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Eight of us embarked on this journey in late June, club members Dagmar B., Dot B., Helen and Steffen R., Laurence B., Scott C., former club member Terry K., and soon to be club member Bruce H, A motley crew of new and old friends. Our plan was to paddle the 280km of the Snake River in 12 days; a few days would be dedicated to hiking in the mountains. Ideally we would paddle for 4 days in the mountains, hike for 4 days and the last 4 days would be paddling in the low lands into the Peel watershed.

After months of planning, we finally met up in Whitehorse at the outfitters where we sorted out last minute details. The next day we were on our way 400km north to Mayo. In Mayo we weighted in at the “airport” which was just a dock with a few planes tied to it then loaded our gear and our selves (all together only a few hundred pounds short of a ton!) into a Beaver and an Otter.  We flew over multiple mountain ranges and rivers including the Bonnet Plume River.  The area is of keen interest to mining companies; there was some evidence of exploration such as airstrips and test mines, definite scars on an otherwise pristine wilderness. After almost 2 hours of flying time Duo Lakes appeared in the distance, looking more like a puddle rather than a landing site. Skillfully the pilot wound his way down into the Lake. Much to our surprise despite the many mountain ranges and great distance we had covered we noticed a couple of fishermen on the lake who mysteriously disappeared into thin air.  We set up camp, complete with Canadian flag, as it was after all Canada Day.

The next day we woke up to snow covered mountains, the weather was ever changing. We spent the day hiking the mountains around Duo Lakes. The view of the Snake River valley was breathtaking. We could see the river; it didn’t seem too far away. There were multiple braids of the river, from our view from the mountainside; we guessed it to be a short portage to the river. Although we had talked to other club members who had also been down the Snake River, we hadn’t collected accurate information about the portage. It was in fact long and difficult, especially with full food barrels. Bruce, Scott, Steffen and Laurence had tried to find the route to the river the day before but hadn’t found it. The day of our portage, we leap-frogged our gear as far as we could while Scott and Bruce tried again to find the path. One thing was clear, the view from the mountainside made everything look small, including the passage to the River.

Finally July 4rd and we are ready to run the Snake. Our boats were loaded, spray skirts on, we set off. The water was shallow but really swift and full of boulders and gravel bars. We had to keep attentive and constantly correcting to move our heavy boats around rocks. We moved swiftly along when suddenly a whistle blast. One of our boats was missing. We pulled our boats to shore and bushwhacked up the riverbank. We were quite horrified to find one of our boats, wrapped around a rock. The water was so swift and powerful there was no way to move the boat without some kind of intervention. Thankfully Steffen remembered all is training from the Swiftwater Rescue Technician course from the summer before and had brought his “pin kit” with him to the site of the wrapped boat. We pooled a few extra carabineers and pieces of webbing.  With some extraordinary teamwork, Steffen set up a Z-drag and within minutes the boat was back on shore. Dagmar carefully returned the boat to its original form with some fancy footwork, Laurence fashioned a new yoke from some willow branches and Voila! The boat was ready to complete the rest of the journey. The incident was an incredible experience; no one panicked, the teamwork was easy and effective. We camped a few meters down the river, unfortunately not making the time we had expected but not wanting to risk any further incidents due to fatigue.  Trouble on Day 1

The next day was another warm and bright sunny day we made steady progress through the Upper Canyon of the Snake. Dot and Dagmar as always taking the lead; scouting and leading us through this twisty and boulder strewn section of the river.

July 6th we paddled thought the Bonnet Plume Mountains. The mountain scenery around us was always spectacular, and we struggled to keep eyes and attentions on both the beautiful vistas we were floating through, as well as on the whitewater that carried us.

Back on the River

Occasionally cries would go up calling our attention to Dall sheep grazing on the high cliffs above us, or an eagle on the wing. Lunchtime would often find us trying to identify flowers and butterflies we would see. The variety of flowering plants and insect life around us was considerable.

The next day we set out on a hike over the ridge towards Mt. McDonald. Our maps indicated that there was an ice field nestled in one of the large ravines of the mountain so that became the quest of the hikers.  While not achieved, the hikers did get to where they could see the ice field and enjoyed some refreshing ice cold melt water flowing down from it.

