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Finding Wilderness

A Dozen People Take a Perilous Journey in Canada's Vast Yukon Territory, Searching for the Value of Wild Land

November 30, 2003|Frank Clifford | Frank Clifford is a Times editor who last wrote for the magazine about author Kem Nunn. Clifford is author of "The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide" (Broadway Books, 2002).

Liz Hansen said she would walk around the rapids.

"I don't have a good feeling about this place,'' she said, stepping out of the raft onto a stony beach. "When it comes to nature, I don't take chances.''

Liz's assessment was good enough for me. The slightly stooped Gwich'in grandmother had never run a river before unless you counted trips on the Mackenzie River in her late husband's motor launch. No matter. For the past 10 days, her ability to see signs of danger--of storms and grizzly bears--invisible to the rest of us, had been almost infallible.

We were on the Snake River in the northern Yukon Territory, about 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Liz had been a paddler in one of the expedition's two rafts. I had been in a canoe. As others prepared to take on the rapids, she began walking slowly over the short, steep portage. I followed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Yukon exploration -- A Nov. 30 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about a wilderness trip in the Yukon Territory's Peel River Basin misspelled the surname of 19th century Canadian explorer A.K. Isbister as Ibister. The article also incorrectly stated that Isbister made his way up the Yukon's Snake River in 1840. While Isbister journeyed down the Peel River that year, his first-person account of the Snake River expedition, published in the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, was in fact dictated to him by his superior, James Bell. The account was based on Bell's exploration of the Snake the previous year.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 04, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 2 inches; 97 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on a wilderness trip in the Yukon Territory's Peel River Basin ("Finding Wilderness," Nov. 30) misspelled the surname of 19th century Canadian explorer A.K. Isbister as Ibister. The article also incorrectly stated that Isbister made his way up the Yukon's Snake River in 1840. While Isbister journeyed down the Peel River that year, his first-person account of the Snake River expedition, published in the Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London, was in fact dictated to him by his superior, James Bell, and was based on Bell's exploration of the Snake the previous year.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Yukon exploration -- A correction in today's Los Angeles Times Magazine regarding the Nov. 30 magazine article on a wilderness trip in the Yukon Territory's Peel River Basin mistakenly refers to John Bell, a 19th century Canadian explorer, as James Bell.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 18, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
A correction that appeared Jan. 4 regarding the article "Finding Wilderness" (Nov. 30) mistakenly referred to John Bell, a 19th century Canadian explorer, as James Bell.

We stopped on a rocky promontory 50 feet above the river--now a frothy ribbon that corkscrewed its way through a narrow passage known only as "second-to-last" rapids. The raft Liz had just vacated would have to enter the canyon on the far right to slip by a boulder in midstream. Then, the six paddlers would have to maneuver sharply to the left to avoid being swept into a canyon wall. They didn't make it.

From above, it looked as if the raft were being drawn up the side of the canyon wall by pulleys. After it flipped, I looked for six heads in the water and saw only four. The nearest place to attempt a rescue was 100 yards downstream, below the mouth of the canyon, where the banks were level with the river and you could throw ropes to people in the water. It would be a race making it down the faint, twisting trail before the overturned rafters floated by.

There were 12 of us on the trip, including four who had no previous experience in whitewater. Three of them were on the raft that capsized. We were a mixture of Yukoners, Canadians from Toronto, Ottawa and Newfoundland and two Americans. There were three artists and a filmmaker; an administrator of an environmental foundation; a lumberjack turned special education teacher; an outfitter's wife; a community organizer from Old Crow, an aboriginal settlement near the Alaskan border; and Liz, a Yukoner now living in Inuvik, a native community in the Northwest Territories. We had two guides, Jill Pangman and Kate Moylan.

The trip was organized by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society as part of a campaign to win protection for the Snake River and its environs--one of the largest and most vibrant examples of Canada's shrinking wild places. Better known as the Peel River Basin, it is a land of ferruginous mountains and emerald tundra that is coveted for its mineral wealth as well as its natural beauty.

The countryside around the Snake, which flows into the Peel, is fast becoming one of the most passionately contested areas in northwest Canada. Roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, it was formed when glaciers receded from its winding river valleys 13 million years ago. Walled off by a phalanx of mountain ranges, the basin has remained undeveloped, unpolluted and uninhabited except for seasonal use by a handful of native hunters, fishermen and outfitters.

The participants for this trip had been chosen less for their outdoor skills than for their ability to sway public opinion in favor of preservation. Hence, the artists and the Indians. Liz Hansen's people, the Tetlin Gwich'in, are one of four native communities, or First Nations, with land claims in the Peel River Basin.

Only two of the 12 men and women on the trip had been down this river before--once.

That didn't seem to worry the people who organized this expedition. They seemed confident that the trip would pay off, no matter how challenging it was. From their own attachment to wild country, the organizers knew how it can hook people. Wilderness often forges its strongest bonds with those it most sorely discomfits. From the safety of our homes, we have a way of looking back on the toughest trips as blessed ordeals.

At Canadian customs in Vancouver, an agent asked me the purpose of my visit. When I told her I was going on a wilderness trip down a river she had never heard of, she seemed perplexed.

"For two weeks? What are you going to do? Are you going to fish?"

I told her I wanted to see the countryside. She shrugged, then stamped my passport and waved me on.

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