Born of the Wild Country

Spellbound on one of Yukon’s wildest rivers—the Bonnet Plume—this adventurer shares a story filled with many challenges, like dangerous rapids and deep canyons, but even more triumphs.

“And I want to go back, and I will,” wrote the famed Klondike gold rush-era poet Robert Service about the Yukon in his 1907 poem titled “The Spell of the Yukon.” It speaks to the intrinsic beauty, the lure of adventure and a downright addiction to the North that had befallen him and so many others including myself. The word Yukon can send goosebumps up the spine of the adventurous at heart.

It’s summer 2022 when I answer the call and return. On my previous trip to the Yukon, I tackled the Hess River—tough to beat when it comes to a remote, whitewater challenge. However, there is another river that can compare, even outdo it. A tributary of the mighty Peel River, the Bonnet Plume lies in one of the most remote parts of Yukon where three dramatic mountain ranges collide to create some of the most jaw-dropping sceneries on Earth. The Bonnet Plume is a seldom-travelled, Canadian Heritage River named for a famed Gwitchin chief who helped trappers, traders and gold-seekers who ventured into the country, saving them from death in some cases.Jim Baird


I hope the chief’s spirit remains in the river country because the Bonnet Plume is no cakewalk. It flows fast through many boulder-strewn canyons and tears around tight bends, and the current doesn’t let up much between the many challenging rapids. It can only realistically be accessed by floatplane, and extensive portaging is often needed to skirt the river’s canyons. The rapids are also technical and long, meaning you could be separated from your canoe by miles on end if it is tossed into an invariable canoe-smashing pinball machine of jagged boulders. The added danger of being out there alone doesn’t take away from my apprehension as—like my Hess River trip—I’ve planned this as yet another solo adventure. Despite my fears, the chance to tangle with some of Yukon’s best whitewater, and to tread “where the mountains are nameless,” and where “there are valleys, unpeopled and still,” overpowers my fear because if there’s any place in Yukon where Service’s words ring true as ever, it’s the Bonnet Plume.

It’s July 14 and I’m at Up North Adventures, an outfitter in Whitehorse, where I’m outfitting my 15-foot Nova Craft Prospector for a spray deck. It’s the same outfit I engaged in a couple of summers ago for my Hess trip. I recognize one of the guides. “You’re back,” he says.  “I am, can’t get enough of it,” I respond. He asks where I’m headed this time. “The Bonnet Plume,” I tell him. His eyes widen and he turns away slowly while steadily shaking his head and putting an end to our conversation.Jim Baird


I’m on the Bonnet Plume River and the water level is unseasonably high this year. I get my first scare when I enter a canyon. My research tells me that I have a long, continuous stretch of manageable Class I and II rapids ahead of me, but it quickly becomes apparent that I’m dealing with nearly continuous Class II rapids with patches of intense Class III whitewater that don’t let up! I really have to stay on my toes, and steering my heavily laden canoe becomes exhausting after a couple of kilometres of non-stop action. With a lot of water sloshing around in my canoe, it’s all I can do to just barely catch an eddy before the river bends around a blind corner. From that point on, I play it smarter, scouting what lies ahead from shore to plot my route and pick the next safe spot to eddy out. Through the canyon, I’ve now experienced my first real taste of the river’s character and my thoughts go to my wife and kids. I plan on using more caution moving forward.

Scouting a big canyon on day five, I’m disappointed after I walk past long stretches of runnable rapids only to discover that the canyon ends in a hair-raising Class V. If I run along the canyon, I could get to shore before going down the Class V, but I’d be trapped at the base of the canyon walls with no way to portage around the rapid. My only option is to portage the entire canyon—so I get to it. Jim Baird

It’s raining out and the ground is slippery. Double packing a heavy load, I’m over a kilometre into the carry and only a steep, sloping hill separates the trail from the sheer cliff of the canyon wall. I slip and fall forward, dropping a bag in the process. Before I have time to look, I quickly throw my hand out over my head and clench a bag strap. When I raise my face out of the dirt, I see that I’ve caught my pack right before it rolled into the canyon—a lucky save that prevented me from being without a tent and spare clothes for the rest of the trip. Finally, past the canyon, I’m rewarded with seemingly endless kilometres of swift current and fun, manageable rapids. I’m making good time and I’m pulling over at clear water tributaries to cast for grayling.

It’s day seven and an old mossy log cabin catches my eye on the right, so I pull over. The cabin looks old, but it’s in surprisingly good shape. Cabins don’t rot out quickly in Yukon due to the long, frigid winters. The mossy roof had been swapped out in more recent years yet trees were growing out of it. Moss was commonly used on the roofs of wilderness cabins, but it doesn’t act as a waterproofing agent in and of itself. Rather, moss was used to hold down waterproofing material such as birchbark shingles or animal skins, and eventually, manufactured tarps or waterproof sheeting. Inside the cabin, the woodstove looks like it’s in decent enough shape and the view from the window is world class. Before moving along, I take a moment to wonder who’d built it and what their adventures were like. The cabin seemed like a true relic of the old Yukon, a time that has long passed but is still hanging by a hair in places like the Bonnet Plume.Jim Baird

Before I know it, the trip is over and I’ve caught a floatplane for a flight back to Mayo. In all, the trip took me 11 days, travelling from Bonnet Plume Lake to Taco Bar—a gravel bar on the Peel River. Staring out the window of the floatplane, I felt a deep sense of fulfillment brought on by completing the trip, with the triumphs I experienced and the challenges I overcame along the way.

In the days following my trip, I spoke with a gentleman who’d guided in the Peel River’s watershed for years. He told me that the cabin was built by “Hardrock” McCormick who was a claim-staker in the 1920s. It seems the cabin was indeed quite old after all, but not much is really known about it or McCormick for that matter. His story was likely one of triumphs, challenges and epic adventure that may only live on in legend, essentially becoming part of “The Spell of the Yukon” itself. In that poem, Robert Service wrote, “There are lives that are erring and aimless and deaths that just hang by a hair.” I wonder if McCormick’s life was one of those that Service was referring to.Jim Baird

After all, a life of adventure includes more danger than many are comfortable with, and such a lifestyle can be considered impractical or misdirected by many who ask, “Why do these things?” It was likely around the same time that McCormick built this cabin when American author John A. Shedd coined the phrase “A ship in a harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” To me, this means that we weren’t built to lead sheltered lives—though some shelter is good and comforting. Leaving the harbour and doing hard things—that’s where the amazement and wonder for the world is felt, where wisdom is earned and where fulfillment is born.

This article originally appeared in the print Summer 2023 issue of Explore Magazine.  Explore Magazine


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