Bonnet Plume River

Location: Yukon
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 350 km

Bonnet Plume River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

The River of Black Sands

The Bonnet Plume River rushes through range after range of mountains, cutting across rockslides, sluicing through canyons and sliding for miles through braided gravel flats. Long known as big game hunting country, Dall's sheep, grizzly bear, moose and caribou graze on the alpine meadows and valley bottomlands The river is named in honour of a Gwich'in chief, Alfred Bonnet Plume, who worked with French-Canadian Voyageurs of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The Bonnet Plume River descends from the rugged Wernecke Mountains carving out a magnificent, wide valley and crossing a lowland plain, heading west and north towards its confluence with the Peel River. A wilderness area rich in natural history, the Bonnet Plume basin features plentiful examples of slip faults, rock glaciers, aretes, cirques and moraines, which reflect a geological history extending back to the Late Pre-Cambrian period. Also significant for its human history, the area 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, alongside the wilderness recreational activity of visitors. The Bonnet Plume is also recognized as a superb recreational river and a significant component of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS). The diversity of wildlife, vegetation and scenery of this expansive and beautiful region provides an exceptional opportunity for visitors to appreciate the character of the Yukon wilderness.

The Bonnet Plume River headwaters in the Mackenzie Mountains, straddle the drainage divide which separates the Yukon and the NWT. The river flows over 350 kms before joining the Peel River, which flows northward across the Yukon/ NWT border to the Mackenzie River delta. Designated in 1998, the Bonnet Plume and its tributary rivers encompass a total area of approximately 12,000 sq kms.

The communities closest to the Bonnet Plume are significantly removed from the river, and access to the basin is only by aircraft. Due to its regular air and road connections with the south, and the presence of air charter operations based there, Whitehorse is the main entry point to the area. Mayo, located on the Stewart River and with access from the Klondike Highway, has a float plane base and air strip but all air service is based in Whitehorse. Fort McPherson, a common destination point for river travelers, offers limited facilities and services. It is accessible both by air, from Inuvik, NWT, and by road, via the Dempster Highway.

Natural Heritage
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. The Bonnet Plume basin contains some of the thickest and most extensive coal deposits in the Yukon, and the entire drainage area has attracted interest in its iron, lead-zinc, copper and uranium deposits. A paleontological find near the mouth of the Bonnet Plume River is of particular significance as it is the only discovery of dinosaur bones in the Yukon. 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.

During the earliest Laurentide glacial advance, ice covered all the valleys of the Bonnet Plume area, and was continuous across the divides. Extensive cirque development in the Wernecke Mountains indicates strong alpine glaciation, and other glacial landforms such as aretes, 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.

As the river descends from its headwaters in the alpine zone towards its confluence with the Peel, the vegetation changes accordingly. In the upper reaches, the valley lies within the tundra region, and although shrub birch and willow communities occur in protected sites above the treeline, this zone is also characterized by massive scree slopes which are essentially devoid of vegetation. Open stands of black and white spruce occupy the longer slopes and occasionally the well-drained valley bottoms of the river's middle reaches. The dominant ground vegetation includes moss and lichens, usually with heath-like shrubs and sedge tussocks. In the longer reaches of the valley, white spruce is dominant along rivers and streams, in alluvial sites or on dry, upland areas. Black spruce and larch occupy poorly drained sites such as bog forest areas. Other tree species represented are aspen, paper birch and balsam poplar or cottonwood.

The Bonnet Plume area contains three noteworthy vegetation species: a community of tamarack near the mouth of Slats Creek, an occurrence considered unusual at this latitude; a rare vascular plant species, Papaver walpolei, which is threatened in Alaska; and, a species of saxifrage, Boykinia richardsonii, previously thought to be limited to an unglaciated area of the northwestern Yukon.

The Bonnet Plume region is noted for its wildlife habitat and 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 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 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. Margaret Lake and Bonnet Plume Lake contain such species as whitefish and lake trout. The Bonnet Plume watershed also contains relic fish populations. Twice during the Pleistocene glaciations, the Peel River was diverted into the headwaters of the Yukon, enabling aquatic organisms to transfer from the Yukon River system to the Bonnet Plume and other parts of the Peel drainage.

Human Heritage
The Nacho N 'y' ak 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 in traditional subsistence activities of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Other aboriginal groups as well have relied on the resources of the Bonnet Plume area, particularly when the caribou were plentiful. The Wind and Bonnet Plume Rivers have been important traditional travel routes between Fort McPherson and the Mayo and Lansing areas, for travel on foot or with dog packs.

After placer diggings were discovered on the Klondike River in 1896, routes through the Peel River drainage, including up the Bonnet Plume River and westward up Gillespie Creek, were used by many parties travelling to the gold fields. Many of these prospectors were also involved in trapping activities in the Bonnet Plume area.

Early travellers were frequently dependent upon local people for transport, guiding and help in emergencies. It is reported that Andrew Flett Bonnetplume, the river's namesake who lived along the river, was a Gwich'in chief and interpreter for the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). Bonnetplume assisted many travelers, who had been caught by winter on the trail to Dawson, and the river was named after him for this reason.

