-use plan for the region after many long months of public consultations, compiling data and soul-searching.
“We heard that the Peel Watershed is unusual,” the commissioners wrote in the visionary report they submitted to the Yukon government and the four First Nation governments with vested interests in the area. “Not just in the Yukon, but in Canada and in the world.
“Other places are beautiful, other places have animals, and other places have rivers and wetlands and mountains and tundra. Our planning area has these assets in abundance, but that’s not what makes it so unique.
“The really important asset of the Peel country is that it is extensive, undeveloped, and largely devoid of roads. In short, it is beautiful, rich, and wild, and therefore both unusual and unusually valuable Ã as it is.”
During our 12 days on the Wind, we did not see a single man-made structure aside from a couple of shacks used by trappers and outfitters and the faint tracings of a road bulldozed in the winter of 1959-60 by an oil company to move exploration equipment from Mayo to Eagle Plains.
In fact, we did not even see any other paddlers until the final day, while we were waiting with mixed emotions near the confluence of the Peel and Snake rivers for our floatplanes to fly us back to civilization and its tawdry trappings.
Though weather-beaten, bug-bitten and even a little sore and tired (but in a good way), we all felt privileged and proud to have completed our journey through such a spectacularly wild place sprinkled liberally with rare flora, mineral licks, fascinating fossils and quartz crystals as big as walnuts.
Despite our best efforts, we did not see any bears or wolves, but we saw plenty of spoor and scat just about everywhere we stopped. And that was enough for most of us. We also saw the usual lesser charismatic megafauna Ã moose, caribou, sheep, falcons, eagles, geese, the list goes on.
The members of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission decided in the end it would be impossible to come up with a compromise plan acceptable to everyone. As a result, their recommended plan is worthy of the biblical Solomon.
“Looking at it strategically, a conservative, cautious plan preserves society’s options,” they wrote. “We can always decide to develop in future, but once the decision is made, we cannot return to a pristine ecosystem and landscape Ã not in our lifetimes and not in the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren. Better, in our view, to go slow.”
Going slow meant recommending protection of 80 per cent of the watershed, denying surface access to mineral exploration sites, halting the building of further aircraft runways, withdrawing special management areas from further mineral staking.
It also meant focusing on “sustainable development,” minimizing actual and potential land-use conflicts, protecting the qualities that are valued by much of society and that sustain the region’s ecosystems. But they also left all options open.
Three of the First Nation governments with vested interests in the region have called the recommended land-use plan sensible, and are urging the Yukon government to accept it more or less as presented.
“We know,” they said in a joint news release earlier this year, “the Peel region has significant non-renewable resources. But those resources aren’t going anywhere, and there is little prospect that the infrastructure necessary to extract those resources will be developed any time soon.
“If at some point in the future there is a critical need for those resources, or new technologies are developed that make industrial development more environmentally friendly, we can always amend the plan. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true.”
The trouble with wilderness is that we take it for granted until it is gone. We have a tendency to underestimate, even undervalue, what we have here in the Yukon. It took a tourist from the Maldives, the “World’s Most Romantic Destination,” to remind me this watershed is truly world-class in terms of its wildness and specialness.
The attitude of the majority of Yukoners on the Peel Watershed has shifted dramatically in recent years.
A 2009 poll prepared for the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, the Yukon Conservation Society and the Tourism Industry of the Association of the Yukon suggests that 75 per cent of us want to see a large proportion of the Peel Watershed protected from industrial development and roads.
After paddling the Wind, David and his partner Renate, as well as the other members of our group Ã Bill and Bev from Virginia, and Kim and Ed from Quadra Island Ã would surely agree this magical and sublime place is like no other on Earth.
And we Yukoners, as its caretakers, would be criminally negligent if we failed to act in the best interests of those who come after us and failed to keep this watershed intact, pristine and beautiful for people to marvel at and revel in, forever, if possible.
“Wilderness,” as that writer friend of mine put it, “is the swamp we drained to build a mall before we understood that swamps absorb our wastewater and filter out the toxins.
“It is the urban forest we cleared away before we learned that its root system held the city’s watershed in place. Wilderness is that unquantifiable, unfungible asset, the one the accountants scratch their heads over when they are trying to value the estate.”
Lastly, wilderness is the place our ancestors went to seek wisdom, solace and divine inspiration. It is in short supply, and getting ever harder to find with every day that passes.
Peter Lesniak is a Yukon writer and outdoorsman.