Snake River: Duo Lake to Fort McPherson (14 days / 581 km)

The Snake River is a beautiful river the flows between Yukon and The Northwest Territories, eventually emptying into to Peel River. Over the course of ~500 km, canoeists are treated to glacial blue water, exciting rapids, rolling mountains and towering canyons, and wildlife opportunities.

In 2017 four friends embarked on their first river trip together, with the hopes to make a music video for their musical band called “Half Way to Reckless.”  All four of us are wilderness guides, with two being Canadian females and the other two American males. All of us were ready for a break after a crazy season of guiding in Alaska. We were paddling in an Esquif Canyon and an Esquif Pocket Canyon. We had a great time, took some good band photos and did some singing. However, nothing came out of it except deeper friendships and an unforgettable trip.  


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Duo Lake

Ending Point: Fort McPherson 

Total Distance: 278 km on the Snake + 203 km on the Peel = 581 km Total

Duration: 14 days

Difficulty: Advanced (mostly Class II with 2 Class III sections)

Location

The Snake River is one of 8 navigable rivers in the Peel Watershed. The Peel Watershed is one of the largest untouched watersheds in the world.  It is located in the traditional lands of the Tetl’it Gwich’in and Nacho Nyak Dun. 

There has been an ongoing battle to Protect the Peel, and in 2019 a new land-based plan was signed by the Yukon Government, the Yukon First Nations of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun, Tr’ondek Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwitchin, as well as the Gwich’in Tribal Council of the Northwest Territories.

More information can be found here and at Protect the Peel.ca

Maps & Resource

Guidebook: Wild Rivers of the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, A Traveller’s Guide by Juri Peepre and Sarah Locke

Map: Topographic Maps (1:250,00) 

  • Snake to Taco Bar 
    • 106C- Nadaleen River 
    • 106F- Snake River 
    • 106E Wind River 
  • Taco Bar to For McPherson 
    • 106L Trail River 
    • 106 K Martin House 
    • 106M For McPherson 

Campsite Reservations: There are no reservations or permits needed. 

Outfitters & Shuttles

This was the most challenging part of our trip, as we were trying to do this as cheaply as possible. We were able to borrow canoes from friends, and a member of our group drove up from Alberta to assist with gear and our epic shuttle.  

We all met in Whitehorse and drove with the truck to Mayo. We camped at Black Sheep Aviation, who flew us into Lake Duo first thing in the morning.  If you were to fly out at Taco Bar, Black Sheep can fly you out and bring you back to Mayo. We paddled all the way to Fort McPherson where we had a friend pick up our truck in Mayo and drive to pick us up and then we road-tripped all the way back to Albert.  

Black Sheep Aviation: blacksheep@northwestel.net 867 6687761

There are also a few companies you can get to shuttle you from Fort McPherson located in Whitehorse.

Trip Report

Day 1: Flight from Mayo to Lake Duo (0 km)

Since it was late August and we arrived late at Black Sheep Aviation the night before our trip, we decided to sleep under the stars.  That was a mistake as we were woken early in the morning by mosquitoes! It was okay as we were to be flying out at 8:00 am and still needed to get organized. We weighed our gear, strapped on our canoes and were grateful for a clear day to fly over the mountains.  

We spent the day at Lake Duo, fishing and going on an afternoon hike. In the evening we used our stoves, to decrease our impact, to cook our first gourmet meal of Mac and Cheese!  

Note: The fishing on Lake Duo is great, as it is for most of the Snake River. This is a common river to paddle and it is encouraged that you catch and release, specifically at Lake Duo.     

Campsite: Lake Duo. Beautiful spot on the lake, with impacted tent pad areas in between the shrubs. 

Day 2: Lake Duo to Reptile Creek (15 km)

We started our day off with a 1.5 km portage on a well-defined trail to the main channel of the Snake. As much as we are all friends, we did a quick safety talk and checked out equipment before departing downstream. We did not use spray decks or floats, instead, we strapped all our gear down with cam straps rigged into a diamond shape to anchor them into the bottom and side of the canoes. 

Once headed down the river it didn’t take long to hop out and have to walk with our boats.  This late in the season the water can be pretty low, leading to a lot of walking in icy cold water.  With a little more water this would be a continuous Class 2 boulder garden. For us, it was stretches of beautiful paddling in ice blue water mixed with bumping and walking along.  Once arriving at camp we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hiking up Painted Mountain. The rock here changes to a deep burgundy colour. 

Campsite: Reptile Creek. Large gravel bar with some flat areas for tents mixed with larger stones. 

Day 3: Reptile Creek to Milk Creek (35 km) 

With the increased volume of water from Reptile Creek, we moved along at a nicer pace today. There were lots of doglegs and looking for deep water as we dodged boulders and moved easily with the current. We came across a caribou moving upriver along a gravel bar with his head down – he almost didn’t see us!

At camp, we spent a lot of time fishing at possibly one of my favourite campsites of all time. From here there is lots of information in the guidebook about several hikes for Mt. MacDonald, although we didn’t take time to hike here, which in hindsight I wish we had. We ate grayling for dinner with fresh bread and apple crisp and enjoyed the beauty of the Snake River and Milk Creek confluence. 

Campsite: Milk Creek. Beautiful gravel bar with lots of space in the shrubs for tents. It is a common spot so stick to the impacted areas and use the fire pit that exists. There is a beautiful contrast in the water here from the blue Snake river mixing with Milk Creek water. 

Day 4: Milk Creek to Snake River Canyon (50 km)

Today the river continued to whine and flow as we approached what the guidebook called the S-bend, which was a series of fun Class 2 wave trains.  After S-bend you can see the river come together and canyon walls form. 

