By Bob Gainer
This is a review of a trilogy of Canadian books by a part-time Canadian and two other Canadian authors on the Thelon river and wildlife sanctuary. Thelon is the English name for the Dene name “The-lew-dezeth”, the river that runs through the “Central Barren Lands,” a unique area of tundra that supports an exceptionally rich abundance of vegetation and animal life.
So much so that a Wildlife Sanctuary was created around it in 1927, ostensibly to protect the few remaining muskox from the fate of North American bison, but also to protect northern animal and plant life in general. I spent parts of five tourist seasons at a lodge on the upper Thelon as an assistant guide, assistant pilot, and camp flunky (assistant manager) about 20 years ago. The only reason I justified the expense of these weeks away from my regular calling (operator of a small-town veterinary clinic, part time environmental biologist, and teacher) was because I was completely besotted with the place; it had stolen my heart and soul, my love of biology, my mid-life crisis, its remoteness and adventure, the most exciting time of my life (yadda yadda yadda I hear shouted down the hall from my wife).
Ingstad’s book originally came out in Norwegian in 1931. Ingstad was remarkable as are many of the characters associated with the Thelon. Many of them for whatever reason seemed to be otherwise regular, normal members of society. In 1926, he left his established law practice in Norway and travelled to this area to be a trapper, probably after reading a few books by Seton, Pike, Jones or Hanbury. His first year was spent with Hjalmar Dale, a fellow Norwegian , learning the tricks of the trade. Dale was probably the most capable human at surviving the Thelon asever existed, almost as tough as a native with the added benefit of being well trained in the use of modern inventions like rifles, tents, stoves, axes, matches, and experienced with their use.
Very little is known of him except that in the several years he was in the Thelon, he never needed assistance from anyone, and several people, especially federal government employees, needed assistance from him. After Dale left for the Thelon, Ingstad spent another year around the east arm of Great Slave Lake, spent a year by himself with the “Ethen-eldilli” (Dene caribou eaters), who made several forays into the barrens in search of white fox furs and caribou meat. It was a bad year for caribou and they barely survived their trips. His last year in the region he spent by himself and his dogs in a tent in a cove of trees out in the barrens on the upper headwaters of the Thelon River. It was a good year for caribou and he and his dogs ate well and he trapped lots of white fox furs. In the spring, he took his furs to Fort Resolution, paid for a flight south to Edmonton (one of four trappers, they were the first of their kind to hire an aircraft for such a flight) and was back in Norway four years after leaving. In 1960, he returned to Canada when he and his wife established that L’Anse aux Meadows was Leif Erickson’s Vinland 1,000 years ago.
Ingstad’s book, Land of Feast and Famine, is based on what the natives and trappers all said about the barrens. “When the caribou are there it is survivable, when the caribou are not there it is not”. The English title probably came from the translators that helped write the English edition who knew Jack Hornby, who planned to write a book with that title after he spent a winter in the Thelon during Ingstad’s stay, only that winter the caribou didn’t come and well, he and his two companions didn’t get to write the book, but Ingstad did. Hornby was the best example of someone who thought they were tough and tried to prove it by defying the dangers of the Thelon. Ingstad was lucky with his winter out on the Thelon and enjoyed himself immensely: “With a chill brilliancy all its own, the sun would sparkle through the snow-covered branches above my tent in the little cove” is what he remembered after leaving for Norway.
