The Snake River
(Trip Details begin further down at ‘Why the Snake River?’)
The Cessna carved a wide arch, ascending slowly above the east end of the lake. Leveling its wings on a westward bearing, the whirring props soon out of sight and the humming engine soon cleared of mind. Leaving only silence. A powerful silence found only in isolation that is absolute. A silence that itself holds no emptiness at all.
The four of us sat apart. For each, their own moment. The perfect reflection of the mountains shimmering on the lakes. The rolling alpine hills that climbed into distant snow capped ridges. The rushing river valleys. A gentle wind washing over all.
The interruptive crack of a bear banger snapped these wandering thoughts. It allowed for a flood of excitement to rush in, carrying with it the anticipation of the weeks ahead.
What lay ahead was 35 kilometers – as the crow flies – of alpine hiking, and a canoe journey of more than 500 kilometers down the Snake River into the Arctic.
For the first two days we hiked from Misfortune Lakes in the Northwest Territories to Duo Lakes in the Yukon. We scrambled up shale mountain faces, contoured around steeply graded ridges, pushed through dense drainages, and crossed the humble beginnings of what would become some of the Yukon’s largest rivers – the Snake, the Arctic Red, the Bonnet Plume, the Peel, and the Mackenzie. All the while we were escorted along our northwesterly bearing by curious Caribou.
At Duo Lakes we were reunited with the gear we had previously dropped off via float plane. Three weeks worth of whitewater canoe equipment and supplies awaited our arrival. After an arduous, swampy portage, we reached the sandy banks of the Snake River. The combination of the portage and the hike had our bodies calling for a rest. A rest that our inspired minds would not allow for. As soon as we arrived at the river we re-packed the gear, tied down the spray skirts, and pushed off into the current. From this point we would paddle north to the Peel River, the Arctic, and our final destination of Fort McPherson.
For weeks we bounced our way over the marbled river bottom of the Snake River. Fighting over cobblestone rock gardens, lining the canoes across shallow rock bars, and shooting through class three canyon rapids, we pushed our way through the Wernecke Mountains of the Mackenzie Range. The river guided us past creeks of crystal clear blue water. The aptly titled Milk Creek stained the river with clouds of white glacial runoff. We passed splitting rock formations that gave way to cascading waterfalls and wide, fluvial landscapes that meandered through spruce, willow, and alder. We consider ourselves fortunate to have encountered grizzly, caribou, moose, dall sheep and porcupine.
Midway through the paddle we ventured up and away from the river for a two day excursion into the Valhalla-esque world of the Mount MacDonald foothills. Not only did this give us a chance to leave the boats and valley bottom behind, but unbeknownst to us, it shepherded us into a grey, formidable, spiritual world. We stood next to glaciers, beneath snow capped peaks and amongst soaring rock wall amphitheaters, finding ourselves consumed by what felt like an ancient crypt that held the humbling, foreboding presence of the natural world.
Back on the water, and with two weeks of paddling behind us, the river flooded into the arctic plateau, leaving the mountains behind. The paddling that had previously required intense focus, detailed maneuvering, and whitewater navigation, soon gave way to long days of drifting. The small trickle of a river that we had stepped over on our hike was now an incredible force that carved its way north. At the confluence of the Snake and Peel Rivers the waters widened, the depth of the river dropped, and the current carried us downriver at 10 km/h without the need for a paddle stroke. We lashed the boats together, playing card games and singing songs as we floated well into the nights that never saw darkness. The journey along the plateau guided us past earnestly territorial beavers, Gwich’in settlements, and hoards of unrelenting mosquitos.
After more than 500 kilometers, and with less than ten remaining, we turned a corner of the river only to be slammed head on by an Arctic headwind that pushed our boats backwards, pelted us with rain, and forced us off the water. One final night. A less than ideal campsite. Of rain and of wind and of muck. All consuming. A fitting last reminder that the North is no easy place. But yet, an assurance that it is a world well worth the hardship, with the reward of experiencing its splendor.
