The remoteness of the Yukon’s Bonnet Plume River has contributed to preserving its pristine wilderness. The headwaters of the river are the Mackenzie Mountains, which straddle the drainage divide separating the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The river flows over 350 kms before joining the Peel River, which flows northward across the Yukon/Northwest Territories border to the Mackenzie River delta.
Three mountain systems – the Mackenzies, Werneckes and Richardsons – converge in the Bonnet Plume drainage area. Extensive folding and faulting contributed to the area’s complex geologic history. During the earliest Laurentide glacial advance, ice covered all the valleys of the Bonnet Plume area. Extensive cirque development in the Wernecke Mountains indicates strong alpine glaciation, and other glacial landforms such as arêtes, moraines and rock glaciers are common. Continuing erosional forces create hoodoos along the middle sections of the river, and fluvial processes result in extensive river braiding. One of the most dramatic physiographic features of the area occurs just below Bonnet Plume Lake, where a large rockslide has transformed the valley, forcing the river to carve a canyon through the massive deposit of rock.
The Bonnet Plume region is noted for its wildlife habitat that supports large populations of sheep, caribou, moose and grizzly bear. The watershed is home to the Bonnet Plume caribou herd, one of the largest sedentary woodland caribou populations in the Yukon. The cottonwood/spruce forests and lichen woodland areas of the valley are also considered excellent moose habitat.
A sizable sheep population inhabits the Wernecke Mountains, and relatively high densities of grizzly have been reported in the river area. Bird species include peregrine and gyrfalcon, eagles, ruffed grouse, rock ptarmigan, loons, ducks and swans. The lower Bonnet Plume River is considered a sensitive and valuable fish habitat, and a spawning and nursery area for a number of fish species including Arctic grayling, slimy sculpin, round whitefish and Dolly Varden char.
The Nacho Nyak Dun of Mayo, Yukon and the Tetlit Gwich’in of Fort McPherson, NWT and their ancestors have used the Bonnet Plume area continuously for thousands of years for hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering, using the river as a route between Fort McPherson and the Mayo and Lansing areas, for travel either on foot or with dog packs.
After the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896, the Bonnet Plume was also used as a route to the gold fields and early travellers were frequently dependent upon local people for transport, guiding and help in emergencies. The river is named in honour of Andrew ‘Nee-sheh’ Bonnetplume, a Tetlit Gwich’in leader who worked periodically for the Hudson’s Bay Company and searched for gold in the Peel River watershed.
The Bonnet Plume River offers great opportunities for outdoor recreational activities, excellent camping locations and scenic day hikes, particularly in the alpine areas near the river. Hunting is popular in the Bonnet Plume area, and big-game hunting operations attract international clientele.
The Bonnet Plume River is also a premier whitewater wilderness canoeing destination. It is technically challenging, particularly from just below Bonnet Plume Lake to the junction with Knorr Creek, where Class II and III rapids are frequent, with isolated locations of Class IV and V rapids. The typical river trip along the main segment of the Bonnet Plume River takes seven to nine days, while the total trip length to Fort McPherson is between 14 to 18 days.
Vertebrae from the back of the tail and a fragment of the fifth finger of the hand from a duck-billed dinosaur were discovered along the south side of the Peel River, between the mouth of the Bonnet Plume and Wind Rivers.
The 350-km long Bonnet Plume was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 1998. Its outstanding natural features include slip faults, rock glaciers, arêtes, cirques and moraines, which reflect a geological history extending back to the Late Pre-Cambrian period. Also significant for its human history, the Bonnet Plume has supported the subsistence activities of the Tetlit Gwich’in of the Northwest Territories (NWT) and the Nacho N ‘y’ ak Dun First Nation of the Yukon for centuries. This traditional use of the valley’s resources continues today. The river also offers outstanding wilderness recreation opportunities.
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