Five canoes. Ten people. Twenty-two hours of sunlight. Hundreds of unnamed mountains, rivers, streams, ridges, creeks, meadows, and vistas. Two grizzlies running the other way. Billions of diabolical mosquitoes that, fortunately, stay in the dense shrubbery until evening. An infinite number of surprises. One vast and empty wilderness, devoid of humans. This is a crash course on how to take inventory in the northern Yukon.
From the moment our paddling group landed by floatplane at McClusky Lake, the magnitude of this 13,000-square-mile roadless wilderness seemed pleasingly overwhelming. Nestled into a side valley, the clear water of McClusky was like a mirror. Mountains and trees etched by the midnight sun cast perfect reflections across its calm surface. We swam and relaxed. The following afternoon our guide, Henry, and I hiked to the top of a nearby peak to gaze down on our village of dwarf tents. Beyond that, we caught but a glimpse of the big picture. To the north a nameless creek chortled over rocks toward a broad river valley, surrounded by an endless chain of mountains and spires, then emptied without ceremony into the twisting braids of the Wind River.
At camp, birdsong filled the air, and along the flanks of nearby mountains we spotted collared pikas scrambling over boulders, collecting alpine flowers and grass for the long winter months ahead. McClusky was so peaceful that it was difficult to pull ourselves away, yet the Wind's current tugged us downriver.
After portaging a mass of gear from the lake to the banks of the creek, our group set to the task of lining our canoes along several miles of boulder gardens. Everybody had some paddling experience, but the current was fast and there were tricky bends and sweepers to contend with, so we waded long sections of the creek rather than risk disaster this early in the trip. When we finally reached the Wind, we were greeted by a river so unbelievably crystal clear that we could see Arctic grayling darting from pool to pool along the river bottom. The Wind's aquamarine hue enticed us in for a swim–but we retreated just as quickly after realizing that the river was as cold as water gets without being in a solid state.
For the next few days we enjoyed perfect paddling weather. Late on our fourth afternoon, we spotted the broad alluvial fan of an alpine meadow retreating from the west bank, rolling back toward a slot canyon that looked like it had been cut into the mountains with a large serrated knife. For nearly a mile we followed a Dall sheep trail–which was remarkably well used considering that there was plenty of room for wandering across the meadow grass–to the canyon's mouth and then for several hundred yards followed the creek up and under the shadowy canyon rim.
Surrounded by a rainbow assortment of multi-colored peaks–some pastel gray, others amber, tan, or rusty red–our group eventually pitched camp in the meadow. Shortly thereafter we were granted an additional bonus. While setting up our tents, I heard some playful yipping on the far bank, and on a whim I cupped my hands to my mouth and let loose with a wolf howl. Within three seconds a chorus of respondents from across the river answered back. Everybody stopped what they were doing to grab binoculars. "One, two, three . . . I count three pups," said Henry. "Two of them are sitting on the opposite riverbank staring at us."
GETTING THERE: Your best bet is to fly into Whitehorse and then rent a car and drive north to Mayo (roughly 4 to 5 hours away). Most canoe trips begin by floatplane at Mayo, and because of remoteness and complex logistics, the majority of trips down the Wind are guided.
LOGISTICS: The best time to paddle the Wind River is from late June until early September. After that, the days start getting colder and much shorter. None of this wilderness is protected, so there is no need to get any kind of park pass, and it is quite likely that you won't see anybody else during your trip. Conversely, there are no services to speak of after you leave Whitehorse. This is as remote as it gets.
LODGING: Two places to stay in Whitehorse are The Goldrush Inn [(867) 668-4500] and the High Country Inn [867) 667-4471].
HAZARDS: The Wind River generally has up to Class II whitewater, but because of its remote location, this should be treated with a great deal of respect. Hypothermia is a very real danger even during the summer months. Also remember that this is bear country, so be sure to keep your campsites clean.
OUTFITTERS/RESOURCES: For information about guided trips, contact Nahanni River Adventures at (800) 297-6927 or visit
nahanni.com. For a complete list of guides and outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory. If you plan on doing the trip yourself, contact Mac's Fireweed bookstore in Whitehorse at (867) 668-2434 for topographical maps. For more detailed information about the Peel watershed, you can also purchase a small book published by the Yukon Wildlands Project titled: The Wind, the Snake and the Bonnet Plume.
Sure enough, on the crest of the far riverbank was a bona fide wolf den, and we had front-row seats. Although the wolves soon tired of responding to our churlish howls, we discovered that there were actually four pups, and we all watched with utter amazement as they wrestled with one another while mom and dad occasionally tried to straighten them out. The male was a brilliant snow-color, and we watched as he pounced on what were presumably mice before gulping them down.
The next morning, bad weather finally arrived, and as a storm broke over camp, one member of our group stumbled across some discarded metal from mining equipment. This reminded us that however remote we might be, the Wind and its adjacent watersheds have all been explored for mineral potential. In the early 1990s, in fact, Westmin Resources and several other firms intensified exploration, and together staked huge areas of interconnected mineral claims. One of these claim blocks spans the Bonnet Plume River, covering a total area of more than 40 square miles.
What conservation groups are most worried about, however, lies at the very root of the problem and involves the Yukon's outdated mining laws. Under the current "free entry" system, it is perfectly legal for even non-Canadians to stake a claim pretty much anywhere on public land. And once a person or company has done that, they have powerful rights to pursue activities like bulldozing, blasting, and digging trenches. As the northern anchor of the much-heralded Yellowstone-to-Yukon conservation initiative, the roadless Werneckes are crucial for grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines, species that depend on vast undisturbed home ranges to survive. Will the Yukon make the same mistakes that we've made farther south?
As we passed the northern fringe of the Werneckes, mist descended on the mountains, and the rain continued to fall steadily. The typically mild-mannered Wind was soon in full flood, and we found ourselves surfing our canoes across white-capped wave trains in water that was murky brown and filled with logs, branches, and all manner of other debris. The next day at a quarter to midnight, Henry gave us the call to pack up and evacuate camp. Stepping outside, I was shocked to find the river already flowing under one corner of my tent. For an hour we desperately paddled under the surreal light of twilight, until we had reached higher ground.
Eventually the rain abated, just as we were leaving the mountains for the canyons of the Peel River and the stunted forests of its lowland plateau. The Peel was actually blocked twice by massive glaciers during the Pleistocene era, and its waters were diverted to the northwest, where they mingled with the Yukon watershed. This allowed fish and other aquatic species to mingle between the two river systems. The Peel watershed is also home to healthy populations of moose and thousands of mountain caribou, and is the wintering ground for some members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, that massive group of migratory animals that existed when woolly mammoths and giant beavers lived in the northern Yukon. The herd may have survived predation by American lions, scimitar cats, and short-faced bears, but today its very existence is threatened by proposed oil drilling in Alaska and mining in the Yukon Territory.
Two days later we flew out over an ocean of chiseled peaks, passing over the same landscape that for two weeks we had paddled across. The fact that there is so much pristine wilderness in the Yukon means that there is still time to preserve some of it. This is an encouraging outlook in a world where wild places are disappearing at an alarming rate. Perhaps what Albert Einstein said is true: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." I like to think he was taking inventory of things, Yukon style.
Matt Jackson is a freelance writer and photojournalist who lives in Calgary, Alberta.