Why the Snake River?
The Snake River is one of 6 major tributaries of the Peel Watershed, an expanse that covers almost 14% of the Yukon Territory and flows into the Beaufort Sea via the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers. The headwaters of the Snake start high in the Werneke Mountains, roughly 250 km from the nearest settlement of Keno, YT. The river then takes a meandering path down to the Peel River Plateau at speeds of up to 13km/hour, going from high alpine, to deciduous woodlands dominated by larch and birch.
The Peel Watershed is one of the last truly pristine places left in North America and, due to its rich mineral content, is also the subject of intense debate between the Yukon Government and Yukon First Nations (along with many environmentalists). The Yukon Government is fighting to allow mineral exploration in parts of the Peel Watershed, while the Yukon First Nations are fighting to protect the region from further exploration.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Yukon Government had not respected the land use plan outlined in the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA), which was signed by First Nations and the Yukon Territorial Government in 1990. For now this means that the Peel is ‘protected’ – but the final decision is still to come, and final consultations are scheduled for this fall (2018). If you wish to weigh in on this important topic or want to know more, you can check out http://www.protectpeel.ca/.
For us, paddling the Snake was always about experiencing one of the most beautiful, remote, places in Canada. From our years of working elsewhere in the Yukon we had heard countless tales of adventure in the Peel Watershed, and we knew that we had to experience it for ourselves. With a couple of us finding some flexibility in our schedules we knew we had to take advantage and finally explore.
As far as difficulty goes, the Snake River is rated mostly class 2 with some spicy class 3 canyons and rapids. We had a small amount of whitewater experience going into the trip and we felt that this level was the perfect challenge for us. Saying that, the margin for error on the Snake is small. The water is cold, and at any point on the river you’re at least a few hours away from help by helicopter so definitely make sure that you’re comfortable maneuvering through rapids and recovering from flipped & damaged canoes.
Getting to the Snake River is a bit of a challenge.. The start point is about as remote as anywhere you’ll find in Canada and requires serious time and resources. The first step is to get yourself to Whitehorse, YT. Whitehorse is a great staging area where you can do a final gear check and pick up any last minute supplies.
From Whitehorse, drive north towards Dawson City, but instead of going all the way there, take a right turn at Stewart Crossing towards a settlement called Mayo. From Mayo, you’ll have to catch a ride by float plane into the start point of Duo Lakes, situated about 1.5 km from the Snake River. We flew with Alkan Air and they were great for us. Not only were they super helpful in providing information prior to the trip, but they also cut us a great deal.
The flight itself is amazing and if weather permits you’ll get first class views of the Mackenzie Range on your way to the start point. Rather than getting dropped of at Duo Lakes and starting our paddle there, we decided to add a tough 2 day hike to the start of our trip by leaving the majority of our gear at Duo Lakes and then flying on to Misfortune Lakes in the Northwest Territories. From there we hiked back roughly 40km to Duo Lakes, where the rest of our gear was waiting (including our best snacks).
From Duo Lakes, it’s a (roughly) 1.5 km portage over the alpine vegetation to the nearest section of the Snake River. There’s an obvious trail that goes from the north end of the lake and meanders around a swamp to the river. Depending on experience/group size/motivation this portage could take up to a full day to complete. It took us 3 round trips and a little over a half day to get all of our gear to the river. The whole process was definitely a slog and our bodies were a little worse for wear after the 2 days of hiking followed by the portage. We also skipped the portage trail on one trip in favour of dragging our canoes through the swamp, opting for efficiency over dryness.
Duo Lakes → Mount Macdonald
The first section of river definitely requires sharp focus.. Fast moving water combined with sharp turns, submerged boulders, and decent sized waves keep your heart rate high all the way to Reptile Creek, the first great camping location. This section of river is mostly rated class 2. After finishing our portage we were a little too enthusiastic upon finally getting on the river… This led to a flip less than 3 km into the paddle. Needless to say it was a good wake up call. Our canoe was fine and gear mostly still intact.
