THE THELON RIVER
by Bill Layman

 

There is a special magic on the barrens

There is a question that haunts my mind each winter as I sit and wait for our next summer's canoe trip to the north
- "What is it about the land of little sticks and the barrens that draws Lynda and I back year after year?"
Is it the snake-like yellow sand eskers that rise high above the deep blue lakes teaming with red-fleshed lake
trout? Is it the herds of caribou that seem oblivious to our very existence as they stroll through our camp? Or
perhaps it is the families of shaggy musk-oxen that circle around their young as we paddle by? Could it be the
sight of a lone white wolf that watches us casually as it trots along the crest of a ridge by river's edge, until
suddenly appearing tired of us, it heads inland on a new quest? Or what of the high tundra camp spots where the
smell of peat fields wafts over us where we sit under our kitchen tarp sipping tea and looking out over the blues
and yellows and pinks of a sea of tiny arctic flowers? Is this what draws us back? Surely the feeling of complete
independence and total purpose that I feel as I stand alone in a rugged rock strewn land where I am master of my
entire universe forms a large part of the answer. The confident elation that comes after running a wild foam filled
rapid or after lining through a steep walled canyon where peregrine falcons wheel high overhead could be much of
what pulls me back …….. and yet these are just things easily remembered that can be explained to those who
ask, "Why do you go to the barrens?" And when I say these words I know there is a much deeper answer, and
try as I might I can't remember what it is -- can't remember that is until I am back there again --back on the
tundra. And then, as always, in some indescribable way, I feel the magic of the tundra fill my soul again.

Those who meditate say you should be prepared to chant your mantra hundreds of thousands of times before it
works its magic and calms and soothes your soul. I thought of this as I paddled nearly five hundred thousand
strokes along the Thelon River this summer, and each stroke felt like a single repetition of my own personal
mantra. And as I did so, I felt a calm and a sense of inner well-being that grew within me day after day -- until at
trip's end, I felt as if I had the answers to the very secrets of the universe. And yet as I write this the answers have
long ago vanished, as they always do, and I know that it isn't that I failed to chant my mantra properly. For I now
know something about that so hard to describe feeling of soothing calm that I search out on the tundra, and which
eludes me when I return to my home in La Ronge. The answer is the tundra herself -- and she will gladly share her
beauty and magic with you when you visit her -- but when you leave she wraps her shroud of magic tight around
her shoulders and turns away from you. And, as would a lover, she waits and beckons to you until the anguish in
your soul forces you to return to her once again. And when you do, she unfolds her arms and shares her beauty
and warmth with you -- and your heart melts and her soothing calm fills your soul once more.

The Elk River
The land of the Dene, the wolves and the caribou

Our trip started on Vermette Lake on the fifth of July following a 150 mile air charter north from Stony Rapids,
Saskatchewan to the headwaters of the Elk River in the Northwest Territories. Running from south to north for
120 miles the Elk ends at Granite Falls where it joins the Thelon River just upstream from Jim Lake. The first 60
miles of the Elk is flat water paddling as you make your way through Vermette, Rennie and Damant Lakes. The
remainder of the river is narrow, fast flowing , and has a few days of great whitewater paddling. The Elk cuts
through the northeast - southwest 'strike' of the geological features that were left behind as the glaciers of the last
ice age retreated from this sandy countryside some 7000 years ago. Rivers that flowed under the melting ice that
covered this land left behind many of the jewels of the north -- the eskers. And if the eskers are like jewels then
the Elk is surely a diamond mine. The eskers on this river are truly spectacular and make for absolutely
magnificent camping.

This was, and still is, the land of the Dene and it is the wintering range of a large part of the Beverly caribou herd
that returns to the area about the middle of August each year. Called "the land of little sticks" by the Dene, the
small black spruce trees are few and far between. The sandy soil of this country makes for a perfect area for
wolves to den and their tracks are everywhere. Although still far to the north following the caribou, large packs
will return in the fall as they dog the herds that they subsist on. The Dene from Fond du Lac, 150 miles to the
south-west, still actively hunt and trap this area. As he has done with his wife Lena for the last 25 years,
Lawrence Adam, from Fond du Lac, spends freeze-up -- from mid-September to mid-December -- in the land
of little sticks hunting caribou and trapping wolves. No less a part of the land than the animals he pursues,
Lawrence, one of the last of the big trappers of Saskatchewan's north trapped 175 wolves out of the Rennie
Lake area last year alone. This area on the edge of the tree-line has a rich Dene history and you can still see the
signs of ancient occupation. We found several flaking sites -- places where hunters sat making quartz spear
points, hide scrapers and arrowheads -- and another kill site between Rennie and Damant Lakes where these
same hunters had intercepted the fall caribou herds as they returned south.

