For those that didn’t get away this year or are already planning next year, — special to CanoeBC with permission of the author.

BONNET  PLUME  RIVER,  YUKON TERRITORY, CANADA

by Tom McCloud

The Plume River in northern Yukon Territory, Canada, is a Canadian Heritage River. It flows northerly for ~160 miles to confluence with the Peel river, and to the only road access is another 150 miles. Always hunting for that perfect wilderness whitewater river, Nate Houser, Ron Honaker, Gregg Doggett, Tom McCloud, Mike Elsea, Bob Kimmel, Curt Gellerman and Mike Iwachiw, with 8 solo canoes, drove the 3,800 miles from Virginia to Mayo, Yukon, and from there chartered a floatplane which carried us into the headwaters lake.

Bob has put up a few photos from this trip on a web site.   Take a look at http://www.geocities.com/mr_kimmel_2000/yukon.htm

Bonnet Plume Lake at ~3,600 feet, was a lovely place, with bare-topped mountains all around and light blue water so clear you could see rocks 10 feet deep.   We spent that first day, 28 July, organizing, hiking, resting, admiring the surroundings. When the sun ducked behind a cloud it was cold with light rain spitting, but when it shone the jackets quickly came off.  Fishing was good with 11 nice grayling being taken. Around 3 pm as Ron was cleaning his catch, rain mixed with sleet came pelting down. We were not alone: two guys from Munich, Germany,  were camped just up-lake, then late in the afternoon 4 French from Marseilles got dropped off.  We invited them to share our cooking fire that evening.  The Germans brought 4 grayling and the French brought one, which resulted in two hours of fish frying over a poor willow fire, but mighty fine eating, and plenty for all.  When the rain started falling harder it was a crowded, but warmer, wilderness with 14 people huddled underneath Bob's rainfly.

The river exited the lake with ~250cfs flow, but soon jumped to ~800cfs, and perhaps because of recent heavy rain, the water was very turbid. Current was fast, 6 or 7 mph, cutting into gravelly alluvium, with evidence of recent higher flows.  Soon we were in a the little ‘canyon', but I find it hard to call it by that name.  It's kind of a trough with very little bedrock, just a few larger boulders, and some narrowing of the river, so the rapids stayed in the non-technical 2/3 range.  Though the river was much higher than normal for this time of year, it was no where close to flood stage.  We floated past yet another group of paddlers staying in camp on this gray day.   Twenty something miles into the trip we came on a class 4 rapid where there is a constriction through bedrock. The portage was just 30 yds.  At lunchstop a couple guys demonstrated how ‘bush' they had gone by eating leftover fish, cold, using tree bark as their plate. Additional class 2+ rapids that deserved attention occurred in the next few miles, and half of a red ABS canoe, partly buried in the gravel, was seen.  As the valley opened up there was a lot of braiding, though there was no problem in finding a channel with enough water to get through.

On the second day the river was bigger and uniformly gray, the shade of liquid concrete. Before long we were in another small canyon.  The first significant rapid had a huge tongue in the center but a sneak route over a ledge on the right.  Ron and Mike were bank scouting when Ron saw a canoe coming and said ‘look, someone is running already......Hey! That's my boat!.....oh shit!', and goes tearing down the bank. His boat, loaded with all his gear and food for the two week trip, ran the rapid perfectly and eddied out.  Ron jumped into the river, swam to it, and just in time grabbed the stern as it was pulling into the current again.  This was pushy class 3 water, but not difficult. Then this short canyon ended, the river bottom broadened, and there was again a lot of braiding for many miles.     As the miles went by quickly with the fast current we viewed mountaintops heavily shrouded in clouds.  A noble bull caribou ran along the right bank, then swam across. Camp was pitched at about mile 48.