We pulled out on the river’s left side to have a scout this beautiful rapid.  There is a portage trail here. It was easy to follow the trail up to the top of the short canyon and have a look. The rapid starts before the canyon, with a large boulder in the middle, which at low flows created an eddie and at higher flows I can imagine it being a large hole.

One canoe ran the wave train down the right side straight into the canyon which was boil-y water. The other took a sporty line down the left side, caught the eddie behind the rock and then continued through the canyon.  The canyon quickly opens again, and we found a nice gravel bar on river left.

Campsite: Gravel Bar River Left after canyon. 

Day 5: Snake River Canyon to Downriver of Waterfall (30 km)

The river continues to meander here, with lots of gravel bars and the occasional wave train around the bends for about 40 km. We pulled over in a side stream, where the guide book labels a waterfall canyon hike.

We followed trails up to this thin canyon that had several drop pools and a waterfall. The power of water is incredible as we observed how it has forced its way through the rocks over the years. On our way back down we all laid in the Labrador tea shrubs and had a nap, appreciating the vast and untouched magic of the Snake and Peel watershed.

Feeling charged up we returned to our canoes and headed down river about 1 km to pull over on the river left to have a scout of our next rapid. With big waves down the middle and hidden boulders throughout, we opted for a sneak line down the river right side then moved to the middle at the bottom to ride the wave train until the end of the rapid. Both boats caught an eddie to bail out our canoes and share the excitement of whitewater!  

Campsite: Gravel bar River Left. The gravel bars are endless to choose from. 

Day 6: Downriver of Waterfall to Another Gravel Bar (45 km)

Today we paddled down another 45 km or so. We started to leave the mountains behind and the size of the sky grew today as we floated around bend after bend and through lots of braids.

It rained all day and we were keeping our spirits up by singing “Dearly Departed” by Shakey Graves, when 100 m or so across a gravel bar and what felt like just inside the alders were herd wolves! They were howling and barking. We pulled over to listen and watch for 10 minutes, before continuing in silence and appreciation down the river.

Campsite: River Right Gravel Bar. The river bends to the northwest and just before it goes northeast again.

Day 7: Another Gravel Bar to Upriver of Peel River Confluence

Today we continued down the river, taking our time and enjoying every turn. We decided to make camp at one of the last mountains, on river left, before hitting the plateau of land and what would soon be the Peel River. 

Day 8: Layover 

We enjoyed a day of baking, fishing and hiking. From our campsite, we were able to hike across the land to climb up some steep scree and into the alpine. A beautiful view out to the Peel and back to the Snake from here. 

Campsite: River Right gravel bar.

Day 9: Upriver to Peel River to Caribou River Confluence (~90 km)

Now the real work begins. We spent extra time on the Snake, with the plan to crush distance down the Peel, knowing that it might not be as exciting, or as nice, as camping on the Snake.

We pushed off early and reached the Peel close to lunch.  We embraced the current while we still had it. It slowed throughout the day and felt like a long lake by the time we pulled off the river at about 7 pm. We figured we did about 90 km. 

Campsite Caribou River confluence river left

Day 10: Caribou River Confluence to Road River Confluence (60 km)

Another early start heads down paddling all day! A few shore breaks and rafting up together to finish the whiskey. Again we pulled off around 8 pm. 

Campsite: Road River confluence River left 

Day 11: Road River Confluence to Upriver of Fort McPherson (40 km)

Day 10 all over again with a nice stop at the lost patrol monument.  

Campsite: Side of the river, 40 km before Fort Mcpherson.

Day 12: Final Stretch to Fort McPherson (40 km)

It was another early morning and challenging work paddling into Fort McPherson. However, as it approached things started to become eventful.  At the ferry crossing, we met Dr.Bryan, an interesting fella who has paddled in the Peel watershed every year for the last 23 years, every year travelling a new section with new adventures. He was incredible to chat with and hear some stories of his travels.

When we arrived in town, it was late afternoon and we were excited to hopefully find a burger somewhere or buy our dinner at the grocery store.  As we walked into town the first truck that passed us pulled over and engaged us in conversation about the river and moose hunting.  As we finished chatting we were encouraged to head to the community and join in with the feast happening at the Rec Center.

Our smelly clothes were welcomed in to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary, where we enjoyed bannock, caribou rips, Labrador tea, soup and so much more. We enjoyed the company of other guests and felt grateful for being welcomed in.  

Campsite: Campground outside of town.

Day 13-14: Fort McPherson to Home 

We met our driver the previous day and then embraced the long days of driving back to Whitehorse, making quick stops at all the sights along the Dempster Highway.

Reflections

This trip was a magical way to experience the Yukon for the first time. The Peel watershed has so much to offer. Not just because there are so many beautiful canoeing rivers,  but for the people who have fought and continue to fight to keep the land untouched. For the Gwich’in people who allow us to travel on their land and welcome us with open arms into their community.  For the land and animals that inspired us with views, curiosity and magical moments.   

We were on the Snake River for 7 paddling days, which I would not want any less time,  I say this not because our days were long and hard. All of our paddling days were manageable in length and you could do it in fewer days, but why would you want to.  This length of time gave us more time to explore and take in the place.

Gallery


Author Bio

I am a full-time guide and outdoor educator. On my days off you can find me back on the river paddling in my canoe, riding my bike or running somewhere.  I try to take time off every year to go back into the backcountry for myself.  On these trips, I love to go with friends and read books about the river we are travelling on to get the most out of the experience.

Instagram: @riannasterk

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