Bonnet Plume River
In June 1998, the Canadian Heritage Rivers System designated Bonnet Plume River as a Canadian Heritage River. As part of the conservation plan for this river, a management plan was undertaken for the entire watershed, which extends from its headwaters in the Selwyn and Mackenzie mountains at the Yukon-Northwest Territory border some 350 kilometres north to its confluence with the Peel River. Approximately 2.5 percent of Yukon Territory, or 12,000 square kilometres, is included in Bonnet Plume’s watershed.
The Nacho Ny’a’k Dun and Tetlit Gwitchin First Nations peoples have deep roots in the watershed area, having for centuries used it as a hunting area and the river as a trade and travel corridor. As part of their land claims negotiations, both peoples secured extensive resource management interests in the area.
Bonnet Plume’s watershed and the river itself constitute a largely undisturbed ecosystem supporting large, healthy populations of grizzly bears, wolves, moose, gyrfalcons, and woodland caribou. Because of its isolation, however, scientific information on the region is scanty and there has been little effort to date by non-First Nations governments to use traditional and existing local First Nations’ knowledge. Controversy exists in the territory over the extent and type of changes that should be allowed in the Bonnet Plume before the wilderness values of the area become permanently impaired.
Currently, three types of land use pose possible threats to the watershed’s wilderness aspect: overuse of the river by recreational boaters, mineral exploration that is targeted on the main stem of the river and involves large tracts of land, and existing and new road construction.
The scenery in Bonnet Plume is spectacular, enhanced by the near absence of human activity. Mountain peaks and ridges border the river as it cuts through steep canyons and incised valleys. Small lakes, such as Bonnet Plume, Margaret, and Quartet, provide excellent fishing and camping sites.
First Nations knew the river by the Athapaskan term for “black sand” because of the large amounts of black magnetite sand (a form of iron ore) found in its bed. During the Klondike Gold Rush it was renamed by gold stampeders after a local First Nations chief, Andrew Flett, who was also known as Bonnet Plume. Flett had worked for years as an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Company and became highly regarded by gold stampeders using the watershed to reach Dawson from Edmonton. Known as the Edmonton route, this was the most difficult way to reach the gold fields. By the time many of these travellers reached the river they were suffering from starvation, sickness, and often on the verge of dying of hypothermia. Flett fed them through the winter and saw them off to Dawson in the spring, where they found the Gold Rush was over. Grateful, the stampeders started calling the river Bonnet Plume in his honour.