Finally! After 3 rainy days we got a perfect morning.  While enjoying Chef Nate's blueberry pancakes and Bob's country ham, a black bear was spied high on the opposite mountainside. There were many flowers along the way: lots of purple fireweed, a yellow daisy, green orchis and yellow arctic poppies.  After a fast morning on class 1-2 sections we came upon another canyon.  At the entrance you could see maybe ½ mile, get a good look at 3 distinct rapids, and note the 100 foot canyon walls, not vertical but steep. This section starts with a river-wide ledge easily sneakable on the left, then after 200 ft a ledge that extended out from the left bank created big waves and must be passed to the right, and then an even bigger rapid just below that, where river left is the place to make a portage. Several guys ran down to the third rapid, carried gear around, lifted the boat over, and ran the rest of the canyon light, while others portaged the entire canyon. I suspect that at a normal water level most of this rapid would be quite easy, except for that third rapid.  Past the canyon, there was some more class 2/3 whitewater, with big waves and holes to be avoided, but this was easily done.

It rained all night, with gusty wind and temperature about 50.  In the morning, it was really not looking good for hiking, or photography or even laying over, and the upstream wind would make it real tough to be paddling. While standing around, talking over our options, a pair of wolves suddenly appeared directly across the river on the high bank.  In the lead was a buff colored animal who stopped and stared directly at us.  Behind and more secretive was an almost black animal. Both were big adults.  After they had studied us for 30 seconds they moved back into the woods and out of sight.  Several of us went for a hike, initially through spruce up to 30 feet tall and 4 inches diameter, then as altitude was gained, on steep scree slopes where the footing was bad and the vegetation small and sparse. We reached a ridge and followed it higher, enjoying the scenery.  This mountain is U-shaped, and we looked into the open part of the U, a bare bowl slowly filling with loose rock falling from high above.   Visible far below was the Bonnet Plume and the tiny, colorful domes of our tents. Our descent back toward camp was along a remarkable little creek that flowed through a sharp-sided cleft in solid rock in a series of falls and potholes–a kind of ‘seven teacups of the north'.

The morning of 2 Aug. was clear with frost on the packs.  There are massive gravel flats on the valley bottom of the Bonnet Plume, and following the channel swiftly back and forth across these flats became the name of the game for several days. The gradient stayed at ~20 fpm and very uniform. There must be 3 or 4,000 cfs volume, but only occasional large waves. About 20 miles downriver we spotted 4 sheep, first at river level, then they climbed a hill and could be seen moving along the crest for some time.  After a 26 mile day we reached Fairchild Creek and set up camp on the bar across its multiple mouths. It had become quite warm in the late afternoon, perhaps 80, and after my camp chores were completed I took a bath, the first since Whitehorse, 8 days ago.

Morning was very windy, making it feel real cold. Being well ahead of schedule, we decided that taking a day for fishing was in order, but since we'd not had a hit from the muddy river, if we were to catch anything we would have to hike to a clear-water lake. Several of the guys picked up a trail which lead to Fairchild lake, but I decided to tow my canoe up the creek and try to reach Fairchild lake by this route. The upstream tracking went fast. The creek was usually 25 feet across, and streamside brush was rarely a problem.  The gradient was uniform, perhaps 50 fpm, and with 250cs the current was constantly fast. But after 1 ½ hours a canyon blocked progress.  Ron and I grabbed our rods and hiked over the hill, soon finding a spectacular little fall of 30 feet–definitely not canoeable. Gazing upstream, this valley looked a lot like a beaver meadow. There were heavily used moose/caribou trails parallel to the creek, but walking in them was a heavy slog.   Eventually we reached Fairchild lake and found the others casting.  It's a very pretty place, a crystal clear blue lake, long and narrow, cradled below tree-covered steep hills. While we didn't catch a trout on every cast, there were soon enough for supper. I hiked back to my boat and paddled downstream.  In minutes I had overtaken Ron, who had a 15 minute head start, and a bit later I met up with the other guys who had hiked the overland route.  I finished with an ear-to-ear smile!  This had to be the first ever descent of Fairchild Creek, perhaps 4 miles, and a joy it was!  While we were gone from camp the wind had died, the temperature warmed–a lot, and this had brought out a swarm of gnats.  These small flies looked a little like blackflies but did not bite—yet there were so many they were in everything, on our skin, in the eyes, in the food.  They took away the pleasure of an otherwise pleasant evening. At 10pm there was enough light in the tent for me to write trip notes. Up here it really never got completely dark all night long.

