Six mates. Six rivers. 63 days. The goals of this epic canoe trip: to raise awareness about issues facing the Canadian North by showcasing it to the world, and to have the experience of a lifetime.
Most people have no idea what lies in the far north of Canada. This project was conceived to give a close-up of the breathtakingly wild lands in northern Canada — wilderness that may not stay that way forever. Team leader, Gabriel Rivest, wanted to give an impartial view of the Peel watershed, a place the Yukon Government plans to open to road construction and eventually to mining, a hugely contested issue within the province.
While the team had planned to give a neutral view of this issue, after two months on the rivers, they learned something vital. You have to listen to what the people who actually live there have to say.
"We wanted to start neutral and see what people would say along the way. We talked to so many people who live there, and definitely don't want the Peel watershed to change," Rivest said.
It was both an emotionally and physically challenging journey. Listening to people from Fort McPherson or Old Crow tell stories about how their lives will be affected if industry comes to the Peel was often heartbreaking.
The group found that after this momentous journey, they wanted to raise awareness about the environmental issues facing the north "without ramming a conservation message down everyone's throat," said videographer, Scott Sinton.
The aim is to give Canadians, and hopefully the world, a stunning view of one of the last pristine areas on the planet. "We just want them to come on the adventure with us — we're just giving them a seat on a trip that most people will never get to do."
For this ambitious project, Rivest recruited a team of five now great friends. Videographer/director Scott Sinton and web designer/photographer Simon Lucas both hail from New Zealand. Alexandre Deschenes is a geological engineer from Quebec. Professional river guide Matt Holmes and Dawson City gold miner Michah Rauguth round out the team.
Team Leader, Photographer, Graduate of the Renewable Resources Management Diploma at Yukon College; currently studying Environment and Conservation Sciences of the North
From: Amos/Whitehorse, Québec/Yukon, Canada
Rivest wanted to go on a long expedition and open the eyes of Southern Canadians who live off Canada's resources without understanding their origins or the environmental costs associated. Rivest felt that even if their documentary only convinced one person that that area needs protection, it will have been worth it.
Director, Web designer, Photographer, BSc Zoology and Post Grad Wildlife Management
From: Whangaparaoa, Auckland, New Zealand
An adventurer who never misses the opportunity to get lost in the wilderness, Lucas was keen to see this pristine part of Canada and hopefully achieve something toward saving it. Great at finding the silver lining, he also loves living outdoors: cooking, hunting and gathering too.
From: North Shore, Auckland, New Zealand
Keen to join in on this trip of a lifetime, Sinton's skills behind the camera would enable the team to document their epic journey. Though he would never claim to be an outdoorsman, he's certainly a fast learner.
Alexandre Deschênes-Dénommé (DD)
Outdoor Enthusiast and Experienced Paddler; currently studying Geology Engineering
From: Amos, Québec, Canada
An outdoor adventurer, who loves to push himself to the limit, DD's kayaking experience was key in helping the team to read the rivers and avoid catastrophes. According to DD, every problem has a solution.
Local River Guide and Outdoor Enthusiast
From: Thamesville, Ontario, Canada
A fun loving, family and outdoorsy family man oriented individual with a strong passion for vast wilderness and adventure, Holmes took this opportunity to test his personal skills while creating amazing memories. Goal oriented, yet a joker, he loves being part of a strong team.
Long time Yukoner, Gold Miner in the Dawson City area
From: Venezuela/Winfield, B.C./Dawson City, YT, Canada
Rauguth felt that this trip was a great challenge for a great cause. Since his first trips in the Yukon, he wanted others to share the experience and discover what's there and worth protecting.
Travelling through some of the remotest wilderness in Canada, the team paddled the Hart, Peel, Rat, Porcupine, Yukon and Bell rivers, camping in fifty sites across three time zones, with food drops in Fort McPherson and Old Crow. They saw bears, moose, caribou, otters, and a wide array of bird life. They witnessed breathtaking mountains and eye-opening vistas across sparsely inhabited lands. And after 63 days, they found themselves in Alaska, at the end of their journey, where they finally loaded up their gear and were homeward bound.