On July 8th we paddled to Milk Creek, so named because the sillty water flowing from the creek into the Snake River made the otherwise clear waters milky looking.  The next day we got to the Lower Canyon, we surveyed the canyon and had seen several videos of people running this canyon on You Tube, however we were not sure that our group was prepared to run it. It was very fast moving, some undercuts and very large rocks could make for a very risky run given the consequences. We decided to portage, it was long and exhausting. The rest of the day the paddling was good; we thought we could see the end of the mountain range in the distance. We knew from other trip reports that there was a huge hole coming up. It was highly recommended to line around this hole. Perhaps we were too tired to notice it coming up but suddenly Dot and Dagmar’s boat disappeared and reappeared some time later. Dot and Dagmar were signaling for us to get out but we didn’t have time to eddy out since we were following in quick succession. So each of boat took its turn disappearing into the hole, thankfully all of us re-appeared intact. The hole tuned out to be a fun end to the day and marked the end of the mountainous part of our trip.

Peeling out below the Canyon

We still had 150km of paddling to get to Taco Bar, our final destination, and only 3 days to get there. We knew we had two very long paddling days ahead of us.

On July 10th we woke up to overcast skies. The river was changing, becoming wider and there were more trees. There was more braiding of the river and piles of tree debris (sweepers). It had been raining for some time and the river had changed from beautiful turquoise to a muddy brown colour and heavy with silt.

The wind was blowing quite had and the rain had intensified. By late afternoon we noticed the water level had risen quite significantly. We pulled over onto a big gravel bar and tried to set up shelter. With the wind whipping, it was really a struggle. We set up camp on the other side of the gravel bar, which was a little more sheltered. Because of the intense rain, to set up the tents, four people would hold up the tent fly while to two would spread out the tent and get it fixed in place, all four tents were successfully set up and relatively dry inside.

Tying up the boats and the food barrels so they don't float away in the flood.

We placed markers in different places on the gravel bar to try and gauge how quickly the water was rising. We went to bed but had to set the alarm for every couple of hours to check on the water levels. By 2 am a check on the river levels convinced us that the Snake River was in a full flood. All our markers were well under water and our big gravel bar was quickly disappearing. We broke camp and began paddling at 3am. We paddled past large uprooted trees complete with massive root balls were careening down the river. The murky water was now completely silted up and almost thick. Instead of the usual 5 – 10 kms /hr rate of flow we were now seeing 17-20 kms / hr. Gravel bars were being overflowed and river banks eroded significantly. Huge tangles of uprooted trees were forming blockades on many of the braids of the river; mud and rockslides were common piling yet more debris into the river from the loose shale.

The rain had finally stopped and we tried to find a place to camp for the evening. All possible camping places were at too low an elevation of us to camp. At 1pm we spotted another canoe party, three men and one woman (the fishermen we had seen when we first landed). We all at lunch together on a gravel bar. They were from Dawson, they worked as river guides and were all very experienced at running these rivers. They commented that they had never seen the river so flooded before. By the time our lunch was over, the gravel bar had disappeared. We decided we had no choice but to paddle the full distance to Taco Bar, our final destination.

A couple of hours on as the waterway opened out and widened yet further, we determined we were nearing the confluence of the Snake and Peel rivers.  The Peel joined from the left and soon spotted the massive tall cliff at a large bend in the river which signaled our approach to Taco Bar. We were fairly certain that the flood conditions on the Peel would be much diminished given that the Peel is such a huge river as compared to the Snake. Unfortunately we were wrong.

We set up camp on the gravel bar, with the other canoe party just a few meters away. We looked forward to a good night sleep. Concerned about the flood conditions, we decided to use our rented satellite phone to call our Outfitter and the floatplane company and advise them of conditions. The floatplane company said they were aware of the flood and ought to be able to come pick us up around 3:00 in the afternoon the following day. With that bit of good news we made camp, cobbled together a meal and soon were ready for our beds. We’d been nearly 17 hours on the river that day and were exhausted. 

Before going to sleep we set our alarms and once again found that in the early hours of the morning (1am) that the big gravel bar we were camped on was disappearing underneath the water. We packed up our camp and loaded our canoes. In the time it took for us to pack up our tents, the water rose enough that our canoes and food barrels were underwater. We finally tied our canoes to trees and slept in our canoes.

At 8am, exhausted and with the water conditions continuing to deteriorate we called the floatplane company back and cautioned them about the high water levels and the amount of debris in the river. We also started to discuss contingency plans including the possibility of paddling another 200km to Fort McPherson, but our pilots said they’d come and try to get us, and advised they’d be arriving around 1:00 p.m.

It was a long restless wait that morning for the sound of propellers that signaled arrival of the float planes. The planes circled around looking for a place to land. Their usual landing spot was completely washed out. They landed and taxied into a huge swampy area a kilometer or so from where we were located. We loaded up our canoes once more, and paddled carefully across the torrent that was the Peel river to the waiting float planes, rejoicing that we’d soon be off the water and out of the flood!

 

Snake River Valley