This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.Text and photos by Peter Mather, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers. Terri Cairns, enjoys her perch above the Wind River as the midnight sun sets in the far North of Canada’s Arctic.
From the front seat of our Cessna 172, the wilderness below seems limitless. The turquoise waters of the Wind River weave and grind their way through regiments of jagged multicolored mountains before disappearing over the horizon. After months of planning, our small team, including film maker Andy Maser, is about to begin a three week wilderness canoe trip in one of North America’s most remote and beautiful locations. With the help of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), our International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) coordinated trip will take us through 350 miles of pristine wilderness, after which we’ll spend a week in the Gwich’in community of Fort McPherson on the banks of the Peel River.
The Wind River is one of six wild tributaries which, together with the Snake, Bonnet Plume, Hart, Ogilivie, and Blackstone rivers, create the greater Peel Watershed. These rivers constitute one of Canada’s most beautiful and intact natural areas. Delivering the waters of Canada’s vast northwestern arctic, these stunning mountain rivers are the lifeblood of an ecosystem with unsurpassed ecological integrity. The unspoiled splendour of the greater Peel Watershed—encompassing an area the size of Scotland—is home to a plenitude of free-ranging wildlife including bears, wolves, wolverines, and herds of caribou, and its extensive wetlands provide a perfect breeding and birthing area for birds from across North America and beyond.
For 30 years, Yukon First Nations and their conservation allies have worked for watershed protection, and in 2004 the Government of Yukon embarked on a Land Use Planning process with the four local First Nations. After 7 years of consultation, a resulting Land Use Plan, representing an agreeable compromise of all interested parties, recommended 80% protection of the watershed.
In early 2011, under pressure from the mining industry, the Government scraped that Land Use Plan and within 6 months created an industry friendly plan that does little to protect the watershed. The struggle to protect the Peel Watershed has now reached the Yukon Supreme Court, pitting the pro-mining Yukon government against aboriginal and conservation groups. The legal battle could well continue for several years.
The First Nations who have called this land their home for thousands of years—the Tetlit Gwich’in, the Nacho Nyak Dun, the Trondek Hwich’in, and the Vuntut Gwichi’in—want 100% protection of the entire watershed. At the end of our canoe journey, respected elder Abe Wilson in Fort McPherson poignantly explains why they seek this goal. In his fish-smoking shack on the banks of the Peel River, he shares his concerns about development in the Peel while hanging freshly caught Conies and Whitefish. “If they ever pollute our river,” he says, “that’s the end of us. Everything will be destroyed.”
Our voyage through this watershed has revealed that protecting the Peel is about more than protecting wilderness and wildlife—it’s about the indigenous people of the Peel determining their future, while safeguarding our own.
“Our Elders brought us up on this river,” Abe Wilson continued. “They taught us, you take care of this water, you take care of that land. It’s gonna take care of you.”
To learn more about the entire Peel River Watershed and what you can do, please visit www.protectpeel.ca or plan a trip on one of these great mountain rivers, and help protect them for the next generation.
Stay tuned for the upcoming release of Andy Maser’s film about the Wilderness Headwaters of the Peel Watershed.