PHOTOS: Documenting the North’s Mighty and Threatened Peel Watershed

The Peel Watershed covers 68,000 square kilometres of pristine mountains, wetlands, rivers, tundra and forest. It is world renowned for its rugged natural beauty and ecological richness, and, more recently, as a wilderness under threat. 

Thousands of mining claims dot the territory, with companies seeking to extract copper, platinum, uranium, lead-zinc, and iron. The mines themselves would disrupt the landscape and watershed, and the roads required to support those mines have attracted their own criticism for the landscape fragmentation they would bring. 

The Peel Watershed supports other values as well: First Nations make use of the watershed’s bounty, while the area has become a sought-after destination for paddlers, hunters and ecotourists. The Final Recommended Plan put forth by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission in 2011 recommended 80 per cent of the watershed be protected from mineral staking; in 2014 the government shrunk that number to 29 per cent. What will be protected — and how much protection it will receive — is currently being decided by the Supreme Court.

Terri Cairns sits a top a mountain above the Wind River. The Wind River is one of the five main tributaries of the Peel Watershed.

Early morning on the still waters of the Wind River in Northern Yukon.

Long time Peel Watershed activists Ken Madsen and Glen Davis canoeing past the confluence of the Snake River and Milk Creek. The Peel watersheds sees thousands of ecotourists venturing into its pristine wilderness every year.

Tom Clynes enjoys the whitewater on the Snake River. The Snake is also one of the five main watersheds that combine to form the greater Peel Watershed.

An aerial view of the smoke filled Wernecke Mountains and the Peel watershed.

Mount MacDonald is the highest and most striking mountain within the watershed.

The abundant wetlands of the Peel River plateau are critical to the migration of millions of birds and waterfowl that use it as a home and as a stop over during their spring and fall journeys.

A two month old red fox kit, catches a quick catnap near its den by the Blackstone River. The Blackstone is another one of the key tributaries that combine to form the greater Peel Watershed.

A bull caribou skull and antlers on the banks of the Wind River. The caribou was likely taken down by wolves in the winter.

A bull moose shakes the water off, after diving for food in a small pond near the headwaters of the Peel.

Sunrise cuts through the morning fog and the boreal forest of the Peel Watershed.

Smoking whitefish on the banks of the Peel River.

Fort McPherson elder, Agnes Neyando, hanging whitefish taken from the Peel River. Agnes and her husband spent their summers living in a wall tent along the river, into their 90s.

Gwich’in youth Tony Alexie singing the feathers off a goose that he harvested on the Peel River. 

Richard Abraham from Fort McPherson hauling firewood by dog team. The Tetlit Gwich’in people have fought hard for the protection for the entire watershed.

The Porcupine Caribou herd migrating to their wintering grounds in the Yukon Territory. The Peel is an important traditional wintering grounds for the caribou.

A bull caribou moves through the boreal forest of the Peel Watershed.

Tetlit Gwich’in youth Tony Alexie and Clifton Salu hunting caribou within the Peel Watershed. The caribou provide cultural and physical sustenance of the Gwich’in people.

Tetlit Gwich’in elder Ernest Vittrekwa in his smoke shack along the Peel River. The Tetlit Gwich’in have fought for protection of the Peel Watershed for 3 decades.

A wolverine is caught on a camera trap as it returns to a caribou kill on the Blackstone River. The massive wilderness of the Peel Watershed provides healthy habitat for a variety of animals including wolves, wolverines, caribou, sheep, moose and bears.

Peter Mather is an award-winning photographer and fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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