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A river removed

A canoe descent of the Yukon's wild Snake River offers insight into the battle for a watershed and a meditation on the meaning of pristine landscapes.

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Weather perpetually threatens in the north, so it was no surprise that our pilot again attempted the drop-off at Duo Lakes on the greyest of days. In the tiny community of Mayo, some three hours southeast of Dawson City, we'd loaded gear into the high-powered Otter, lashed canoes onto pontoon struts, taxied onto the turbid and historic Stewart River, and put the hammer down. A viridescent quilt of forest and moss fell quickly away, riven by the blue of serpentine rivers, their bends bracketed by sandbars and parenthetic oxbows. On higher ground, geometric patterns testified to the processes that preceded the forests: dendrites of former drainages fell like dark veins between muscled ridges; trees grew in fractal scallops on the halting deposits of glacial retreat; circular lakes told a story of ice chunks once buried in the tundra. As calm plateaus gave way to sharp ridges we'd encountered the same lowering wall of cloud that had turned us back the day before, only this time we'd squeezed through a mountain pass just as the curtain dropped, and were now descending in a slow spiral onto Duo Lakes.

In no time, our group — myself, Whitehorse-based photographer Fritz Mueller and guides Blaine and Mary Walden of Walden's Guiding and Outfitting — plus our ton of gear and pair of canoes stand upon the shore, the plane reduced to a faint whine that tails off like the last note of a song, leaving us to the silence of a huge and dramatic landscape. Before we have time to contemplate it, however, the plane's engine is replaced by the buzz of a mosquito.

Like the Wind and Bonnet Plume Rivers, the Snake begins its northward flow in the Wernecke Mountains, part of the Mackenzie Mountains Ecoregion. Remote and rugged, the river carves through sub-range after sub-range, bisecting massive rock slides and braiding out into long gravel flats. Any doubts about who these waters belong to are put to rest while portaging to the river. Twice we trudge loads an hour over alpine scrub, ford a creek, beat through a maze of willows, struggle across a hummocky wetland, burrow through another strangle of willows and down onto the flood channels of the Snake. Mountains soar on both sides as we hump over the abundant tracks and dung of moose, caribou, wolf and grizzly — whose diggings for Bear Root, a favourite food, are everywhere.

Returning for another load, sweaty, and engulfed in mosquitoes, Mary spots something rustling the willows ahead and calls out. Expecting one of the ungulates that has signalled its ubiquity by sheer volume of poo, we watch instead as an adolescent grizzly crashes across the wetland and up the hillside, flattening willows in its wake. It stops to look back several times, and, on its final turn along a mountain bench, feels safe enough to stand fully erect on its hind legs and aim its ears toward us. It's a fortuitous and thrilling sight so early in the trip.