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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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In the early 1960s, California-based Standard Oil (now Chevron) cleared an airstrip several kilometres distant on a forested plateau to conduct oil and gas exploration. It didn't find any, but, 14km up this formerly unnamed creek, its geologists discovered, according to Chevron, "the second largest undeveloped iron ore deposit in the world at 20-30 billion tonnes of resource." Known as the Crest deposit, Chevron currently holds 525 leases on it in the Yukon totalling 27,827 hectares. While remoteness has kept the find in the ground, the long-abandoned staging site is rumoured to be contaminated; the Waldens want to see for themselves.

The gravel bar we pull out onto is peppered with hematite-jasper ore, blood-red and alien amidst the light-coloured cobble. It's strangely beautiful but a potential disaster for the Snake. Iron extraction is a messy business.

In contemptuously spitting rain we hike far up the creek before turning into the bush. It's difficult going through mosquito-swarmed spruce and then outright swamp toward an unmapped destination. Suddenly I come across old cut trees clad in thick moss. Immediately we find oil cans, aviation fuel barrels, an airplane pontoon, and other big-ticket garbage near the grown-over airstrip and dilapidated plywood shelters used as a fall hunting camp by outfitters. Chevron's trash encourages hunters to treat the area as their own modern-day dump. We discover suppurating car batteries and rusted-out fuel drums whose contents have percolated into the soil. Here grizzlies, attracted to oil, have created mud baths. Likewise for an old fuel tower leaking oily water into a large, well-trodden puddle. The tower is now a rub, wisps of grizzly hair attached to bolts and the jagged edges of rusted metal.

Despite being small and removed, not only is the site contaminated and continuing to be, it's also affecting local wildlife. If this is the cost of but one tiny, unfulfilled wilderness transgression, what would an entire mine complex and network of roadways beget?

After remaining mute for half a century, in 2011 Chevron publicly committed to a two-phase, government-monitored clean-up involving both removal of debris and soil remediation. The clean-up, however, might be a double-edged sword: although belated and welcome, it's also necessary if Chevron holds any hope of acting on its stakes before they lapse, and fits with the mining industry's newfound façade of good corporate citizenry.

"We have to restore and bring back the land to a level where it conforms to the initial landscape... I'm not saying that was happening 30 years ago, but these days that's the way we conduct our business," says Claire Derome, President of the Yukon Chamber of Mines. "A mine will not be allowed if significant environmental impact cannot be mitigated — that's the law. [But] mining is one way where people living in the community can earn a living, and without that there's very little else that's taking place here."