Anywhere else the last lake before Granite Falls would have a name. Perhaps Emerald Lake, or Golden Sand
Lake, or some other name that would vainly attempt to describe its spectacular beauty. The day we crossed it
was blue with the skies of summer as we paddled into the perfect reflections of soft white clouds and the
surrounding yellow eskers coloured with the green slashes of the infrequent stands of spruce. Then follows a few
hours of wild rapids leading to what Lynda and I felt was the highlight of the Elk, Granite Falls. A narrow series of
S-turns confining the full force of the Elk into a canyon carved from soft red-brown granite -- the colours more
reminiscent of the south west mesas of Arizona and New Mexico than of the tundra - Granite Falls is a sight to
behold. Camping here overnight, we hiked the canyon and marveled at the ever-changing colours of the rock
walls as the sun lowered on the horizon and peregrine falcons wheeled high overhead.

Real Fun Paddling!

The shallow, fast, and rock studded river past Damant Lake is a lot of fun if you have strong slower than current
skills (front and back ferries) and are comfortable in 2 + rapids. With only one short (less than 1/2 mile)
mandatory portage on river right at UTM 6882N / 13-4825E and a mandatory variable length portage on river
right at Granite Falls this is a relatively easy river. We lined river left at two spots (UTM 68764N / 13-4865E and
69185N / 13-5060E) and ran well over 20 rapids that were just plain fun. Only once did I get that gut-wrenching
feeling that one likes to avoid on any remote trip. This was just after Golden Sand Lake where the river starts
again as it races through its last few miles to Granite Falls. Just above the second rapid that we lined (we lined the
top half and ran the bottom from river left to center) we ran a tight left hand corner on the inside without scouting.
Everything worked out just fine but this is a real pushy corner and what shows up as you slide around it is an
"in-your-face" mile of real big pushy white water. Failing to make this corner would leave you in a real bad spot
with a long nasty swim. So as the doctor would say to you, "Do as I say -- not as I do!", -- probably best if you
scout this corner from river left before running it. As well, be advised that many people choose to carry around
this mile of rapids which follows the corner. So depending on the water levels, be prepared for a possible portage
on river right. A few miles below this rapid, we easily ran the river right up to within feet of the top of Granite Falls
where we carried over an excellent very easy 3/4 mile portage on river right. We put in just below the end of the
canyon and well above the last rapid where the river makes it's last S-turn. The next morning we ran this last rapid
easily on river right -- choosing to carry it would extend the portage by about another 1/2 mile. It is worth noting
that if you can't catch trout and grayling on the Elk, "You ain't gonna' catch 'em nowhere son!" - the bottom of
each of the myriad of rapids are packed with gorgeous firm-fleshed lake trout and the shimmering iridescent hues
of grayling. Large pike also abound.

The Thelon
A River of Wildlife, and "Biting" Beasties

The Thelon River is probably the best river we have ever paddled for wildlife viewing. It is also the best river to
get eaten alive by mosquitoes and blackflies - they are horrific so be prepared! Within half an hour of paddling
into the Thelon Game Sanctuary - set up in 1927 by the Government of Canada as a preserve for the then
endangered musk-oxen -- we saw three wolves and four musk-oxen. One of these appeared to be completely
unconcerned when we paddled the canoe within feet of her -- Lynda insists it was a 'her' as it was so gentle --
where she could have easily touched 'her' with an outstretched paddle. We watched this shaggy creature for over
ten minutes as 'she' grazed the tops of dwarf tundra birch. All told, we saw over 30 musk-oxen (one group of 21)
, 7 moose, 6 wolves and countless lone caribou. As well the river is bird watcher's pa>


Transfer interrupted!

to thousands of geese and a myriad of other birds - I have never seen so many peregrine falcons anywhere in my
life. We didn't see a grizzly bear but we found many sets of tracks and one place where a bear had casually
opened a well- hidden and rock covered food cache box. Made of 3/4 inch plywood, and the top screwed down
with 24 2-1/2 inch deck screws, the bear had simply used the claws of one paw to open it like a beer can! As to
the biting insects - be prepared for bugs like you have never seen before. One day at lunch, as we sat under our
kitchen tarp, I watched as thousands of blackflies massed into the inside front corners of no-seeum-netting where
they were trapped. I reached up about 3 feet and rubbed my hand down the netting and was then able to scoop
up enough blackflies to literally fill my two cupped hands… I estimated them at easily more than 5,000!

