staking the snake

By Ken Madsen Special to the News I trudged up the steep hillside, my face hot and flushed. I wasn't sure whether the willows and dwarf birch appreciated the salty drips of sweat, but the mosquitoes didn't seem to care. I shifted the load on my shoulder,

By Ken Madsen

Special to the News

I trudged up the steep hillside, my face hot and flushed. I wasn’t sure whether the willows and dwarf birch appreciated the salty drips of sweat, but the mosquitoes didn’t seem to care.

I shifted the load on my shoulder, a two-metre-long chunk of lumber that felt as heavy as the granite boulders on the mountain. I looked down, a long way down, at the silvery thread of the Snake River. Three of my companions were toiling upward towards me, shouldering a second chunk of wood as well as lunch and water.

Yukon’s Peel Watershed is an incredible place—the homeland of four First Nations (Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwitchin and Tetl’it Gwich’in). It is productive habitat for both barren-ground and woodland caribou, grizzlies, wolves, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

It has vast sweeps of boreal forest, spectacular mountains and productive wetlands. It is one of the largest unroaded areas in Canada south of the Arctic—a place where visitors can still enjoy relatively undisturbed natural systems.

On July 23, 1996, I had to drag my attention away from the land, roll up my sleeves and get to work.

A couple of hours later I dropped a pen in my day-pack and surveyed my printing on the slab of wood now firmly anchored in the ground: #1 Grizzly … K.R. Madsen. I’d finished staking my claims. We snapped a couple of photos and headed back towards camp. All that was left to do was to visit the mining recorder in Mayo and I would be the proud owner of three hard rock mineral claims … all of them in important wildlife habitat along the Snake.

The first claim I’d staked had been in the middle of a talus slope that was the home of a thriving colony of pikas, fascinating little rodents also known as “rock rabbits.” The second pair of claim posts bisected a mineral lick where river travelers enjoyed watching Dall sheep. The last was in the heart of what a bear biologist had informed me was a prime feeding area for grizzly bears.

A few weeks later my claims were duly registered with a little paperwork and 0 per claim. Had I wanted, I could have flown a chopper into Pika Claim, trenched and ripped apart the colony to see if there were minerals there. I could have built a camp on top of the mineral lick and, with the appropriate permits, gouged an airstrip over the grizzly meadow.

In fact—I was obliged to spend money to perform “miner-like” activities on my claims (or shell out an additional 0 per claim per year). It is “use ‘em or lose ‘em.” I didn’t and lost ‘em.

Why did I stake claims in the wild and beautiful Peel River Watershed when I had no intention of mining? The previous year a group of us had paddled the Bonnet Plume River and visited an abandoned mining camp. We found (and photographed) leaking oil drums, stacked bags of chemicals that had been ripped open by wildlife, a 1.3-kilometre-long airstrip bulldozed through the forest near the river, and an open garbage dump. The mining company had abandoned the camp without ever doing any mining.

All of this was done without any environmental screening—and all beside a waterway designated a Canadian Heritage River. The Yukon Mining Act has been tinkered with since those days, but the rules of the game are basically the same. Mining is deemed to be the “highest and best use” of the land and it trumps all other activities. It is still this easy to stake a claim on 79 per cent of the territory including the Peel Watershed.

We knew, of course, that not all companies would have been as irresponsible with the garbage and pollution. But should mining companies have the exclusive right to stake their claims—which they do in most of the Yukon? If I wanted to build a wilderness lodge on the Snake and run canoe trips down the river, should I be able to go stake out a lodge claim? What if I wanted to clearcut the boreal forest beside the Wind River and float the logs down to Fort McPherson? How about staking out a wilderness park?

Of course I shouldn’t. We should, along with First Nations, do responsible land-use planning. Open and transparent land-use planning that is not swayed by the heavy thumb of government political pressure.

Before I wrote this, I indulged in a little nostalgia and dug out a bunch of slides from the Bonnet Plume and Snake. In one of my photos the Bonnet Plume looks like a glittering golden thread as it flows north through the wilderness.

I remembered a comment that Willard Hagen (then president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council) had made at a meeting about Canadian Heritage River status for the Bonnet Plume.

“The real gold in the Bonnet Plume is in the scenery,” he said. “If you find the other kind of gold, the mineral kind, maybe you should leave it in the ground.”

Ken Madsen is a Yukon writer and explorer.