As the Bonnet Plume flows from the high alpine area of the Mackenzie Mountains to its junction with the Peel River at an elevation 2,000 m below its source, the river passes through a wide range of environments. This tremendous diversity provides for an extensive variety of recreational activities.

The Bonnet Plume River stands out as one of the premier whitewater wilderness canoe rivers in Canada. 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. In fact the river can be considered potentially dangerous, dropping more than three metres per kilometre in the upper reaches. The river trip to Fort McPherson is generally considered only suitable for canoes or kayaks, as potentiel problems with winds and slower current in the longer reaches of the Peel into Fort McPherson, make rafting more difficult. The Bonnet Plume River offers river travellers excellent opportunities for related recreational activities, as excellent camping locations and opportunities for scenic day-hikes, particularly in the alpine areas, are readily accessible from the river.

In the upper reaches of the valley, in the alpine zones and around many of the creeks and small alpine and subalpine lakes, hiking and camping opportunities are superb. Although at lower elevations, in the creek bottoms, hiking is sometimes impeded by thick shrubs or birch and willow growth, ridge hiking and scrambling possibilities in the glaciated summits of the Bonnet Plume headwater area are excellent. As with all wilderness areas of the Yukon, careful attention should be paid to grizzly bear safety when hiking in these areas. Mountain climbing potential is also significant in the area, and peaks such as Mt. McDonald and Mt. Gillespie, in the headwaters along the Yukon/NWT border, present an interesting and rewarding opportunity for climbers.

Opportunities for recreational pursuits focusing on the natural environment, such as wildlife viewing, photography, nature study and scenic appreciation are also significant. Hunting activity has a long history in the Bonnet Plume area, and currently big-game hunting operations attract international clientele. The wilderness qualities of the area emanate from the dramatic scenery of the valley and the special features that create its appeal. Broad, expansive views, a diversity of plants and landforms, interesting landscape formations and extensive wildlife populations provide a remarkable backdrop for wilderness recreational activity.

Visitor Information
Access: Access to the headwaters of the Bonnet Plume Basin is by air, either directly from Whitehorse, or through the community of Mayo. Besides returning to these communities, river travellers have the option of proceeding down the Peel River to Fort McPherson, NWT. The typical river trip along the main segment of the Bonnet Plume River itself is suggested to take 7 to 9 days, while the total trip length to Fort McPherson is estimated to be 14 to 18 days. Trip duration is determined by the choice of access points - small lakes adjacent to the river accessible by float plane. Shorter segments are possible but typically do not provide the same range of recreational activity and experience.

Accommodation and Services: Whitehorse (pop. 18,000), is a major centre and capital city of the Yukon, offering a wide range of services. Hotels, restaurants, retail outlets and a full range of outfitting and guiding services, specialty shops and cultural entertainment are all available to the visitor. Whitehorse is easily reached by road or by air from the south, and operates as the base for air charter operations for visitors.

Mayo (pop. < 500), although closer by air to the Bonnet Plume basin, does not offer the visitor the extent of services and facilities available in Whitehorse. Accommodation and basic services such as food, restaurants, camping supplies and fuel, are available. The community has a float plane base and an air strip, but all service is based in Whitehorse.

Fort McPherson is similarly a small community providing only accommodation and basic services to visitors. It is, however, located along the Dempster Highway resulting in road access, as well as regularly scheduled air service from Inuvik, NWT.

Topographic Maps: The Bonnet Plume River is covered by the National Topographic Series 1:250,000 scale maps: 106 B (Bonnet Plume Lake), 106 C (Nadaleen River), 106 D (Nash Creek), 106 F (Snake River), 106 E (Wind River). Maps for the portion of the Peel River from the Bonnet Plume River junction to Fort McPherson are: 106 K (Martin House), 106 L (Trail River), 106 M (Fort McPherson). 1:50,000 maps are not required for river recreation trips.

National Topographic System maps may be purchased from any of over 900 map dealers across Canada, the United States and overseas. To find map dealers in your area, please consult the Yellow Pages under "MAPS", or contact any Regional Distribution Centre through the web site.

Further Information
Services, Permits & Regulations: Yukon Visitor Reception Centre, Alaska Highway, Whitehorse, Yukon Tel. 867-667-2915; Yukon Dept. of Environment, P.O. Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6 Tel. 867-667-5221; FAX: 403-667-2691.

Tourist Information Accommodation, Air Charters, Outfitters: Tourism Yukon, P.O. Box 2703, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 2C6, or at, Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon, 1109 - 1st Avenue, Whitehorse, Y1A 5G4 (867-668-3331;,; Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon, 1114 - 1st Avenue, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 1A3;

Canadian Heritage Rivers System: Member, CHRS Board, c/o Yukon Department of Environment (see address above); or, National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819-994-2913, Fax 819-953-4704. E-mail address: