[Mining conflict] As industry encroaches, Yukoners make last stand to preserve unspoiled wilderness – by Paul Watson (Toronto Star – August 21, 2011)

The Toronto Star, has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

BONNET PLUME LAKE, YUKON—In the long, often biting, argument over the Peel River wilderness, few places rouse more passion than a region below Aberdeen Canyon, where nature still has the upper hand over humans.

Here the Wind, Bonnet Plume and Snake Rivers reach like long fingers across a mountainous landscape. They put a lifelong grip on anyone lucky enough to feel their touch.

The only way in is by air. There’s a steady, growing traffic of helicopters and float planes ferrying mining exploration crews to and from remote camps or dropping off well-heeled hunters and adventurous paddlers with their canoes and kayaks.

I flew into Bonnet Plume Lake, around 435 kilometres north of Whitehorse, in Alpine Aviation’s 1952 vintage de Havilland Beaver, a stalwart single-engine bush plane.

Pilot Martin Hébert hugged mountainsides green with conifers shaped like pipe cleaners, getting a gentle push from thermals to gradually gain more lift.

As we climbed, he chatted over our headphones about his journey from ski guide to bush pilot.

He’s never been busier.

Veteran bush pilots aren’t easily surprised. But Hébert did a double take earlier this year when, for the first time, he took an all-Chinese team of mining engineers into an exploration camp about 160 kilometres south of Bonnet Plume Lake.

They were dressed in business suits, with Armani luggage, and brought along their own cook from China, Hébert said. And they were obviously happy to be heading into one of mining’s hottest new frontiers.

Mining camps are pressing in on the edges of the Peel. A large one sits just over the ridge from Bonnet Plume Lake, which is inside the zone temporarily protected by a Yukon government moratorium.

The camp, in an area rich with gold, has some 35 large white tents and a few wood-frame buildings, all connected by dirt roads and a bridge. Two helicopters sat on pads.

It is a bustling community in a shrinking wilderness, on the banks of a river that runs wild at the foot of a mountain.

Yukon government records show there were 8,431 mining claims staked in the Peel watershed at the start of this year, said Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.

To show how close mining companies have come to the boundaries of the Peel, and what’s at risk, she invited me to spend a few days on Bonnet Plume Lake, hiking in the surrounding mountains and along the headwaters of the Bonnet Plume River.

We stayed at a lakeshore camp run for the past quarter-century by Chris Widrig, who normally houses hunters hoping to shoot Dall sheep, moose, caribou and grizzly bears.

Widrig has the outfitting rights for some 10,000 square kilometres of wilderness in northeast Yukon. He brings in 27 clients a year to the exclusive concession, granted by the Yukon government, along the border with the Northwest Territories.

Since 1986, hunters have come from around the world to track animals on horseback with Widrig and kill them as trophies. What sounds barbaric to some is to him a sustainable way of making a good living from the Peel wilderness, and so protecting it.

He has a profound love and respect for the wild, earned the hard way.

Twelve years ago, Widrig was leading a hunting party back to camp on horseback after bagging two Dall sheep, when he startled a feeding mountain grizzly bear and her two-year-old cub high above the Snake River.

The angry sow charged. On foot, and without a weapon — he had lent his rifle to a client whose airline lost his luggage — Widrig bolted. But he knew grizzlies too well to think he could outrun one, especially across spongy tundra above the treeline.

The bear took him down, and chomped on his face and hands. Widrig remembered it sounding like the crunching of chicken wings. The grizzly’s jaws clamped shut on his shin and broke it.

The mauling didn’t stop until another hunter fired a shot that missed but frightened off the bear. That saved Widrig’s life.

It took more than half a day to reach camp, where a chopper medevaced him to hospital. Surgeons used titanium plates, and more than 200 stitches, to rebuild his ravaged face.

Yet Widrig insisted the bear not be tracked down and shot. It was only doing what a mother should: protecting her young. The hunter had no quarrel with her.

An enraged wild animal he can forgive. What Widrig can’t abide are short-sighted politicians who see no harm in letting mining companies encroach on a last refuge as pure as the Peel.

Even the explorers are doing damage, said Widrig, who recently found a mine staking flag illegally inside the no-staking zone near his second hunting camp at Goz Lake.

“Jeez, they’d all be in here crawling around if the government lifted the moratorium,” he said. “Right now, they’re diamond drilling (on the border). They’re looking for someplace to have a proven mine.

“They’re building roads between some of their claims, where they use quads (all-terrain vehicles). They’re scarring the landscape.”

Even though the grizzly attack destroyed Widrig’s left eye, he flies his own Piper Super Cub, a float plane with two seats squeezed one behind the other into the fuselage. It’s like a dirt bike with wings.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1042608–as-industry-encroaches-yukoners-make-last-stand-to-preserve-unspoiled-wilderness?bn=1