In the early 1900s, when she was a teenager, Bobbi Rose Koe’s great-great-grandmother and her friend paddled a moose skin boat through the dangerous stretch of fast-flowing high water at Peel Canyon. In the Gwich’in language the rocky, high-cliffed canyon is known as Tshuu tr’adaojìich’uu or Tshuu tr’idaodìich’uu, which directly translates as “water-rough, hateful.”

“When you’re going through it you have to pay attention and work as a team,” said Koe, who is Teetl’it Gwich’in from Fort McPherson. “There are huge eddies the size of a room and if you get stuck in one you’ll get slammed against the cliffs. You could get pushed into an area where you won’t make it out.”

Usually, the women and children would get out of the boats and walk around the canyon area. Only the men would navigate the rough waters, but this time the two women needed to do it. 

“When they made it through, they celebrated and they yelled,” said Koe. “It’s really amazing when I get to share that story and I know that my ancestors have been through that area and survived, and because of them I’m alive today and still paddle that area.”

In 2015, more than 100 years later, Koe joined a group of five youth from First Nations in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories on an 18-day, 500-kilometre leadership canoe trip that began on the Wind River and finished in Fort McPherson, NWT. Along the way they also passed through the treacherous Peel Canyon. It was the first time Koe had paddled through without her older, more experienced family members in the boat. Once they made it through, she thought about her fearless great-great-grandmother and she celebrated.

Geri-Lee Buyck holding white fish that was caught in the Peel River near Road River Camp. Photo: Dana Tyza-Tramm

The 2015 journey was organized by the Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to bring youth from Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic, Fort McPherson, Old Crow and Mayo into the wild lands. The goal was to teach leadership skills and to connect the youth to their ancestral lands. Geri-Lee Buyck, from the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, also went on the 2015 trip after being convinced to go by elders in her home community of Mayo. She was unsure at first—Buyck didn’t know whether she would be up to the challenge—but she pushed out of her comfort zone and she surprised herself by rising to the occasion. In the end she had a life-altering experience.

“It changed me in that I was able to awaken this strong connection and this strong eye-opening responsibility that we have as young people,” said Buyck. “We began helping more and working with our elders and leadership in our community to fight this battle in a good way, to protect the Peel.”

During the trip the group formed tight bonds. Afterward they came together to create Youth of the Peel. Moved by the experience they had travelling through the river systems, they worked to ensure the pristine wilderness was protected. They also worked to bring other youth to the area, to see the land and breathe the air, so they could develop their own relationships with the plants, the crystal-clear water and the animals.

“We realized that we wanted to keep this group momentum going and still stay connected and work together too,” said Buyck. “So other youth could experience what we experienced that was just so life-changing and very impactful.”

For the past few years, they have offered youth the opportunity to take the journey through the watershed where they hone their paddling skills, share knowledge and stories, and talk about the future.

“I didn’t really want to get up in front of people and speak, but it was my grandfathers who nudged me and poked me and gave me the eye, and literally told me to get up and speak because I had a connection to the land and to the people and the animals that were there,” said Koe. “I knew firsthand who I was speaking for and they didn’t have a voice, so I had to speak for the elders and for the young people who continue to travel the area.”

The process of ensuring the Peel was protected was long. Environmental groups and First Nations have been working toward this goal for decades and there were many bumps along the way.

“There was a time when my grandfather called me and he was crying because the government was treating us like we weren’t around,” said Koe. “They were going to open it right up to development. It was like the end of the world for us because that area’s home for us.”

Both Koe and Buyck’s families have a long history in the area.

“It’s like how when you’re a kid, you want to go to Disney World? Well, my Disney World was the Peel Watershed. That’s where I wanted to go because that’s what my grandfather talked about,” said Koe. “It’s a place of beauty and stories and our people, our heritage, our culture and everything that’s where our people all came from and where our people all were living before colonization.”

In August 2019, the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan was signed by the Yukon government, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, the Tr’ondek Hwëch’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin Government, and the Gwich’in Tribal Council. The plan laid out how the area will be managed and protected into the future.

“It was mind-blowing to hear it was protected. I’m thankful and my grandparents are happy that most of it is protected, but I think there’s still a lot of work yet to do, and I think it’s going to take a while,” said Koe. “But I know the sun will shine over it for the rest of our lives and the lives of my grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren too.

“The Peel Watershed is home and it’s a healing place.” 

Follow the ongoing work of Youth of the Peel through its Facebook page at Facebook.com/YouthOfThePeel

This series is provided by the Government of Yukon Historic Sites to highlight the work of Yukoners and their connections to the territory’s heritage.

Just keep paddling