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Up Rat River without a paddle

Sixty-three days on the water, six lost paddles, one busted laptop, two waterlogged cameras, 40,000 photos and more than 100 hours of video footage.

Sixty-three days on the water, six lost paddles, one busted laptop, two waterlogged cameras, 40,000 photos and more than 100 hours of video footage.

Paddle for the North’s filming expedition in the Peel watershed is done, and team member Gabe Rivest says the six friends learned a number of important lessons on the trip.

Always tie down your paddles and canoes when you make camp, for instance.

The adventure was nearly cut short when, in early July on the Rat River, a massive flood almost stole all the team’s gear.

“We’d paddled for nine hours the day before. The whole nine hours it was pouring,” Rivest said.

“I mean torrential rain, like nothing I’ve ever seen in the Yukon. It was like being in South America or something, but it was cold. By the time we got there we were all freezing.”

When the team of six stopped to make camp that night, they were exhausted. They rushed through setting up camp, wolfed down a freeze-dried dinner, and went straight to bed.

“When Simon (Lucas, the team’s web designer and photographer) got up to take a leak at 8:30 the next morning, only five and a half hours later, the river was two metres higher,” Rivest said.

“We had lost five of our nine paddles. That became a bit of an issue. Luckily all the boats were tied down really well, but we did everything so quick the night before, it could have been a lot worse than paddles,” he said.

A sat-phone call to the RCMP netted them replacement paddles a day later, but the experience still shook the team, he said.

Earlier this summer, Rivest and five friends - Simon Lucas, Scott Sinton, Matt Holmes, Alexandre Deschenes and Michah Rauguth - set out to paddle the Hart, Peel, Rat, Yukon, Porcupine and Bell rivers, and to document the whole trip.

When the project started, Rivest said it was about giving Canadians an intimate look at a beautifully wild space that might not stay that way forever.

The Yukon government’s plans to open the Peel watershed to potential road construction and eventual mining is one of the most hotly contested issues in the territory, and Rivest wanted to give an impartial, neutral view of the place.

At least, that’s how it started. But there’s another lesson the team learned in their two months on the rivers: You have to listen to the people who actually live there.

“We wanted to start neutral and see what people would say along the way. We talked to so many people who live there, and definitely don’t want the Peel watershed to change,” he said.

“If someone from Whitehorse told me, ‘Oh, we need the economy and go back home. This isn’t your home.’ Well, the Peel is no more your home if you’re not going to live with the consequences,” he said.

It was an emotional journey as well as a challenging one, Rivest said. Listening to people from Fort McPherson or Old Crow tell stories to the team about how their lives will change if industry comes to the Peel was sometimes heartbreaking.

The trip was also physically demanding, he said. Two months of paddling is hard at the best of times, but doing it with heaps of camera and video equipment made things even more complicated.

“We’d have to wake up and break camp and get ready to go, and then stop and think, ‘OK, we need to get a shot right now.’ We’d have to wait even longer and sometimes we’d leave super late in the morning.

“You’d have to climb up a cliff, wait for the others to pass by, shoot it, and then hike back down,” he said.

If it hadn’t been for this summer’s incredibly good weather, Rivest said he isn’t sure how they could have pulled off the project. The rain on the Rat was the only time things looked really dicey.

Even with all the sunshine, the team still sacrificed one laptop and two DSLRs to the wilderness. They also had to fashion a spare paddle by hand from a white spruce log.

“It actually turned out great. Some of the guys used it for hours,” Rivest said.

The trip ended in early September, but the work to produce the film is just beginning. Rivest said the team is expecting to take a full year to edit and produce a feature-length documentary about the trip.

In the mean time, they’re hoping to get a teaser trailer released in the next few weeks, to help keep people engaged with the project.

As challenging as the trip was, Rivest said he would be happy to keep doing this kind of documentary work in the future.

“I would definitely like to do this kind of work again. It was an amazing experience.”

Contact Jesse Winter at