Over the course of the two-month trip, they faced major challenges including rapids on the Peel River and a brutal portage through Aberdeen Canyon, where they had to haul their 5.5 metre canoes and piles of gear over multiple trips.
"It was just the worst 5km imaginable," Sinton said, "It was raining so our bug spray washed right off, and we were dealing with the mosquitoes and going through this swamp that you can't even describe – it was mentally and physically really tough on everyone."
But they made it, and were all on the same page about how tough the experience was. For the rest of the trip, every challenge was compared to that portage – and none was so terrible.
Among the other extreme challenges was a 150km uphill on the Rat River, 27km of which took place over one night in the hardest rain they had ever seen.
"If you stop paddling you go backwards, so we paddled for nine hours straight, stopping for 30 seconds a couple of times, and by the time we found camp it was about 3am," Sinton said.
Colder than they had ever been, and utterly exhausted, the group tied up their boats and pitched camp. When Lucas woke four hours later, the river had risen 2m, and taken five of their paddles with it.
"We were always so careful with our paddles but I don't think anyone was thinking properly. We had just been so cold and exhausted, we just gave them a toss."
A few of the paddles had stuck in the mud, but they were all they had left.
"We were in disbelief, we didn't know what we were going to do, and at that point we thought the trip might be over," Sinton continued.
Fortunately, they were able to contact the local police station via satellite phone. The Canadian police made two separate trips to deliver their vital replacement paddles, as the debris from the flooding was so bad on the first trip.
Saved from an untimely end, the team found themselves up against further hardships. Sinton injured his hip, and unable to walk for five days, limped along the riverbed as the rest of the team pushed the boats in the water. They even occasionally had to stretcher him across the canoes in order to navigate trickier parts of the river.
"It was like having lead shoes on, I couldn't move against the flow," Sinton said. "It was an awesome team effort; the boys really got me through that."
Unfortunately, that wasn't the last of their bad luck. Three of the group contracted giardia about ten days before the end of the trip. There were small towns upstream of where the group was paddling, with waste going into the rivers. While the group knew about this, and that they needed to be careful, they just weren't careful enough.
There were, of course, challenges they didn't face. They had expected to meet a grizzly on the side of the river, but that moment never came. "I think we have the dogs to thank for that," Sinton said.
But with the lows of the challenges come the highs of great accomplishments. The best moments often followed the worst – an example of which was Summit Lake, at the divide between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. 360 degrees of mountain views, perfectly reflected in a glassy lake. To get there, the teams had hiked 13 days upstream on the flooded Rat River. Although they had considered packing it in, they had persevered, and the view at the top was that much sweeter for the effort.
"Watching an epic sunrise with your best mate, knowing that we'd just hiked 120 kilometres upstream and that we only had downriver paddling in front of us was a truly amazing feeling," Stinson said. "It's moments like that that really made us feel like we were accomplishing something special."
Knowing that they wanted to make a high quality documentary, the team didn't just paddle into the wilderness with a few point-and-shoot cameras. They essentially hauled a studio out into the wilderness: eight cameras, tripods, wireless microphones, batteries, and solar panels to recharge the whole kit.
When the trip was over, the team took more than a year to edit and produce the film. The final goal, according to Rivest, is to present the finished product at outdoor film festivals and get it into schools.
abitibi & co. is proud to collaborate with Gabriel Rivest and his team to bring this documentary to life. The film is now nearing completion, and we can't wait to share it with everyone. Not only will this be one of the most impressive canoe films ever, but this work of art will also showcase the natural beauty of the north, educating the world about this place that needs to be noticed.
We just got some amazing news! As we were going to press, the Supreme Court of Yukon announced their decision concerning the Peel Watershed lawsuit.
In January 2014, plaintiffs including First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon) and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) launched legal proceedings against the Yukon Government, alleging that they broke with a land use planning process that would protect more than 54,000 square kilometres of wilderness in northern Yukon's Peel River Watershed from mining and other industrial development.
In the judgment on December 4, 2014, Mr. Justice Ron Veale of the Supreme Court of Yukon agreed with the plaintiffs that the Yukon Government violated the land use planning process. The Yukon Government has now been banned from challenging the amount of land that is currently protected (80% of the Peel Watershed). They are also not allowed to request access for industry or mining in the area.
A victory for future generations of Canadians!