The Thelon is rich with history. Towards the confluence of the Elk it is the history of the Dene. Towards Beverly,
Aberdeen and Schultz Lakes it is the history of the Inuit who now live in Baker Lake. And all along its length,
there is a fascinating history of the European explorers and trappers who ranged over the area in the late 1800s
and early 1900s. The only single book that recounts the complete story of this river is Thelon: A River Sanctuary
by David F. Pelly (ISBN 1-895465-21-4). From the geologic history, to the aboriginal and European history, to
the formation of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, it is all in this book - the bibliography alone is worth the price.

Three Sections of the Thelon

The most popular section of the Thelon is from the Hanbury-Thelon junction to Beverly Lake - a distance of
about 230 miles -- with charter flights originating in Yellowknife. Although a nice stretch of river, Lynda and I
both agreed that the sections upstream and downstream were more to our liking -- and of course you will likely
not see many people on these sections.

The one word description for the UPPER Thelon -- from the Elk to the Hanbury -- is sand. Golden sand, blueish
sand, yellow sand, red sand, coarse sand, fine sand - in fact if a camel had wandered over the top of one of the
dunes it would not have appeared out of place to us. Camping along this section is excellent and the only major
obstacle is the Thelon canyon - and is it a canyon! Cut through 80 foot high sheer vertical walls of yellowish white
sandstone it is a series of huge holes and ledges that seem to go on forever - a distance of perhaps 2 1/2 miles.
Were this canyon within a hundred miles of any major city it would be declared a national monument complete
with an interpretive center and guided tours. Quite a sight when one thinks that likely less than a few thousand
European eyes have seen this marvel of nature -- after all the first recreational canoe trip on the Thelon was only
made in 1962 led by Eric Morse. Trip reports indicate you can portage around both the right and left sides. On
either side, it is a "long-haul" and estimates I have seen seem to be in the 3 to 4 mile range. We lined the canyon
on river left but in the water level we found it was extremely hard -- near impossible truth be known ! -- and
would have been out of the question without a covered boat. We leap-frogged the boat down the fast flowing
corners with two stern lines -- a bow line here would have just got us into big trouble. Often we were knee-deep
in extremely fast current racing over wet very slippery sandstone where it was impossible to stand without hanging
on to the vertical sandstone walls with my left hand. Try to imagine standing at the top of a water slide holding
onto a 450 pound canoe with your right hand and using your left hand to inch your way down….Yikes!! Skill
aside, there was a large measure of good luck that saw us safely through the canyon, and I am not sure I would
try it again.

The MIDDLE Thelon - from the Hanbury junction to Beverely Lake - is well into the Thelon Game Sanctuary. It
is a broad fast flowing river with no rapids of any real concern. This is the best section of the river for wildlife
viewing -- from wolves to musk-oxen to caribou to moose to grizzly bears, to arctic hares to sik-siks, it is all
here. The guide of a small group we met had been on this section ten days earlier and had witnessed "la foule"
-- the migration of the entire Beverly caribou herd -- and estimated the caribou in the tens of thousands. One of
his clients, a young first time customer from Albany, N.Y., happened on a huge grizzly bear within 50 feet of his
tent one night when he went out to relieve himself! Along this stretch you can visit what remains of the original
warden's cabin built in 1928 by Billy Hoare and Jack Knox and the newer one built beside it in 1961 by one of
the trapping legends of Saskatchewan's north, Fred Riddle. Much of the middle of the river is sheltered in a
well-treed narrow valley -- the so-called Thelon Oasis -- so the chances of getting wind bound are slim. Even if
you do you can make up miles in a hurry on a good day -- 12 hours of hard paddling could easily see you move
50 to 60 miles. As you float by the Gap -- a mountainous rock formation that towers hundreds of feet above the
river -- you begin to feel as if you are on a mountain river somewhere in the Rockies. Then suddenly you cut
through a narrow opening and are thrust back into tundra shoreline interspersed with sand beaches and eskers.
Other sections of the river wind through thinly layered sandstone S-turns. Floating by these sheer walls, the
multi-coloured layers looked to us like something made by the hand of man and we were reminded of the Anasazi
ruins we had seen during winter trips to the American south west.