David Pelly’s book further explains to me the mystery of why everybody that has ever experienced the Thelon has been like me, and most of the clients I guided—fascinated, smitten, besotted, and irrational about the place. In my CSEB 2020 book review of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Arctic Prairies, Seton described his trip to the region differently but with the same idea: “I found what I went in search of, but also found abundant and better rewards that were not in mind, even as Saul son of Kush went seeking asses and found for himself a crown and a kingdom”. Also, as cited in my CSEB 2022 book review of Tomson Highway’s Permanent Astonishment, Highway says that he was able to make a success of his life as a writer and musician despite residential school and other societal hardships because he was born in a snowbank in January on the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan four corner intersection and was raised in the area, the greatest start in life he could possibly have had. It is true, people can think of the most God-forsaken place on earth to others as their “soul paradise”. Who are some of the “likewise smitten”? David Pelly devotes a comprehensive review of the much more smitten than myself, who really had to walk the walk not just talk the talk (like, ahem, moi), or portage and paddle or dog sled and brave the winters or live off the land and support a family. He starts with the original Ethen-eldilli, Dene “caribou eaters” who were based on the Thelon River for approximately 7,000 years. The last few hundred years, caribou Inuit from the Back River area (Hanningajurmuit) and the Baker Lake area (Qamanittuaq) made use of the lower Thelon drainage similar to Farley Mowat’s “People of the Deer” on the Kazan River. The first non-native to enter the region was William Stuart from the Hudson Bay Company at York Factory with the assistance of the Chipewyan (Dene) woman Thanadlethur in 1715 followed by Samuel Hearne and Matonabbee in 1772. In the late 1800s, Warburton Pike and Buffalo Jones entered the western edge in search of muskox. In 1899, David Hanbury traversed east to west followed by JB Tyrrell a year later. The distance, remoteness, and harshness made the traverse barely survivable for non-natives. A few more adventurers, including Seton, made expeditions to the western Thelon area and a few NWMP made patrols, but the next group attracted to the area were the white trappers. White fox fur at the time was expensive and the tundra was full of them. The attraction of trappers to the Thelon was like gold fever, which led to the creation of the Thelon Sanctuary in 1927 to protect the few remaining musk ox. Of course, its creation was “Treaty Like”, that is, there was no native consultation or contractual negotiations or obligations by the federal government.
Now biologists and game wardens and archaeologists ran the scene, with the assistance of aircraft, until it was part of the most surveyed area in the Northwest Territories. Also surveyed were minerals and several proposals for mines, some of which have been developed in the Rankin Inlet and Baker Lake areas east of the “Central Barren Lands”. Of course, diamonds and uranium are rumoured to be in the Central Barren Lands but there have been no developments yet.
In 1962, Eric and Pamela Morse canoed the west-to-east route at their own expense. They were pushing recreational canoe tripping to new frontiers. Today, hundreds of both guided and unguided canoeists dominate the human presence in the summertime. In the winter, there are occasional dog sledding or snowmobile expeditions for recreational purposes. There are one, sometimes two, tourist lodges (not the one I worked for) operating on the upper Thelon. The sole remaining lodge is Lynx Tundra operated by Dan Wettlaufer. The most successful guided operation by far was Canoe Arctic that started in 1975 and lasted to 2018; Alex Hall, the owner, operator, cook and bottle-washer, who guided hundreds of clients, died of cancer in March of 2019. (His guiding service is now operated by Dan Wong of Jackpine Paddle.) Alex and David Pelly were good friends and more than anyone, I can imagine were smitten with Thelon love.
Alex Hall: Anyone who lived in Fort Smith from the late 1970s until recently (he died of cancer in 2019) knew Alex Hall, a fine man. He was tall, probably 6’4”, and strong (100+kg) even into his 70s. He kept in shape for his four months of summer paddling, and by doing 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups a day in his winter offseason. Although well-educated and successfully making a living from a business he created completely on his own, something probably not one person in a million could do, he was a friendly, engaging, unassuming down-to-earth, easy-to-get-to-know, fellow human being. But to be on one of his trips, all of that had to be forgotten because it was very important, life and death, that he was in charge and made all decisions, or don’t go with him. No one knew the “Central Barren Lands” as Alex called them, and their dangers, like he did. He explored them from as far west as Yellowknife, south to the treeline, north to the Arctic Ocean and east to the Kazan drainage (basically Inuit territory) alone and with his clients or his friends by canoeing all the major rivers. Alex graduated with an M.Sc. under Doug Pimlott’s tutelage at U of T, and was a “Pimlottifer”, a lifelong lover of any and all things wolf. Upon graduation in 1970, he did the expected thing and worked for an environmental consulting company. For him, this was a sentence to a glorified desk jockey torture. In 1971, on holiday, he and a friend canoed the Hanbury and Thelon rivers to Baker Lake. The summer of 1973, he and his friend canoed from the Saskatchewan treeline to Arctic tidewater at Kugluktuk (then known as Coppermine). On the return to Yellowknife, he got the Territories’ first license to guide canoeists in the Barrens. In 1974, 1975, and 1976, he explored all the rivers in the Barrens alone that he thought had potential for tourism, and he advertised his services. In 1977, he had his first customers and from 1979 on, he was booked solid. At first, he was based in Yellowknife but after 1979, he moved to Fort Smith. It was closest to the Thelon drainage where most of his clients seemed to be interested, although every year there were other rivers a few of his clients were also interested in.