After the first few kilometers of “warm up” we arrived at the first real challenge: the class 2+ Upper Snake River Canyon. A landslide on river left will signify that you’re nearing the start of the canyon. Here you’ll encounter narrow sections of fast moving waters that change direction quickly. This combined with inconveniently placed boulders makes for a thrilling stretch of river. Look out for an especially sharp right turn in the middle of the canyon. You’ll have very little time to complete the turn before getting pushed into the rock wall on the opposite side of the canyon. We did not handle this section flawlessly.
Upon reaching Reptile Creek, we were pleasantly surprised. It’s a beautiful camping location with ample room for tents. The creek enters on river right as you’re paddling and it’s easy to find since it’s the first big creek to join with the Snake. If you get a chance, hike up Reptile Creek about 1 km to find a picturesque canyon that you can jump in and float through (if you can handle the cold water…)
The section of river from Reptile Creek to Mount Macdonald is relatively chill with a few braids that require some attention. Keep a lookout for Dall sheep perched on cliffs on the side of the river. We were lucky enough to paddle right by a large group of sheep perched less than 10 meters above the river.
Definitely go hiking here. It’s a magical place. The approach starts from the aptly named Milk Creek that enters the Snake on river left.
Hike up on the left side of Milk Creek for about 3-4 km, until you come to the confluence of Milk Creek and an unnamed creek. This starts off as a mellow uphill hike through black spruce, and quickly turns into a lot of sidehilling. Once you’ve reached the confluence, hike up and to the left and you should start to see a glacier coming into view. In total, the hike up to the glacier shouldn’t take more than a couple hours and we found this whole area to have an amazing feel that’s hard to explain. We spent one night camped here and if the weather was a little bit better we would have loved to spend more time exploring the alpine around Mt Mcdonald.
The S Bend
This is where it starts to get spicy again, with a couple of class 2 sections followed by the main event: the class 3 Snake River Canyon.
The S bend itself is beautiful, as the valley narrows here and the water speeds up slightly. When we paddled through we could actually smell wildflowers that covered the meadows on the sides of the river. The class 2’s here feel like child’s play compared to the narrow class 2 rock gardens we’d experienced up river. Or maybe we’d just improved a fair amount by then. Either way, they do serve as a warm up for what’s to come.
Once through the S bend you have a few kilometers of respite before the class 3 canyon. When approaching the canyon make sure you give yourself time to get over to the gravel bar on the left before getting pulled into the rapids. You definitely want to scout this section of river before paddling it. There’s a portage trail that leads from the left side of the rapids and goes up over some rock/cliffs that serve as a great scouting location. You can also easily skip these rapids via a short portage if you wish.
If you choose to run the rapids, the main challenge is making a sharp left turn immediately following a small drop. Our group went 1 for 2 with one flip, one near flip, and tons of adrenaline. It’s a truly thrilling experience.
S Bend To The Peel River
Except for one small section of Class 2+/3 which is no easy task in itself, this portion of the trip was relatively straightforward from a paddling perspective. That said, up until the edge of the mountains the river still moves quickly, and there are many braided areas that do require some focus. Try to keep your boats together here if you’re traveling as a pack.
It was really interesting to see the landscape start to change as we neared the edge of the mountains and descended into the Peel River Plateau. Mountain vistas gave way to high river banks lined with spruce, willow, and alder. Just before you get out of the mountains make sure you lookout for a small creek on your left that leads to a really cool waterfall. You’ll probably know it when you see it.
To finish the trip, you can choose from two end points: The confluence of the Snake & the Peel, or Fort Mchpherson. If you choose to stop at the confluence of the Snake and the Peel, there’s a gravel bar called the Taco bar that serves as the usual pickup location. The Taco Bar is float plane access only so if you plan on stopping here you’ll have to book a flight out for a specific date. Alkan Air offers pickups from Taco Bar that will run you a fair amount of money, though you won’t find a better deal.