On 4 Aug. we awoke to a thick fog hanging 500 feet above, but temperature was mild.  The river continued to have a  uniform gradient: it's a small-rock river, with a lot of braiding but never a problem finding a channel with enough water to float a boat. Within a half hour of launching, a small grizzly, came down the right bank, swam an erratic path across the river, looking like he was struggling, and pulled himself out on river left.  He shook himself off and did an odd little dance, jumping around for no obvious reason.  Later I saw several mergansers, a small falcon, some loons in flight and a couple crows.  After lunch we came upon a group of 4 caribou cows with 4 calves out on an exposed gravel bar.  Seeing us, they ran around, confused as they so often are,  up-river then back down, and into the river to swim to the ‘mainland'.  And an hour later, walking a gravel bar was a small black bear. He seemed  unafraid of us, just curious, and came in my direction.  After shooting several pix, I grabbed a paddle and pushed off when he got 40 feet away.  The mountains along this stretch of river have continued to be impressive,  more vertical and more to a peak than the mountains upriver had been.  The river was now mostly 100-150 yards wide in a continuously broadening valley, now a mile across.  In places the river has cut its channel into the alluvial banks to a 50 foot depth.  We pulled into a nondescript spot and set up camp for the night: a gravel flat 6 feet higher than river level, which had not been scoured for years, so had low growth and brush. Our progress this day was about 26 miles, and would have been more except for a persistent headwind.

5 Aug  Again a high, heavily overcast sky.  Our cooking fire had been built in a dry gully. Upriver, across the gully, was mature forest, and downriver were our tents. Everyone had finished eating breakfast, and all but Ron and I were at the tents, packing.  I was down in the gully and had just put the fire grid into its carrying sack, when from upriver through the woods came two light brown grizzly bears at a slow gallop. Being without pepper spray or banger at that moment, I kept the fire grid in my hands and stepped up onto higher ground.  But at the gully the grizzlies stopped, looked at us or maybe got a whiff, then turned tail and ran back into the woods in the same direction they had come from.  We were floating by 8:30, a new early mark for us, and paddled near nonstop until 12:30 at which time we had covered 24 miles.  After lunch the wind started to build, as it had yesterday, reaching a peak around 2:30, then dying.  We were not seeing much wildlife: a few gulls, mergansers, other ducks, and a couple ravens. The river was very full and swift when in the main channel, but there was also a lot of braiding.  At one spot on river right was a 70 foot high alluvial hill being undercut, and as we passed, big lumps of soil and rock were cascading down into the river.  We pulled into a river left gravel bar around 4pm, having traveled about 44 miles, and it had been easy with the swift current. Looking back upriver in the direction of the mountains that we'd left this morning, they looked sooooo far away, but this gave a perspective on what can be done in just a day in a canoe. Throughout much of the day we had listened to the sound of sizzling bacon, the sound made by gravel hitting the bottom of the canoes, and proof that this river was moving a tremendous quantity of sand and gravel.

6 Aug.  The overcast was high, yet there was just barely enough light to cast a faint shadow.  About 11 we'd reached the mouth of Noisy Creek, but after testing the fishing and being unsuccessful,  we decided to move on to the Peel. In the last half mile the Bonnet Plume braided into so many channels we really didn't find a major flow, but there was plenty of water in these smaller channels.  The confluence with the Peel was anti-climactic: no dramatic melding of the two big rivers in a huge whirlpool, great waves or turbulence.  Just a quiet melding of the many small channels of the BP into the much bigger, muddy Peel.  But the real surprise was the cliffs, which constrain the river on both sides just downriver.  The current was fast, and with the great volume, very powerful.  In only a quarter mile the river bent left, out of view, between these cliffs, and the dark purplish rock emanated a sinister ‘feel'.  But inside the canyon there was no narrowing, no huge boulders in the riverbed or bedrock ledges...only some fast current and waves, but no real rapids.   Really, it was the geology that made this place interesting: the rock had frequently-alternating layers of black and white—really zebra striped, and there were places where these layers were dramatically contorted and even set up 90 degrees on end!  The Peel moved right along, but was not uniformly as fast as the BP.  We passed a place where there had been a massive landslide of several hundred yards from the right cliff down to water level–and there were still trees growing on top of the slide.  About 3pm a heavy rain began, and at 4pm we pulled in at a gravel bar for a leg stretch,  but the rain and wind combined to convince us to camp the night there. We had made about 40 miles downriver progress.  This gravel bar was different from those on the BP, the kind formed by water flows of 30 or 50,000 cfs., and the rocks were big, many basketball plus size. How big was the Peel?  Couldn't really tell the depth, but 10 or 15,000 cfs would not likely be too much out of line. Camp was set back in the scrub poplars, which formed a dense screen some 100 feet away from the river and gave some protection from the weather.  The mosquitoes started to notice us, and soon a whole lot of slapping was going on.  After a spaghetti supper we sat around among the canoes out on the gravel bar, with light drizzle falling, to get away from most of them.  Estimates of the height of the cliff on the opposite bank became a point of contention with guesses upwards of 300 feet.  There had been some small rock falls from that cliff while we were watching, but after we'd crawled into the tents, a sharp shot was heard followed by the sound of a lot of falling rock.

