Back in the late summer of 2016, three of my closest friends and I canoed the Yukon’s Snake and Peel Rivers, coursing our way from the vast alpine meadows and soaring summits of the Mackenzie Mountains, down onto the storied Peel Plateau past the Arctic circle. A three-week journey of over 500 kms, through one of the most remote and undisturbed watersheds in North America – an area over twice the size of Vancouver Island, without a single year-round human inhabitant.
It is home instead to Caribou, Grizzly, Moose and Porcupine; Wolverine, Wolf, Lynx and Fox. A land that is as it has been, for hundreds of millennia, unsullied by our hand. A month’s hike or more from the nearest gravel road, it is a place where the long low arc of the Arctic summer sun sets slow and brilliant. Where the aurora light up the night sky in emerald and crimson as the caribou migrate by the thousands in their thunderous chorus of vitality. It is as wondrous a wilderness there is.
And it is under threat. To feed our ever growing appetites for fossil fuels and ore, burdened as we are by old habits we can’t kick. What’s more, the same Yukon government that commissioned the very study that strongly concluded the Peel Watershed much too culturally and ecologically significant to allow for such extractive industries is now vying for just that. It has turned into a much-publicized clash, between the short-sighted interests of industry and government, with those of the Tetlit Gwich’in and Na-Cho Nyuk Dun First Nations, the original stewards of this pristine land. Now after many years of legal battles and countless appeals, the case finally went to the Supreme Court of Canada just this past March, and a verdict is expected by the end of 2017. (Update 12/2017: A proud day for Canada, and the integrity of its native peoples: the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Yukon First Nations in their fight to protect the Peel Watershed!)
Much more than a river or a part of the Boreal forest is at stake: with such places comes the possibility of bettering ourselves as individuals and a society. Just to know that such a place still exists, where the waters run free and untouched for a thousand miles and more, where the wolves have played in the fading twilight under a million passing moons, where we are but transient guests and the more-than-human world rests in all its superlative grandeur – this is enough to know that the wild world is worth more than we can fathom. And with its potential loss, we risk tearing away that much more from our hearts. We risk our ability to look ourselves in the face and not wince. We risk our very sanity – spiritual and physical. For what can be said of a culture that knowingly poisons the well it draws its water from? That sells each and every one of us the myth of the Independent Self? And towards this end, pursues profit at the cost of everything else?
When moving with the river for three weeks, by the rhythms of the sun and stars, one has nothing but time to ruminate on the big and small things. The comic tragedy inherent in so much. Our incredibly inspired yet inept species. And the fate of so much resting in the palms of our fumbling hands. Never have we been so out of balance with the world, and never have we been more capable of remedying that. The tension resides in each of us, and it is palpable: we know deep down that something isn't right. One need not look far to see our collective detachment, disillusionment and disrespect. A crisis of attitude and identity pervades our psyches; a sense of homelessness haunts the sanctum of our inner selves.
If one thing remained clear to us throughout the journey, it was this: that true wilderness is essential to human health. It is our oldest most eloquent teacher. It is where we learned of ourselves, where we gathered our stories and strength, our language and dreams. Where we learned fortitude, patience, resilience; confronted fear, isolation, indifference. Our very bodies are written with the dust of these long ago landscapes, and to them we shall return. To know this is to understand that without wilderness, we are all truly and totally lost.