Art Before Bulldozers in the Yukon’s Peel River Watershed
Documentary will follow six artists through North America’s final frontier
By Adrick Brock
UPDATE: The Peel Project now has a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo
As of January, 2014, Canada’s last untouched watershed was opened up to development. The Peel Watershed spans 26,000 square miles of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and is host to the continent’s largest constellation of wild mountain rivers. It is the epitome of northern wilderness, an expansive tapestry of gray mountains, wide green valleys and crystalline waterways. Like so much of the region, it is slated for an industrial makeover.
This summer, a documentary team will canoe down the Peel River before it’s too late. The film will tell the story of six newcomers to the north––a musician, a writer, a painter, a muralist, a glass blower and a photographer––who will spend one month paddling a 290-mile section of river and documenting the journey in their respective mediums.
The Peel is the brainchild of 26-year-old Toronto native Calder Cheverie, who has been canoeing since childhood. He paddled the Peel in 2011 during his first visit to the Yukon. “I had been thinking about this idea of taking a group of artists down a river for a few years,” he says, “but it was the Peel that made me decide to actually pursue it. After nearly a decade of guiding it was, and to this day remains, the most vivid account of wilderness that I’ve encountered.”
Around the same time as Cheverie’s inaugural trip, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission released its report on the region recommending that, should the Yukon government choose to open up new development in the region, they do so on only 20 percent of the watershed. In January, 2014, eight months before The Peel was set to shoot, the Yukon government gave its official decision: 80 percent of the watershed is now open to resource exploration.
“Development is happening,” says Cheverie, whose project has taken on a new importance in the wake of this legislation. He cites the fate of the Peel: soon roads will crisscross the landscape, making way for mining, oil and natural gas extraction, even fracking. Cheverie believes that for most North Americans, the reality of what’s happening in the north is largely illusory. “It’s not just a vast wilderness,” he says. It’s finite, and increasingly unprotected.
Cheverie insists that the goal of The Peel is not a doom-and-gloom polemic against the evils of the mining and gas industry. What the artists aim to capture is more subtle and existential. How will first-timers to a place of such novel beauty react to the possibility that what they are witnessing might soon be lost forever?
“My hope is that through witnessing a piece of the north we may be losing that we can become better citizens when it comes to issues that affect the long-term integrity of the region,” says Cheverie. “We need to realize that a shift is happening and we all have a role to play in either letting it continue or making a change.”
The creative work that comes out of the trip will eventually be amassed into a gallery show that will tour with the film in spring of 2015. By that time, fracking in the region may already be underway. “These artists will be some of the last people to see the Peel River as it is,” Cheverie says. “By the time the film is done, the landscape we experienced might not be there.”
To learn more and to meet the artists of The Peel, click here