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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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We have our heads down lining the canoes down a canyon full of rapids the next day, but once the river breaks free of sheer walls and hairpin corners the wildlife parade continues. As we will on most days, we wake to rain at our sandbar camp. Standing on shore with a plate of pancakes during a break in the downpour, I hear a loud splash downstream and turn to see a large caribou swimming towards us from the other side. It's oblivious until the last second, when, sensing our presence, it turns into the current and disappears around the corner, it's head bobbing in an icy train of waves. The animal represents a cornerstone in arguments to protect the Peel, whose massive 67,000 km2 boreal eco-machine could comprise the largest protected area in the burgeoning Yellowstone-to-Yukon conservation initiative to re-link wildlife corridors disrupted by continental colonization.

"The Bonnet Plume Woodland Caribou is the only herd in North America that doesn't have a single road through its territory," notes Blaine, a wiry, wizened 20-year veteran of trips on the Peel's watercourses — with a baseball cap that looks to have accompanied him throughout — as he dishes out the last of the flapjacks.

Well, no human roads; we're inadvertently camped in the middle of a worn game trail, pounded down by generations of hooves. So far out here, humans are merely an annoyance.

That afternoon the river braids out for the first time and we bob below cliffs dotted with dirty-white puffballs — Dall Sheep munching the succulents they lust for — and crisscrossed by Peregrine Falcons. There's other birdlife aplenty: Golden and Bald Eagles keep an eye on us as they lurch between logjams, Mew Gulls and Yellow-legs guard their nests.

We make camp at aptly named Milk Creek, which funnels finely ground glacial flour from 2,758-metre Mt. MacDonald, highest peak in the Bonnet Plume Range. The alabaster flow, pouring through three channels into the teal-coloured Snake, yields an uncanny parfait. During a layover day here we light out on a four-hour hike to a nearby peak, following an animal trail through dense, spongy spruce up a ridge that plateaus into sparser trees and mossy hummocks. Underfoot is a riot of lichens and bryophytes — Reindeer Moss (caribou food), Dead Man's Fingers (eerily similar to the real thing), and even Fairy Parasol (grows only on moose dung). As we ascend, Alpine Lupins cradling large water droplets offer a ready source for a quick drink.