Timeless: It's the adventure of a lifetime paddling the rivers of a northern wildlife refuge in the heart of a preserved ecosystem

Martin Zeilig
Saturday, October 21, 2006

A canoe trip into the vast and remote Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary - straddling the boundary of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut

Travelling with Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures, our group had begun the expedition almost two weeks earlier with several wonderful summer days exploring and fishing in and around the picturesque Chipewayan Dene settlement of Lutsel K'e, where the headquarters of Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures located -- some 200 kilometres east of Yellowknife, on the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake. One of the largest and most isolated wildlife refuges on Earth, the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary is home to migrating herds of barren ground caribou, musk oxen, arctic wolves, grizzly bears, fox, wolverine, waterfowl, raptors, and other wildlife. The rivers are teaming with super-sized pike, lake trout and grayling. Thanks to the fishermen in our party, we ate fresh fish almost every day.

A historical note on the area says: "Fuelled by the advice of explorers John Hornby and David Hanbury, the Thelon Sanctuary was established by Order of Council in 1926. The original purpose was for the protection of musk oxen, whose population had suffered dramatically from hunters who ventured off the European whaling ships during the late 1880s." In the 1960s, the International Biological Program said the sanctuary -- which covers 56,000 square kilometres, an area bigger than Nova Scotia -- was an "ecological site of universal importance" and one of the only complete, unaltered ecosystems in the world. Hunting and trapping and mining exploration (so far, at least) are prohibited there. Europeans, as well as aboriginals, have left their imprint on this land.

Max Finklestein, communications officer for the Canadian Heritage Rivers Systems, has canoed the entire Thelon River. He observes that Hornby, "who had performed miracles of survival, made one fatal miscalculation in a land that gives no second chances." In 1926, Hornby, who was known as the "hermit of the north" for his attempts to live off the land with limited supplies, tried to spend a year in a spot by the Thelon River with his 18-year-old cousin, Edgar Christian, and another young man, Harold Adlard. Unfortunately, they missed the caribou migration southward and thus lacked sufficient food to survive the winter. Hornby and his companions died of starvation in 1927.

Their tiny, tumbled down log and sod cabin, and humble graves with weathered crosses, can be found among the bushes and spruce trees -- just a short hike up from the river bank where we waited for our rescue. Modern-day adventurers invariably run into trouble, too. Professional people in management who are used to manufacturing their environment have no control over the natural environment -- they are the ones who have the most trouble," says our guide Lybeck, who has many years of experience leading canoe trips into the sanctuary and other wilderness areas.

I had been dreaming about venturing into the sanctuary for more than a decade ever since I first met our outfitter, "Tundra" Tom Faess, the owner of [Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures], when he was based in Winnipeg. Due to its geographical isolation and the expense of getting there, "Canada's wilderness jewel" is not an easy place to visit. But I had to make my trip of a lifetime. hoped for 12 to 14 days because Tundra Tom was stuck in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, during the intense forest fires in that region in early July.

From the base camp at Whitefish Lake, we were eventually flown to our starting point on the shallow but beautiful Clarke River. As we paddled through the pre-cambrian canyons of the Dubawnt Highlands, Peregrine falcons and the larger gyrfalcons swooped above us -- their
screeches bouncing off the cliff walls as our canoes slipped by their nests.

Apart from the occasional moose feeding near the river's edge and one lone musk ox at a campsite, we didn't see any other major mammals. That was disappointing, although tracks and/or droppings of caribou, bear and wolf were evident at various stops. Still, for a prairie boy (albeit from the city), the big tundra sky brought a sense of familiarity. The lowering firmament was magical; and being summer, we were exposed to nearly 24 hours of daylight.

Descending the fast-flowing Clarke, we travelled the gradual decline of the Thelon Valley into the Thelon River with its "oasis" of boreal forest extending several hundred metres up from the river. Throughout, a biblical-like plague of biting black flies and stinging mosquitoes, plus other flying insects, constantly sought their milli-ounce of blood or flesh. Thank goodness for bug netting and insect repellant. Not one of us escaped unscathed, however.

At one point, after we had made camp, four of us hiked up a deceptively high, wind-swept esker -- a sand and gravel remnant of the last ice age, believed to be from some 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. The view from the top was a panorama of endlessly spreading tundra and
curving riverbank nestled under a softly clouded, sapphire sky with an arching rainbow stretching across the horizon.

I was lost in eternity.



The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary -- an internationally recognized biosphere
reserve -- in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut has been called the
Serengeti of the North for its vast herds of caribou, musk oxen and other


Do your research:

To find out more about Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures and custom-designed trips
into the tundra, go to www.thelon.com. To contact Tundra Tom, phone
1-608-370-5071, or email: tundra@thelon.com



© The Edmonton Journal 2006



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