We paddled through the Beaver River Watershed to see what could be lost to road development

Written by: Randi Newton, Conservation Manager

The wolves are close. Their barks and howls echo off the stony, spruce covered hills that flank the clear water of the Beaver River. Sitting in my canoe, I catch a glimpse of a cream coloured pup before it scampers into the forest. Others are lucky enough to spot adults howling from the hillside. Our crew of twenty sits captivated by the serenade and many of us break out into joyous laughter.

We let our canoes float aimlessly, even though the sky is fading to early evening and we have miles of paddling left to go if we want to keep up with our itinerary. The chorus of howls continues for minutes. Red Chinook salmon swim alongside our canoes and two bald eagles fly overhead. The richness of life along the river is astonishing. It’s jarring to know this place is threatened by major mining development.


We’re on day five of a ten-day canoe trip that, so far, has taken us a short drive from the community of Mayo to McQuesten Lake, through a maze of beaver-dam choked streams and wetlands, and on to the Beaver River. We see the wolves just below the confluence of the Beaver and the Rackla River, and a few days after that we’ll join the Stewart River, which will take us back to Mayo.

Our crew includes members from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, artists, photographers, and long time Yukoners. We’re here to connect with this wild place, document and celebrate it, so that we know and can share with others what stands to be lost to development.

For much of the trip, we travel alongside the route of a proposed 65 km mining exploration road that, if built, will lead to ATAC’s Rau gold project. Our group is too noisy to see more than a handful of moose but our guide Joel tells us he saw 34 on his last Beaver River trip, including one chased into the river by a wolf. This moose population already faces unsustainable levels of harvest and road access is likely to cause its numbers to fall even more.

We paddle 379 kilometres over the ten-day trip, passing by or travelling on many of the 73 water bodies that the proposed road would cross. We enjoy the freedom of dipping our bottles and drinking directly from the clear water, and we keep our eyes peeled for Chinook salmon and Dolly Varden char, yelling out to the group when we spot one. We dig our hands into the riverbed and marvel at the benthic invertebrates that wiggle between the small gravel. These small organisms signal a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

A lack of road access has allowed the Beaver River Watershed to remain remote and unspoiled. Canoe access is not easy. For the first few days of our trip, we travel up streams crisscrossed with beaver dams and deadfall. We do more pushing and pulling than paddling, and ping pong off narrow shores patterned with the tracks of moose, caribou, wolves and beavers. When the streams run dry, we portage across mucky ground that tries to steal our boots. Travel is exhausting and, for a few unlucky people who lose their footing dragging a canoe over a dam, very wet. A grizzly cub climbs up a nearby tree on one portage and keeps us alert. 

The landscape keeps us smiling through the long days. While we wait for others wrestle their canoes over jumbles of logs, we enjoy the watershed’s kingfishers, swans, eagles, and loons. We watch small pike swim in the shallow streams. Elders from Na-cho Nyak Dun tell stories about their time on the land, and youth point out the places where their relatives lived and travelled.

If built, the ATAC road could open up this intact watershed to a future spider’s web of roads and development. Given that ATAC’s Osiris project sits over a 100 kilometres past the end the proposed road, it’s easy to imagine future calls to extend its length. Over a dozen companies have mining claims in the watershed, signalling there could be even more proposed branch roads and landscape fragmentation.

We arrive back in Mayo after ten days to a warm welcome and a BBQ celebration. A slideshow of the trip runs during the meal, and elders come forward with memories of time spent in the watershed. I hope future generations will tell the same stories, and that the watershed will remain rich and full of life. Fortunately, Yukon Government and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun have agreed that a land use plan for the Beaver River Watershed must be in place before construction of the exploration road can be authorized. 

There’s no turning back once a road is built. With so much at stake, CPAWS Yukon is working to ensure the plan for the Beaver River Watershed is more than a check in the box. The plan must be built around the watershed’s values and the vision people have for it. We hope that you’ll stand alongside us and others who are working to secure a strong future for the Beaver River Watershed.

Stay tuned to CPAWS Yukon for more information. We’ll let you know when there are upcoming opportunities to lend your voice for the Beaver River Watershed. 

In the meantime, you can share your vision for the watershed and your concerns with members of the Beaver River Planning Committee. Simply send an email to krysti.horton@gov.yk.ca and lesley.cabott@stantec.com.