Originating just outside the Arctic Circle in Canada's Yukon Territory, the Snake River winds through the northern reaches of the great boreal forest, a green girdle stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific that is the breeding ground for 43 percent of North America's birds. From the headwaters of the Snake, it is about 200 miles to the nearest highway and an hour and a half by floatplane to the nearest settlement. There is nothing so remote in the lower 48, where the farthest point from a road—the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park—is little more than 20 miles.
The Snake is part of the Peel River Watershed, one of the largest areas of the North still virtually untouched by humanity. With 28,000 square miles (larger than West Virginia), the area's terrain varies dramatically, from the talus slopes of the Wernecke Mountains to spruce-choked river valleys, and it is home to Dall sheep, moose, caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines and nearly 100 species of birds. The area's aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers who moved around in small family groups, stalking mountain caribou in the winter and living in fishing camps along the rivers in summer. Their descendants, the Tetlit Gwich'in and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nations, have settled, among other places, in two small communities, Fort McPherson and Mayo, on the periphery of the Peel River Basin. Europeans first explored the region in 1839.
Along the Snake River today, the human residents are seasonal, mostly hunting parties, canoeists and river rafters; wildlife biologists; and prospectors for oil, gas and uranium. And then there is the photographer Jannik Schou. He has spent seven years in the Yukon bush, the last two focused on the Snake River environs. Schou and his partner, Gill Cracknell, fly in on a skiplane in April, landing on a frozen lake with enough supplies to last until September. Going from one base camp to another, they walk, canoe and sled about 60 miles a month.
The Danish-born Schou has endured –40 degree temperatures to photograph some of the Yukon's most reclusive inhabitants: lynx and wolverine. But his signature works are resplendent close-ups of eagles and falcons. Last summer, he tracked a pair of gyrfalcons to their aerie in a cave high on a mountain ledge. He placed a remote-controlled camera in a camouflaged box and waited days for the falcons and their young to grow comfortable with the camera and with him. Finally they did. He's not always so lucky. He and Cracknell spent two weeks building a 60-foot-high scaffold to photograph a bald eagle's nest, only to have the birds relocate. "I've spent countless hours waiting in blinds," he says, "checking light meters and swatting mosquitoes, wondering what went wrong with my life."
Still, he returns. "I was watching a wolverine bounding along on the snow crust in his tireless gait toward a distant horizon," he recalled in an e-mail from his winter home in Denmark. "I couldn't think of a better place to be."
I met Schou in the Yukon a few years ago when he was picking up supplies from a floatplane that had taken me to the Snake River. I was part of a group of writers and artists on a three-week river journey led by conservationists, including Gwich'in and Na-Cho Nyak Dun people. They wanted to call attention to a unique wilderness suddenly facing the prospect of development or exploitation by oil and natural gas industries. The environmentalists are trying to block industrial activity in the heart of the Peel Watershed, a 12,000-square-mile area where the Snake, Wind and Bonnet Plume rivers pour out of the Wernecke Mountains through a cinematic landscape of limestone massifs, hanging glaciers, forested lowlands and serpentine canyons.
It wasn't long ago that energy and mineral reserves in the Peel region were considered stranded assets, too remote and too costly to pursue. But technology and society's appetite for natural resources are opening up the Far North. By 2050, up to 80 percent of the world's arctic environs could be subject to mining, oil and gas exploration or other industrial activity, according to a 2001 report of the U.N. Environment Programme. Juri Peepre, a former director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says "the new rush for black gold and natural gas is on, and a wave of drilling pads, pipelines and compressor stations is moving north."
The Yukon's territorial government has given permission to a Canadian subsidiary of Dallas-based Hunt Oil to look for oil and gas in the Peel Watershed. "Certain exploration and development activities can proceed," says John Spicer, director of corporate policy and land claims for the Yukon's Department of Energy, Mines and Resources. "We can't stop the world and put it on hold."
The conflict in the Yukon is reminiscent of Alaska's epic battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, the Peel Watershed is the wintering ground for the same caribou herd that migrates hundreds of miles north to bear their young in the Alaskan refuge.
When you see a caribou and her calf wade nonchalantly in front of your oncoming canoe, or watch the unhurried gait of a grizzly observing your passage from a nearby embankment, or look into the gleaming eyes of a wolf calmly surveying your camp, it still feels as if human beings have not established dominion here. Schou, blending in as few others have, has captured the essence of this rare place.