by David F. Pelly
The very word “Thelon” stirs an awakening in the heart and soul, down to the very boots, of almost every Canadian wilderness traveller, most especially canoeists. If they have not been there, they have dreamed of it.
So, too, in different ways, it has long been an alluring place for the Indigenous peoples whose territories lie to either side. For the Cree to the south, it was the far-off land inhabited by the Otchipiweons. For the Chipewyan, the Ethen-Eldili-Dene, the “caribou-eaters,” it was the place for summer hunting and, as cited in Jim Raffan’s thesis, “the place where God began.” For the Inuit beyond the trees, close to where the mighty river spills its 150,000-square-kilometre drainage into Hudson Bay, the upper Thelon was largely beyond the reach of their collective knowledge, but nonetheless known to be a source of wood and food.
At the heart of all this is the Thelon Sanctuary, created in 1927, one of the oldest and largest protected parcels of true wilderness in the world. When you are in the very centre of that sanctuary, you are nearly 500 km from the closest modern community in any direction. You are much farther from the closest road than it is possible to be anywhere else in continental North America. (In the lower 48 of the US, the maximum achievable distance from a road is 20 km.)
In our lifetime, the one man who knew this place better than anyone else alive, who felt connected to it from his very core, was Alex Hall. His first trip there was in 1971, when he paddled the full length of the Hanbury-Thelon to Baker Lake. In 1974, he paddled the full length of the Thelon itself, from Lynx Lake to Baker Lake. He’d fallen totally in love, and soon quit his office job down south, to become the North’s first licensed canoe trip guide. Canoe Arctic Inc. was his sole livelihood from 1977 until his death in 2019. Every single one of those years, he spent most of his summer in the Thelon country. In his book, Discovering Eden, he wrote: “The Barren Lands have become my religion, my church; they’re sacred ground. I worship them. My soul is there.”
Compared with Alex, I was a Johnny-come-lately. My first trip on the Hanbury-Thelon was in 1984. Like Alex, I was smitten, and returned many times. Occasionally, he and I would arrange to meet “out there” at some place along the river, for a visit. For several years, that was the only way we saw each other. I had known him for some years, before ever visiting him at home in Fort Smith, NWT. (Although one could easily argue that he was more “at home” in the Thelon country.) Over the winter, for many years, until two days before he died, we spoke often on the phone. During the summers, habitually, between trips Alex would phone to report on what he’d seen during the previous trip. (He kept detailed notes of his observations.) And during his off-season months, Alex loved to write long, rambling letters. It was a friendship like no other I have known. For a few years in the 1990s, we fought together to save the Thelon wilderness, a battle which – with support from many quarters, most significantly the people of Lutsel K’e and Qamani’tuaq – ended in success for the Sanctuary, and brought us even closer as friends. Alex was a man like no other I have known.
On every flight in or out of the barrenlands, to start or end one of his guided canoe trips, always at low level, Alex studied the land below intensely, always on the lookout for new routes or appealing eskers or potential wolf dens. On one of those flights, back in the ‘80s, Alex examined a fairly short but significant tributary to the Thelon which he had seen on the map, but which, so far as he knew, no one had ever paddled. Thereafter, Alex considered it his secret “discovery,” as a canoeist. He soon took clients to the Clarke River, but did not advertise it by name, and swore his guests to secrecy. Of course, in time, that covenant was broken; Alex never forgave the culprit.
One of the remarkable features of the Clarke is its bedrock geology, comprising what is known by geologists as the classic Thelon Basin, but nonetheless unique. That was part of its appeal for Alex; he put a photo of it on the cover of his book Discovering Eden, although, of course, the book does not reveal where the photo was taken. The Thelon Basin is one of several large quartz-dominated continental sedimentary basins developed on top of Paleoproterozoic and Archean (4.0- to 1.6-billion-year-old) rocks of the Canadian Shield. (Geologists wax eloquently about this place, but in case detrital zircons are not your thing, I will spare you the details.) Suffice to say, the rocks are old, and the cliff formations sometimes breathtaking.
There are also eskers aplenty, unbelievable eskers, remarkably beautiful eskers. On one of those eskers, which snakes across the tundra between the Clarke and the Elk Rivers, at the very heart of Alex Hall’s favourite parcel of wilderness, his favourite place in the world, there is a tiny cairn to mark the spot where the remains of this great man now lie. Just months before he died, together with a few close friends and his two sons, we flew there from Fort Smith so Alex could visit the spot and show us where he wanted to be in the end, “so my body and spirit will remain part of the Barren Lands forever.” (To see Alex enjoying his last walk on the esker, and pointing out the very spot, watch the film “Discovering Eden,” link below.)