The LOWER Thelon from Beverly Lake to Baker Lake is true tundra and is the ancestral home of the Inuit who
now live in Baker Lake. Avoided by most paddlers due to the chance of being wind-bound on the 110 mile
length of Beverly, Aberdeen and Schultz Lakes, this was for us perhaps the best five days of our trip. Memories
of gorgeous tundra camp sites, unbelieveable fishing, hardly a biting insects, ancient sites where Inuit lived and are
buried are all still vivid. One night paddle along the shoreline of Aberdeen Lake took us past huge ten foot thick
sheets of ice looking like glaciers where they were calving into the lake. A lone caribou walked across the top of
one as we slid by. Later as we glided across mirror smooth water we were enveloped by a dense night fog.
Feeling like passengers on the Titanic, we blindly navigated several bay crossings by compass and watch alone.
We watched as the shoreline disappeared behind us as the dense fog swallowed us … and then as we listened to
the haunting sound of loons we watched as the shoreline reappeared mere feet before we paddled into it. When
we finally decided to camp for the night we drifted into a beach and watched as several of the large rocks came
to life and disappeared into the mist -- a small group of caribou. And then the next morning when we awoke to a
hot sunny day we saw where our new friends had come back to sleep on the beach beside us.

Aleksektok Rapids marks the end of the large lakes. This is a big piece of ferocious whitewater. Just past the tight
right hand corner there are several holes and ledges that are not easily avoided and could easily swallow an
elephant. The cross on the hill bears grim reminder of what can happen if you have trouble. We paddled down an
easy channel right of center and worked our way along this margin until just before the corner where we did an
aggressive front ferry into a boiling tight eddy - the kind of eddy where I couldn't quit paddling until Lynda leaped
out and held the front end of the canoe. From here I easily lined the boat a few hundred yards past the worst of
the rapid and then we paddled the bottom. Alternately the portage is about one mile on river right. From here the
Thelon is like a bob-sled run - you could easily run the entire 50 miles in about 8 to 9 hours.

Details

There is a good article about the Thelon River in Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories: A Paddler's Guide,
edited by Mary McCreadie. By barren land standards this river is easy - especially the MIDDLE section -- but
don't forget where you are. Any mistake, no matter how small, when you are so far from help can have serious
consequences. As I have said before, plan in a double redundant fashion - in other words have a back-up plan
when your first plan fails! As the famous arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanson said, "An adventure is a sign of
incompetence …If everything is well managed, if there are no miscalculations or mistakes, then the things
that happen are only the things you expected to happen, for which you are ready and with which you can
therefore deal."

In addition to the regular first aid and survival gear necessary for any canoe trip, Lynda and I carry a VHF radio
that we can use to talk to aircraft. If you buy or rent one of these units for your northern trips, familiarize yourself
with the local air schedules, the frequencies that the planes use, and general radio protocol. I also carry a Personal
Locator Beacon (PLB) sold by ACR Electronics, Inc.( http://wwwacrelectronics.com/ ) that is strapped to the back
of my life jacket in case we capsize and lose our gear. These units should be mandatory on canoe trips rather than
the much cheaper EPIRBs that seem to be the common choice of American canoe camps. The signal from the
EPIRB is not coded and a GENERAL, rather than specific, search is immediately initiated. This unfortunately
usually involves launching a Canadian Armed Forces Hercules transport planes -- at a cost of about $10,000 per
hour -- that assess the situation and then usually call in rescue helicopters at an additional cost of about $1000 per
hour. My feeling is that it is false economy to buy the cheaper EPIRB and in fact last summer I am personally
aware of two very expensive searches that were initiated when EPIRBs were set off. The cost of these two
rescue attempts would buy a lot of PLBs! This year I took a GLOBALSTAR satellite telephone ( USA
http://www.globalstar.com/ CANADA http://www.globalstar.ca/ )along to try out. WOW is all I can say! -- every canoe
in the world should have one of these. About the size of a portable phone in your house, I was able to a series
radio interviews from the river without ever losing the signal or re-charging the battery and the quality of the phone
conversations is as good as any land line. If you are interested in hearing the about 85 minutes of
live-from-the-river taped interviews about our trip contact me at layman@rongenet.sk.ca . The cost is $12.00 US
funds ( 17.00 Canadian) plus $4.00 US funds ($6.00 Canadian) for shipping (money orders only please).

One final safety note --- Ensure you register and de-register your trip with the RCMP at the beginning and end of
your trip.

