The North Peel River
A travelogue submitted to Kayak Yukon by Tim Gregg
On July 17, 2001 Bill Holburn, Ardie Olson, Sherry Olson, and I were paddling the last day of our Snake River run from Duo Lake to Fort McPherson. (See Snake River on this site). The weather was hot for this far north and we were six days into a freeze-dried, dehydrated and pretty much a meatless diet. But we paddled with a purpose. Just down river was the confluence of the Peel and the Snake and…. the Taco Bar! Visions of a fine Mexican restaurant complete with plenty of Taco shells bulging with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and a six-pack of Double XX beer danced in our heads. We rounded the bend and there was… the Taco Bar! It was wide, flat, rocky and totally without anything resembling food, Mexican or otherwise. Damn! So we beached the boats and ate another granola bar lunch. Sherry decided that lunchtime was a good time for her bath so we all had to face away from the river for 10 minutes. She had to have her privacy after all. While I would never watch…. I did take a picture for posterity. We then took off north down the Peel River for the final leg of our Arctic-paddling journey.
The joining of the Peel River, the Wind River, the Snake River, the Bonnet Plume River and countless other smaller streams make the Northern Peel a big water river. It is not whitewater, nor is it even fast but it is big. It began moving due north at a good clip so little power paddling is required at this point. The riverbanks are no longer mountains but rather 300ish foot tree covered dirt mounds with many rock bars at river’s edge near the base. In many places you can see the levels of permafrost where the bank has been caved away.
The Peel is fairly braided in this area but even the small braids have plenty of water to work with. This was probably still due to the heavy snowfall of 2000 and an early melt. While we could still see clouds over the mountains that we passed last week, we have had no rain in days.
When the wind picked up I begin to question the brilliance of the idea to paddle all the way to Ft. McPherson but…. It was Sherry’s idea and not mine.
July 18 – Our first full day on the Peel and we were up at 7:00 AM in stark contrast to our normal "get up" time of about 8:30ish. Ardie had a plan of reaching the Arctic Circle today and that meant a 40-mile day. Luckily we had no wind, and the water continued to move flat and swift. There were some slow spots but it was generally pretty swift. This section of our trip would be best paddled in a sea kayak with a long hull line and a rudder but…. We had a Mad River Explorer and a SOAR (kind of a raft thing) so the progress was slower.
The river corridor was the same all day. High dirt hills and due north orientation made keeping exact locations on the topo map difficult. So… if you are interested in your exact whereabouts you must keep a close eye on the map and compass (Or GPS). According to our map we made the Arctic Circle at about 6:00 PM and we set up camp on what Ardie said was the exact spot… "right here, under my tent". We found wolf tracks and scat, bear tracks, moose tracks and bird tracks on our Arctic island. Just downriver we had passed an eagle’s nest and were rewarded with both the eagles flying up and down the river for the rest of the day. So we sat in front of the fire on the Arctic Circle swatting mosquitoes, and the "bull dog" horse flies, and drank the last of our Yukon Jack liquor….. it don’t get no better than that!
The gray water has began to clog our water filters so Bill dug a sandbar hole which quickly filled up with clear water making filtering much easer. I think he got his waterhole plan from a book somewhere and he was proud of it.
July 19 - We are ahead of schedule. Actually we have four days to do two days of paddling so we decided to spend a day exploring the island, washing clothes, bathing and just generally communing with nature. This was a real do nothing day. Much of the afternoon was spent seeing how high Sherry could pile the soft ball sized flat rocks that made up our campsite. Ardie periodically knocked her work down and usually got called some fairly graphic names for his troubles. During this lazy day I killed nearly 200 horse flies with near misses on many more.
The weather is even hotter now…. 80ish degrees and in July the clear blue sky never yields to the night this far north. The heat made sleeping in the tents only possible after about 11:00 PM when the sun dipped below the hills for a short stay. The horse flies and mosquitoes made sleeping outside the tent impossible any time.
July 20 – We began paddling at about 9:30 and covered about 30 miles by late afternoon. The water got slower and slower by the hour. The hills along the river are also getting lower and lower. We can now tell that the river is dropping based on the many water lines that show above the water line today. At noon we passed the slow and muddy Trail River and saw a fishing cabin just down stream. This is the first sign of human habitation that we have seen since Duo Lakes. Several eagles and falcons flew over us and the high bluff along the shores.
Quality camping spots became less and less abundant as the day passed. This far down the Peel the rock bars turn into mud bars which make for nasty camping. We finally found a small rocky beach on river left. The after dinner activities included a rock batting championship using a beaver stick. Bill wouldn’t play, Sherry couldn’t hit a lick, and I had serious distance problems. Ardie won. We watched a black bear amble along the opposite shore. He didn’t seem to know that we were there and he certainly didn’t care..
July 21 - Up at the crack of 9:30 we were off. Today we paddled 12 hours and approximately 35 miles across a lake that seemed to have no current at all. About mid day a stiff southbound wind pretty much stopped our northbound progress. Luckily it only lasted about an hour but it kicked up some two-foot swells that make open water and open boat paddling very interesting. Today our topo maps indicate that about 50 yards inland from the river is a series of natural lakes. We pulled over to explore and perhaps fish. The lake was there and clear as a crystal but fallen trees and high water weeds blocked us from getting close enough to cast. Along the shore there was also the thickest swarm of mosquitoes that we have ever seen….ever….anywhere. We spent less than 3 minutes admiring the pristine scenery and headed off down the Peel.
This afternoon we passed a log pyramid like structure on river left. We got out to investigate it and found it to be the campsite where two of the members of the lost Mountie patrol died in the winter of 1911. Starved to death. It gave a sense of reality to the book, "The Lost Patrol" that we read before starting our trip. This patrol had mushed south along the Peel and turned south along the Wind River (See my Wind River review also on this website) before getting lost and turning back toward Ft McPherson. The entire patrol perished. Read the book before you take this trip. We are now within 30 miles of Ft McPherson.
There are few rock bars now and the last 3 hours of the day was spent looking for a suitable campsite. Finally we found a steep rocky beach just in front of an unoccupied fishing cabin just downsteam from Sucker Creek. The shore was covered with very fresh bear tracks and was so steep that if you tripped you could end up in the river but…. It was all there was so we took it happily. We were tired after a long day so we pitched the tents, ate, built a fire, and hit the sleeping bags. If the bears came back we all slept through it.
July 22 – This was our last paddling day. It was a 30-mile slog across flat water. We are seeing more and more fishing camps. Some of these camps are large multi building settlements while others are single small shacks. Around lunchtime we began seeing nets staked out along the bank and people in long motorized boats running up and down the river. We later found out that one of the Inuit men from Ft. McPherson had drowned a boating accident a day or so earlier and they were looking for his body.
At about 2:00 PM we first saw the ferryboat. The river trip was over at that point although it took us more than two hours to paddle to it.
From the ferry landing I hitched a ride to the campground where I met our shuttle driver. We spent a day in Ft. McPherson before taking a shuttle to Inuvik. We spent a day there before taking our flight back to Whitehorse. We spent a day in Whitehorse before taking our flight back to the world of telephones, cellular phones, pagers, automobiles, check out lines, meetings, and all the things that makes life good. Yea right!
I hope you have enjoyed reading about our Snake/Peel trip. I often receive emails from folks who are interested in paddling these rivers. Please feel free send your questions or just a chat email.
Tim Gregg - USA