If you choose to continue on to Fort McPherson, plan on adding an extra 2-4 days to your trip. Up North Adventures offers pickups from there (back to Whitehorse) for a very steep price. We were able to find a local in Fort McPherson to drive us down for slightly less than what Up North charges, but this is a slightly more stressful option! Alternatively, you could keep on paddling right past the ferry crossing and head towards Inuvik and the Beaufort Sea, but we can’t help you there unfortunately.
Our trip began on July 3rd and were able to reach Fort McPherson by July 20th (including 2 full days of hiking at the beginning). We felt that this was a great pace for us and for the most part we were in our canoes for 3 to 4 hours each day. That said, you could easily spend another week on the Snake River exploring the surrounding mountains, and in particular, the Mount MacDonald area.
Camping along the Snake River is fairly straightforward. We found great camping every night on gravel bars, especially near the confluences of streams entering the Snake. It can be somewhat difficult to find soft spots for your tents but with a little exploration we were always able to find some thin moss or grass to camp on. Pay attention to how close you’re camping to the water. The river can rise dramatically after heavy rain and it would suck to get wet in the middle of the night!
Typical camping along the Snake RiverIf you’re planning on paddling all the way to Fort McPherson, be aware that camping along the Peel River is much less enjoyable. Aside from the Taco Bar, tent spots are limited to sloped mud banks on the side of the river. For this reason we chose to go for big days on this section of our trip, and ended up pushing 50km/day.
The Snake is not a place to plan your next fishing destination but there are some good opportunities to be had. The mountain river is clear, free stone, and fast flowing. The upper reaches contain arctic grayling and dolly varden; while the lower, silty, slower moving sections closer to the Peel confluence contain northern pike, burbot, and the mysterious inconnu. From Reptile Creek to the edge of the mountains is where you’ll likely have the most luck. Keep an eye out for infrequent deep pools in the heavily braided sections of river that are common after Reptile. We had the most success catching grayling with black micro-leech streamers attached to the end of a sink tip. Dedicate some time to hike up Reptile Creek to the canyon. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s what we felt were our “must haves” from the trip
- Bug Shelter – we bought the “Woods Instant Shelter” from Canadian Tire and it worked like a charm. It was big enough that we could all hang out with our gear inside the tent, plus it doubled as a rain shelter by draping a big tarp over it.
- Camp Chairs – we all had the “Helinox Chair One Camp Chair”. These are the perfect balance of strength & comfort vs. packability.
- Platypus Gravityworks 4.0L Filter System – This is a gravity fed water filter that can clean up to 4L of water at a time. If you’re planning on paddling the Peel River out to Fort McPherson this is especially important because the water is so full of silt. This filter was able to completely remove all the silt – though it may be wise to bring a spare filter.
- 60L Barrel Harness – Though we didn’t actually bring these, it was a huge mistake.. We had to carry our 70lb food barrels by hand. Having these will save your back. The only downside is that you’ll have to carry these with you for the rest of the trip, but we think it’s worth it.
I’ll outline here how much the trip costed for the 4 of us. If you choose to do this trip unguided, it still turns out to be fairly expensive. The flights from Mayo to Duo Lakes are unavoidable and will run you roughly $3700 for a group of 4 with 2 canoes.
Canoe rental (2 canoes) for 3 weeks will run you another $2700
Cost for pickup at the end will vary depending on how you do it, but if you need a ride back to Whitehorse from Fort McPherson with all your gear, it will run you well over $2000.
We had some connections in Dawson City that helped lighten our finances a bit, but the nature of getting to and from the journey is costly. But with all that in mind, this trip and region provided us with an experience that truly made us understand the spell of the Yukon.
Float plane company – https://alkanair.com/
Canoe rental – https://upnorthadventures.com/
Great guide book – http://www.yukonbooks.com/shop/customer/product.php?productid=14850