In the early decades of the 1900’s, the Group of Seven traveled throughout Canada painting iconic images of the landscape, eventually becoming closely embedded with Canadian history and identity.
As you read this story, six Canadian artists set off on a similar journey into the Arctic Circle. To get there, Anthony Wallace, Aurora Darwin, Daniel Kirk, Carleigh Baker, Callan Field and Katie Green will paddle for three weeks through the fast-moving waters of the Peel River watershed, camping, portaging and traversing the landscapes of one of the last intact mountain boreal ecosystems in the world.
The artists’ canoes will not only be filled with camping materials, but a collection of carefully assembled art supplies. Among them is a musician, a glass sculptor, a visual artist, a writer, a photographer and an illustrator, making for an eclectic packing list. On their journey, the artists will turn the inspirations around them into pieces that capture the essence of the watershed, an area spanning 68,000 square kilometres from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories.
Guided by Calder Cheverie, their experiences will be filmed for a new documentary coming out this Fall, “The Peel”. Six months after the movie premiere, the artists’ creations will exhibit in galleries throughout Whitehorse, Vancouver and Toronto.
Cheverie, an outdoor guide and co-founder of the Vancouver Outdoor School, was inspired to guide the Peel River Project after his many travels to distant corners of Canada. “Northern Yukon was the first place I travelled to in Canada that didn’t look like anywhere else I’d been”, said Cheverie.
At eighteen, Cheverie hitchhiked from Ontario to northern Saskatchewan, then across the West coast from Alberta to Northern British Columbia. His love for paddling has taken him on numerous expeditions, including a paddling trip through the Athabasca River near the Alberta oil sands, and a seventeen-day solo kayaking trip through the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast of British Columbia.
In 2012, Cheverie took a year off to paddle the places he always wanted to see. His first stop was the small town of Dawson, Yukon, where he spent four months saving up to paddle through the province’s remote rivers. The locals urged Cheverie to visit the Peel and he was captivated. In a later interview, he told a reporter his journey was “the most vivid account of wilderness that I’ve encountered.”
Peel's Natural Beauty
Indeed, the landscape of the Peel watershed is unlike anywhere else in Canada. In the autumn, the Ogilvie Mountain tundra is swept by auburn and orange tones. The headwaters of the watershed resting below split up the land up into a patchwork of hills, with colorful sand formations lining the banks of the rivers. The watershed hosts the largest cluster of wild mountain waterways in Canada. Its creeks are so numbered, some resembling small rivers, that most have only been named by First Nations, who have lived in the region for thousands of years. The Peel River watershed is also a refuge for some of Canada’s last remaining populations of free-ranging wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolverines and some of the last intact woodland caribou herds anywhere in the country.
The group’s three hundred kilometre journey is especially relevant considering a recent government decision that threatens to change the Peel forever. In early 2014, the Yukon government opened up as much as 70% of the watershed for economic development.
The step was a contradiction on the government’s own terms. Seven years earlier, it assembled the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, a group tasked with research and consultation over land-use in the region. After conscientious deliberation by government appointed experts, recommendations were made to protect 80% of the Peel. Instead, the 2014 plan leaves almost a third open to most types of development, with almost half open to limited mining.
In the past, the Peel experienced only relatively low levels of mineral, oil and gas exploration. Now, potential claims to resource extraction threaten to sever the longstanding balance between its communities, landscape and wildlife. The watershed’s boundaries cross four traditional First Nations territories - the Tr'ondek Hwech'in, Tetlit Gwich'in, Na-Cho Nyak Dun, and Vuntut Gwich'in - and local people continue to live off the land.
Fish drying shacks can often be seen standing along the banks of the Peel River. Photo Credit: Peter Mather
First Nations leaders have taken their fight to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they reassert their constitutional rights with respect to ownership and use of their traditional land. “The area is our traditional value of our food, of our fruit, of our traditional medicines, which is very important to us”, urges Jimmy Johnny, a Na-cho Nyak Dun Elder in a campaign to halt development in the Peel.
All four nations have settled land claims in territories throughout the watershed. Yukoners, often divided on development issues have shown an overwhelming consensus in favor of protection. The fear amongst many is that permitting even one company into the area will leave cascading scars, as each mega-project exposes the region to more roads and infrastructure for others to build on.
“Development was repeatedly on the horizon as a scene that I was seeing more and more of,” Cheverie says of his many paddling travels. And while Cheverie doesn’t intend for the documentary to be a piece of activism, it is often difficult to separate art from political issues.
Art & Politics
“One of the first things I think about in terms of photography and outdoor expeditions is that photography has played a big role in colonization, in terms of representing people and places, showing them in a negative light, or against their will, and not taking into consideration how they will feel about those images,” expressed Callan FIeld, one of the six artists, when I asked him about his ideas for the project. “I would very much like to use photography as a tool to get people involved, asking people if and how they want to be photographed. I think of photography as a collaboration and I apply that to my work.”
The other artists have also been putting together ideas for what pieces they might come out with at the end of their journey. “I’m bringing items to make a wind harp”, Anthony Wallace told me, describing a canoe strung upright to capture the sound of the wind. Wallace will compose music to score the documentary with sounds written throughout and after the trip. Katie Green, whose illustrations combine a surreal, dream-like element with images of nature and wildlife will try to create paint pigments out of the surrounding mosses and flowers and use them in her pieces.
Much like the Group of Seven, the six artists on the Peel River Project have the unique opportunity to represent Canadian landscapes in a personal and creative way. Whereas the Group of Seven lived in boxcars along the route of the the Canadian Railroad to reach places that were considered remote, today these places no longer hug the tracks of our railroads. One hundred years later, Cheverie and his group must board their canoes into the Ogilvie River at one of the watershed’s only access points, almost a thousand kilometres north of Dawson, a town of only 1,300.
A deeper change within Canadian culture has also occurred throughout the decades since the Group of Seven first took to the road. As art continues to provide us with a unique window into remote places within our own country, we now acknowledge that Canada is not a limitless bounty; that what we consider to be pristine wilderness represents landscapes rich with people and culture. We’ll be waiting with anticipation for The Peel documentary to show us remarkable places, people and artwork. And at the end of it, we might wonder if years from now, future artists will be able to capture the same beauty within the Peel River Watershed as it exists today.
Watch the trailer below and visit The Peel Project Website for more information