The Wind River by Bob Fowler
The Wind is one of six major tributaries of the Peel in the northern Yukon. To its west are the Ogilvie, Blackstone and Hart, and east of the Wind are the Bonnet Plume and Snake. All are more-or-less navigable.
It is difficult to avoid comparisons between our Wind trip in 1989 and the Bonnet Plume expedition of 1984; not just because these were the only trips I made with the Arctic and Rideau Canal Canoe Club, but, more germane, because the rivers are close together (perhaps 70 km apart at the headwaters of the Wind, and about 15 km apart where they both dump into the Peel), and they run through very similar country. The crew was also much the same; the only change being that John Gow had replaced John Macfarlane in ’89.
We flew into McClusky Lake, near the headwaters of the Wind, and set up camp in what appeared to be a semi-abandoned detox facility. The weather was lovely. The fishing was good, and – as we had done five years earlier at Bonnet Plume Lake – we dawdled a couple of days before launching onto the river.
This trip, though, was less ambitious than had been the Bonnet Plume adventure. The river was shorter, and we had arranged to be picked up before the run through the daunting Peel Canyon, thereby avoid the long slog on ever-slower water, which had nearly broken us five years earlier. So we had time in hand.
When we did set out, the weather stayed fine throughout most of the trip. The water levels were neither high nor low, which meant that our passage through the upper reaches was safer – and more fun – than would have been the case had the water level been higher, and when we emerged onto the wider, flatter plain and the river became dramatically braided, it meant that there was less chance of following false channels as the main stream was relatively clear.
Such fine conditions were manifestly not present when, a couple of years later, great friends – on our recommendation – set out to do the Wind, and had had a terrifying and miserable trip. So, yes, that famous canoeist, Heraclitus, nailed it just right 2600 years ago when he insisted one could not step into the same river twice.
The northern Yukon is startlingly beautiful, literally breathtaking, particularly among those magnificent mountain ranges. As we left the mountains, and the horizon came down to levels less dramatic to us southerners, the scenery softened, became more ‘normal,’ less exciting. Before that happened, however, we saw a series of stunning vistas and found some extraordinary campsites. At one, where we were determined to open an exclusive hotel, which would cater exclusively to the high-end Japanese tourist trade (bye-bye Banff), Ted counted 53 distinct mountain peaks around the circumference of our horizon.
While the river was benign, its history was not. In December 1910 Inspector Fitzgerald led a mail patrol from Fort McPherson southwards toward Dawson City, a 750 km trip in deep mid-winter. Seeking to establish a speed record he and his Northwest Mounted Police colleagues reduced the load of food and equipment they would carry and set off up the Peel and the Wind in temperatures of minus fifty degrees Celsius. They missed the creek that should have taken them across the Richardson Mountains, and spent nine days looking for it before turning back towards Fort McPherson with sorely depleted supplies. Soon they were eating their dogs and becoming ever weaker. Their bodies were found by a search party led by Corporal William Dempster (for whom the highway is named) in March 1911, only a few kilometres from Fort McPherson.
As we crossed the Peel Plateau and approached the Peel, the Wind sharply sped up just as the braiding became more complex, while the delta across which we were moving ever faster was wide and flat, and visibly tilted downhill. Our canoes were well spaced out and it seemed each took its own route. Previously there had been a lot of teasing those who had blundered into dead-end channels and had had to drag their heavily laden canoes over gravel bars to get back to a practicable channel, but now it was fast and serious.
Picking a good channel was made easier by the speed of the river, but often that channel was narrow and seemed to drive straight through forests of willows, elders and larger trees. I recall ducking and weaving in the bow as I sought to avoid these branches, and being startled by a loud crack as my fishing rod, which had been caught by a branch, was snapped in two. Ted masterfully piloted us through this maze and we managed to remain upright as we shot into the Peel and received the full force of that much greater river on our beam. Our arms and faces were lacerated, but we were upright, our eyes intact, and we had come through the most difficult part of the trip relatively unscathed, as, indeed, had everyone else.
We bunched back together on the Peel, and, about 20 km later, just past the mouth of the Bonnet Plume, we pulled out on a large gravel bar, which I now understand is called “Taco Bar” and is the favoured place for float plane pick-up for those, like us, seeking to avoid entering the dismal Peel Canyon, which loomed just ahead.
Our last night on the river was cold and wet and a bit of a downer, but the next morning our plane appeared at the appointed hour and we were off to Whitehorse in two shifts. After we had strapped on the partially dismantled canoes and crammed our gear aboard, I had won the co-pilot’s seat as three colleagues were wedged into the rear, so I was able to closely observe the preflight check procedures. After flipping the appropriate switches and tapping the usual gauges, our pilot stuck his right forearm under his massive gut and lifted that great mound of flesh high while his left hand pulled the yoke tight against what was left of him. He then allowed his stomach to flop down on the other side of the control column. Otherwise we would never have risen above the river. As it was, that takeoff was slow and ponderous, causing him to grunt out the rather evident observation that “we” were extremely heavy. When finally we lumbered into the air, Ted tapped me on the shoulder and indicated that I should look at the plasticized card in the back pocket of the pilot’s seat highlighting the plane’s lifting capabilities. “Pilot’s Weight” was listed as 155 lbs. whereas the guy in the left-hand seat seemed to me to weigh in at well over twice that.
At this point he very firmly announced that we would have to lighten up if we were to clear the mountain range looming ever larger before, but not below us. He was aiming us at a notch in the mountains. “I’m serious,” he shouted. Someone opened the window and tossed out a toothbrush.
Throughout the trip, I, like others, had collected beautifully marked and coloured river rocks. Individually smallish, but I had a nice sized bag of them tucked securely under my seat. So I tossed out a water bottle. Someone else, a ruined pair of shoes. His voice noticeably higher, the pilot repeated that he was serious. The notch seemed to be in the same place but a lot bigger. There was a lot of heavy silence, and I swear we heard one of the floats brush the gravel as we squirted through that gap. The machismo thing, which was more-or-less fine on the river, didn’t travel well.