If you want to take a look at some real good canoe equipment that will make your trips a lot more fun and
comfortable take a look at the following suppliers. Carlisle Paddles (http://www.carlislepaddles.com/) , Marmot
Mountain Limited (http://www.marmot.com/, Northwest River Supplies (http://www.nrsweb.com/ ), Zaveral Racing
Paddles (http://www.zre.com/ ) and Coleman Company Limited ( http://www.coleman.com/ ). These folks make
excellent gear and I used equipment from each of them this summer --- believe me if will work for me on the
tundra it will work for you anywhere! And last but not least, for camp food that is inexpensive and doesn't taste
like cardboard take a look at http://www.bearcreekfoods.com/ for Bear Creek Country Kitchens. Try their Spinach
Parmesan Bread with "Damn" Good Chili for a meal to die for -- and for desserts you haven't lived until you have
tried their Chocolate Chip Fudge Brownies or Lemon Poppy Seed Cake!

Getting There

All the information you need to start and end your trip on the Thelon River out of Yellowknife, Northwest
Territories is included in McCreadie's book or can be obtained by phoning the Northwest Territories Arctic
Tourism Office. There is also a new way to get into Thelon country from Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan with
Northern Dene Airway's (NDA) - they have a Single Otter, a Beaver and Cessna 185s for charter. You can
drive to Stony Rapids from La Ronge on the new 'tote' road from Points North Landing, or if you choose you can
take the daily scheduled flight from Saskatoon to Stony with Athabaska Airways. Things change fast in the north
so phone Dave Webster at NDA to get an update on the best current options and whether your vehicle is suitable
for the 'tote' road. On the topic of fast changes, I recently stayed at The Whitewater Inn in Stony Rapids before
our trip and the room, food and service were excellent and reasonably priced - a big change from years back let
me tell you! NDA has 17 foot covered NOVA CRAFT ( http://www.novacraft.com/) prospector canoes for rent or
if you want you can rent canoes from Ric Driediger at Horizon's Unlimited 50 miles north of La Ronge (
http://www.churchillrivercanoe.com )

At trip's end you can camp in a nice little community campground for $5 per person per night at Baker Lake,
BUT for my money I'd stay at the Baker Lake Lodge run by Boris and Liz Kotelewetz. They run a great facility
and Boris has his finger on the pulse of the area - phone him before you start your trip to establish the best ways
of getting you and your canoe home from Baker. He also has canoes to rent and usually has a tundra tire Twin
Otter that you can charter if you choose to start and end your trip at Baker Lake. Faye at North Star Tours in
Churchill, Manitoba can get all your arrangements made for flights from Baker, train tickets from Churchill, hotel
rooms, etc. Talk to Liz and Faye about what there is to see and do in Baker Lake and Churchill and consider
spending at least a day in each place if you can .. these are both great communities to visit.

Maps

The following 1:250,000 NTS Maps are required for the Elk - Thelon trip and can be obtained from A World of
Maps (see contact information below)

75-H Rennie Lake 75-I Beaverhill Lake

75-P Hanbury River 65-M Clarke River

66-D Tammarvi River 66-C Beverly Lake

66-B Aberdeen Lake 66-A Schultz Lake

For winter planning purposes get the following 1:500,000 VFR Navigation Charts

Air 5030 Yellowknife Air 5036 Bathurst Inlet

Air 5037 Baker Lake Air 5031 Rankin Inlet

Contacts

1.Northern Dene Airways, Dave Webster, Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan, 306-439-2020
2.Athabaska Airways, La Ronge, Saskatchewan, 1-800-667-9356
3.Whitewater Inn, Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan, 306-439-2188
4.Baker Lake Lodge, Boris or Liz Kotelewetz, Baker Lake, Nunavut, 867-793-2905
5.North Star Tours, Faye, Churchill, Manitoba, 204-675-2852
6.A World of Maps, (800) 897-9969 OR (613) 724-6776, bgreen@worldofmaps.com,
http://www.worldofmaps.com/
7.R.C.M.P., Baker Lake, 867-793-2922
8.R.C.M.P., Stony Rapids, 306-439-2185
9.Horizon's Unlimited, Ric Driediger, 306-635-4420, ric.crco@sk.sympatico.ca,
http://www.churchillrivercanoe.com
10.Nunavut Tourism Office, 800-491-7910, 867-979-6551, http://www.arctictravel.com/sites
11.Northwest Territories Arctic Tourism Office, 800-661-0788, 867-873-7200, arctic@nwttravel.nt.ca