The Thelon had by far the richest and most abundant supply of wildlife, at that time, especially wolves (most people’s favourite), and Alex was the world’s expert on interacting with them and enjoying their company, almost to the point of them being his pets. In the end, he said that his personal favourite river was a little known one on the edge of the barrens that only he and a few clients knew about. Regardless, he became easily the single most knowledgeable person of the “Central Barren Lands”. After about 20 years of guiding, Alex got involved in some of the land-use legislation that would impact his means of livelihood. This was about when Nunavut was preparing to separate from the Northwest Territories and this issue was front and center.
His work was predominantly in the NWT, but he was active in the discussion groups along with his friend, fellow canoeist, and author of the book on the Thelon, David Pelly. Gradually they got the idea of a greater ecological sanctuary than had been the basis of the Queen Maud and Thelon Sanctuaries. The distance between them was only 70 km. The larger species went back and forth between them, following the Beverley and Ahiak caribou herd movements, so why are they not protected in this corridor? And if you wanted to make the “Super” Great Canadian treeline to tidewater Central Barren Lands Ecological Reserve, add about 125 km to the south to include the headwaters of the Thelon. The whole area is virtually uninhabited.
This incredibly logical and brilliant idea caught the imagination of Monte Hummel, president of World Wildlife Fund Canada. If ever there was a chance for this organization to have a meaningful impact in this country, where this biome is uniquely Canadian, it was here. Unfortunately, this is where Alex’ book ends in 2003. Alex lived and worked for another 15 years but without this Super Sanctuary actually being formed. What appears to have happened is that the new territory of Nunavut did not immediately have the necessary staff to handle the legislation and negotiations required to deal with such a topic and it has been put on hold. A valuable new Sanctuary has been formed by the Dene associated with the western side of the existing Thelon Sanctuary, the “Thai Dene Nene National Park Reserve”. On the Nunavut side, the actual Hanningajurmuit people who lived on the Back River and in the Queen Maud Sanctuary are receptive to the joining of the two Sanctuaries but the hub of the Kitikmeot region in Cambridge Bay has withheld a decision as has the hub of the Kivalliq region, Rankin Inlet. When people think about the really important pioneers of the Barren Lands, they think of the Tyrrell brothers, Warburton Pike, Ernest Thompson Seton, Hornby, Clarke, etc., but none of them, with the exception of a few trappers such as Gus D’Aoust, Lawrence Yanik, Roger Catlin, and Helge Ingstad were as devoted and close to the land and water for as many years (almost 50) as was this educated, professionally-trained biologist and canoeist, who was exceptionally physically adapted, Alex Hall. More than anyone else, he was the world’s authority on the Central Barren Lands and if ever his vision of the Great Canadian Treeline to Tidewater Central Barren Land Ecological Reserve is realized, his place and his courage in its creation should be acknowledged. The “Central Barren Lands,” as Alex referred to them, is a uniquely Canadian area of tundra. The reason for its existence is that Hudson Bay, which is covered with cold ice well into July if not August, makes the land to the west colder. The farther you get away from its cold influence, the farther north the treeline/ barrenland transition line is, until at Inuvik it is hundreds of kilometres farther north than next to the Bay. All the rest of the areas in the world where there is tundra, it is usually coastal, next to a cold arctic shore and more gravel based rather than the wetland esker base in the Central Barrens. In Russia, Norway, Alaska, Canada’s Arctic Ocean, Greenland, and other areas that are near the cold ocean waters (including the eastern most [non central] Barrens next to the Hudson Bay), there is little vegetation, whereas Alex’s “Central Barren Lands” is more like alpine meadows that are lower, just above the timberline. The CSEB has often solicited ideas for the organization to support. In the latest previous Bulletin, Peter Wells advocated that we as a group should pick and rally behind Canadian environmental causes. Nowhere else in the world is there a biome like the Canadian Central Barren Lands. With the super sanctuary proposed by Alex Hall, David Pelly, and Monte Hummel, we will keep intact the complete functioning of the keystone elements of this biome. It would be a Great Canadian Central Barren Land Ecological Reserve from Treeline to Tidewater for the world, the country, the two territories, the Dene, the Inuit, and for all Canadians and visitors that want to experience a mysterious relationship with one of the world’s most unique terrestrial environments.
The draft NLUP (Nunavut Land Use Plan) is still in the process of being completed and several of Alex’s compatriots, including Monte Hummel, David Pelly, Graham Hall (one of Alex’s sons), and Kevin Antoniak are still advocating for this Super Sanctuary.
Adapted from the Winter 2022 issue of The Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists Bulletin. Permission granted by CESB.