Dene tradition refers to the rock as “Grandfather” – a mark of respect and reverence for the eons of knowledge and experience it is believed the rocks store within. They have seen so much over the course of their “lifetimes.” Perhaps one could interpret this notion as a deference born of geological time, as the power of geological forces, and of the very land in which every contour is the result of that power. None more so than the eskers, those long, beguiling, sinuous rivers of glacial till and sand. There is surely a sense of wonder and wisdom underlying that. No one in Alex’ lifetime knew this place better, or felt its wonder in the same way, or embodied such wisdom in the ways of Nature on this land. How fitting then that he will lie for eternity among the rocks out there in the Thelon country. For my generation of barrenlands canoeists, he is the grandfather.
All of this to say, again, that Alex Hall had an affinity, even a passionate love, for the Clarke (and a couple of other rivers) that went way beyond anything I’ve ever seen from anyone else. He was a part of that land. Over the course of a lifetime, he came to know it better than anyone else alive.
I remember well, in one of the many telephone chats we had during the months we both knew were his last, he was bursting with excitement to tell me he had found his successor, someone to take over Canoe Arctic. He had just met Dan Wong, a young Yellowknife-raised man with a passion for the outdoors and for canoeing in particular. Alex knew within minutes that he could “trust” his cherished places to Dan. He decided on the spot to hand over two summers’ worth of booked clients, his maps and detailed notes, plus all his NWT licenses, including the Clarke and his other two favourites, the Elk and the Baillie. Thus, Jackpine Paddle blossomed overnight, with an inherited responsibility to sustain a legacy. Dan Wong takes this seriously.
Early in 2022, Dan called to say he was organizing a trip on the Clarke River as a tribute to Alex. There’d be a filmmaker, he said, to record some of Alex’ special places along the river, and the memories from those of us who knew him and his river well. I could not say No, of course. So, in the summer of 2022, Laurie and I and a scattering of Canoe Arctic ex-clients joined Jackpine Paddle’s “invitational” Clarke River trip: 12 days to cover a stretch of river that, when I last paddled it, took me 26 days. (I’ve long preferred to travel in a leisurely manner, with multiple days “off” for hiking.)
It was a treat to return, at this stage of life, to a place that I love. It is still the purist wilderness you will ever see, “as big and wild and remote as you can get” the way Alex saw it … and “the most exciting place left on this Earth.” The wildlife population has diminished: the muskox have largely moved out of the sanctuary; the barren ground caribou population has been decimated; there are relatively few wolves. But the land, and the Grandfathers, are essentially undisturbed, preserved as ever, able to nurture the soul of a passing traveller who lingers long enough to tap into the eons of knowledge.
For me, it was the first time in 45 years of barrenlands paddling that I was not the trip leader, or that I travelled with a guide and outfitter who attended to the details of a purely recreational canoe trip. It was not difficult to adjust to the lack of responsibility and the relatively light work load. Nor was it a challenge to enjoy the remarkably good meals that Dan and his partner Caitlyn served on a daily basis (trip food may be the one element of Alex’ legacy not worth preserving). For the record, they also provided a well-organized trip, safely guided a group which included novice paddlers, and did everything in their power to make sure the group “clicked” comfortably as a team. We all, quite simply, had fun. All that was good, and would recommend Jackpine Paddle to anyone looking to join an outfitted canoe trip in the Thelon country. But most memorable for me was the real admiration for and loyalty to Alex which someone four decades younger could display, along with a palpable respect for his legacy. It was genuine, to be sure, and will no doubt serve Dan well for many years to come. He is paddling in the wake of a giant.
As well known as the Thelon is, and as much as we canoeists may dream of a trip there, “grandfather” Alex Hall’s connection to the land and the rivers of the Thelon country is beyond comparison in our lifetime. Nor will it ever be matched, I predict. His own words, to his family and to me, just before he died, say it well: “I am the most fortunate person in the world. I had the best job in the world, in the best place in the world. I loved almost every single minute of it!”
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David Pelly literally “wrote the book” on the Thelon, as they say. His Thelon: A River Sanctuary was published in 1996, and still sells steadily, although it will soon go out of print. Alex Hall called it “a classic!” It remains a must-read for those planning (or dreaming of) a canoe trip in Thelon country. Most of the remaining inventory of books is at either Dundurn Press or the Yellowknife Book Cellar. David’s most recent book is The Ancestors Are Happy, a collection of stories rooted in the Arctic landscape, a contemplation on the old tales and wisdom of the ”grandfathers.” For a recent long-form interview, on his northern career, visit:
Into the Arctic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27mQq93_vSA
A recent documentary about Alex Hall is a must-see for all canoeists. It is now available online on YouTube. Search for “Discovering Eden” or go to:
To listen again to Monte Hummel’s stirring tribute to Alex Hall at the 2019 Wilderness & Canoe Symposium, go to: Tribute to Alex Hall – YouTube
For CBC coverage re Alex Hall, go to:
You can read or download Alex’ book, Discovering Eden, for free, at: https://jackpinepaddle.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Discovering-Eden-1-1.pdf
For information about Jackpine Paddle: https://jackpinepaddle.com/
For a short 4-minute preview of the Clarke-Thelon River, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLl0NmHTqkA