When Frank Patterson was only 18, he went by horseback into the Peel with his friend Jimmy Johnny.
It changed his life.
“I was troubled but that four months that I spent out there – I came back with a different perspective. It took me a long way,” Patterson told more than 50 people who came out to a public meeting on the Peel plan Wednesday.
“It was the best time in my life that I’ve ever had,” he said.
In addition to his fond memories, Patterson, now chair of the Mayo Renewable Resources Council, also remembers seeing abandoned mineral exploration sites left for the taxpayers to clean up.
Many of these old sites are still there, said Johnny, who has been guiding in the upper Peel since 1958.
“It doesn’t matter how much money the mining and exploration companies bring into the Yukon, what matters is the water, the fish, the people,” Johnny told the hometown crowd.
Na-cho Nyak Dun elder Bella Peter described what she found at the abandoned Hart River mine site when she arrived there to cook several years ago for a crew trying to clean it up.
“Whoever ran that mine there, they left everything there,” said Peter. “It was just a mess. I don’t know how many trailers were there. And the gas tank. One old truck. One old grader. And the kitchen – they had a little kitchen there and it was just a mess.
“That’s why we don’t want any miner to go out and cut any ground.”
There’s more to consider than just, “gold, gold, gold,” she added.
Gold has been a “four-letter word” for thousands of years, said Mayo resident Susan Stuart.
“We’ve stolen, we’ve killed, we’ve raped and pillaged – we’ve done all those wonderful things for the pretty yellow stuff,” she said.
The Na-cho Nyak Dun is pushing for 100 per cent of the watershed to be protected, and she thanked the First Nation for taking that stand.
Hunting outfitter Alan Young, who operates in the Wind and Hart River region, said Yukoners need to realize there are not many large wilderness areas left in North America.
If it’s left as it is, it will be even more valuable, he said.
“I see canoers, rafters, hikers, hunters – all kinds of people … and you know what? You cannot see where they were yesterday,” said Young. “They are leaving no impact on this land and it’s sustainable.”
Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn says the land, air and water – or the LAW as he likes to call the trio – need to be given top priority.
He also presented Yukon government officials with a petition signed by people from around the territory, calling on Premier Dennis Fentie to protect the Peel.
The only person who spoke against protection in the watershed was self-employed Yukon geologist Clive Aspinall.
The recommended plan – which protects 80 per cent of the watershed – is neither fair nor balanced, he said.
However he didn’t say what percentage, if any, he would consider acceptable.
The mining industry brings millions of dollars to the territory, and he’s afraid that will dry up if the Peel is protected.
This was the last of eight community meetings held by the Yukon government on the Peel land use plan.
It hopes to work out a formal response to the plan, along with the four affected First Nations, before the end of the year.
Yukon writer Mary Walden is doing a series of stories on the Peel Watershed. The former CBC journalist and Yukon News editor also co-owns a wilderness tourism company that does canoe trips in the region.