7 Aug  The threatened rain storm had not developed, but neither had any drying taken place overnight. There was again a high overcast—this was starting to remind me of a ‘dog-days-of-August' heat wave back home, but in Yukon the heat wave means a high of 70.  The current stayed at ~5mph and the cliffs at the same height and appearance for mile after mile. In places there were pebbles falling into the water and in other places the wind was blowing clouds of brown dust off the soil/alluvial cliffs.  If you were to study the topo maps of the BP and Peel you would see a lot of braiding, and on the maps they look identical, but here on the ground they are very different: the BP had many smallish channels, but with the Peel there was almost always a single major channel which snaked completely across the valley floor, bumping into the opposite cliff sides.  Sometime after lunchstop I saw a bald eagle, several gulls, and a black hawk with a white patch underneath its wings.  Later in the day there was a lone cow moose standing quietly by the river.  Around 4:30 we paddled across the Arctic Circle.  If anything, it seemed to get warmer the further north we traveled, but the sun had become brighter and there was a glare on the water.  We had wanted to make 60 miles for the day, and we did that.  At the end of the day everyone was so tired we ate freeze-dried suppers.  Nobody was awake at 9 pm.

8 Aug.   I figured that if we were to make another 60 miles this day we were going to need a lot of calories, so I made a buttermilk pancake breakfast.  The scenery along the Peel became rather monotonous.  The river was big and flat, sometimes flowing but a lot like lake paddling, and we really just wanted to finish off the remaining miles. We stroked steadily until lunchstop, and soon after, with maybe 50 miles remaining, the river seemed to loose all of its gradient. A sow black bear with two cubs was seen.  Then we encountered the RCMP patrol boat making its weekly river reconnoiter. The Mountie asked if we were interested in a lift to Fort Macpherson. We said maybe and continued downriver, but by the time he returned on his downriver leg we had decided that this section of flat river was not worth two more days of our sweat.  Canoes, people and the gear were loaded onto the boat from mid-river.  The ride was a great opportunity to talk with the Mountie. Originally from Ottawa, he said he had really enjoyed his posting to Fort Macpherson, a community populated mostly by the G'witchen people. Along the way he pointed out two historical sites along the river where members of "The Lost Patrol" were found dead early in the last century, and the new $2 million native peoples ‘healing center', which looked like a modern church campground with log cabins.  Five more bald eagles were seen, more than we had seen in the previous two weeks.  It was a two hour trip to the ferry crossing of the river. The town of Fort Macpherson, NWT, at only a few feet above sea level, marked our furthest north, 670 26'.   After a burger and fries at Minnie's ($12 CDN, but I've got to admit they were pretty good), the only ‘restaurant' in town, and a fill of the gas tank, we started that 4,000+ mile homeward trip, the first leg of which was the Dempster highway, an all gravel, two lane, 400 miles, to reach the Alaska highway.

So it had been a good trip.  Some fine fishing in spots, a variety of wildlife, weather milder than expected and water higher than normal for August.  About 320 miles in 13 days, with no mishaps. It was an easy trip, in that you can make a lot of miles without working very hard when the current is a constant 6 mph.  The scenery was clean and wild, but the silty gray water was, for me, a big negative.  The Bonnet Plume would be a worthwhile and suitable wilderness destination for any paddler with intermediate level paddling skills, and good common sense. Where will the next stop be in the search for the perfect river? Only time will tell.