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The Meaning of Thelon. . .

EcoWatch/June - July 1997

(re-printed with permission)

By Editor/author Ted Kerasote
Paddling down the Thelon River, which runs across the central barrenlands of the Northwest Territories toward Hudson Bay, we hadn't seen another person in two hundred miles, only peregrine falcons zooming over our heads, rough-legged hawks soaring, and a wolverine staring at us from across the river. A timbered oasis in the midst of tundra and granite escarpments, the valley teemed with wildlife: in the mornings muskox stood outside the tent; and there were moose in the willows, caribou on the bluffs, and white wolves howling while we ate lunch. Canada and greater white-fronted geese flew upriver, yacking, and often when I looked down there were grizzly tracks under my boots. We caught grayling for diner and grayling for breakfast--foot-and-a-half-long fish--that, innocent, took almost any fly or spoon. Sometimes lake trout would run our four-pound-test lines into the river and break them off with the sound of a firecracker. And afterward there was the silence, palpable above the moving water, and enormous--like the tundra and sky, stretching to the horizon and as vast as the sea.

This huge reach of untrammeled country, this abundant wildlife, is partially the result of the creation of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. Located equidistant from Hudson Bay and Great Slave Lake, the region now encompassed by the sanctuary was never permanently settled. Aboriginal peoples--Dene from the West and Inuit from the East--travelled it, hunting and searching for wood and fish, and white trappers sledded and canoed across it, building the occasional cabin. In 1927 the area was closed to both sport and subsistence hunting to protect dwindling numbers of muskox. The closure had far-reaching effects on all the region's wildlife: muskox recovered handsomely, and the Beverly caribou herd, which migrates across the sanctuary and is hunted far to the south, now numbers almost 300,000 animals; most importantly, a large enough block of country was set aside so that human-shy species such as grizzlies might have enough room to insure their long-term survival--measured neither in decades nor a century, but over five hundred to a thousand years. In addition, mineral exploration was kept out of the sanctuary, and, because of the region's great distance from air traffic centers, a small number of canoeists and anglers have come to run its rivers. There are few places left on the planet as untouched as this.

To put the size of the Thelon region into perspective consider that the largest designated-wilderness area in the Lower 48 States, California's Death Valley Wilderness, measures 4934 square miles. The Thelon Sanctuary itself is 20,077 square miles and lies in the midst of 260,000 square miles of tundra, rivers, and lakes (the size of Texas), uncrossed by a road or powerline and without a single human community, making it the largest uninhabited area in continental North America. Unlike wilderness areas in the contiguous U.S, the Thelon doesn't have trails, mileage signs, designated camping areas, rangers on patrol, and guidebooks describing every river mile. Unlike parts of the Yukon and Alaska, which lie relatively close to roads and villages, affording easy air access, the Thelon doesn't have many visitors. What it does have is primeval wildness and the authentic experience of being away from the human-created environments that now dominate the globe. This may not last.

In 1999 the Northwest Territories will be partitioned into two new territories, Nunavut on the east, politically dominated by Inuit, and a yet-to-be-named territory on the west, where Dene will likely hold the balance of power. The boundary will pass through the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. Because of the unique natural values of the region, as well as its rich mineral deposits, a Thelon Management Planning Program was initiated. Now in its final drafting, it has--despite its title--tried to maintain a landscape that won't be managed. It proposes that the sanctuary be open only to aboriginal subsistence hunting, and then only while Inuit or Dene happen to be travelling through the sanctuary. It suggests that mineral exploitation be prohibited within the sanctuary, and that tourism be wilderness-oriented.

This is all to the good. However, around the sanctuary diamond, gold, and uranium deposits are being explored and developed, and the Northwest Territories, though one of the least populated places on earth (56,000 people in 1.3 million square miles, all of them concentrated in 64 communities), has a high birth rate, matching that of developing nations in Latin America and Asia. At some point the pressure to connect growing Hudson Bay communities with the rest of the North American road grid far to the west will be significant. Not only would such roads bring cheaper products, they would also facilitate mineral extraction around the sanctuary. Such a trans-barrenlands road would open up the country, cross the migration route of the Beverly caribou herd, and, even if it were sited thoughtfully, avoiding the sanctuary, hasten what the current management plan for the area inevitably puts into play: the creation of an island wilderness. Such a model hasn't worked for national parks in America or Africa--the island is always too small to support species like wolves, grizzly bears, or wildebeest, which have enormous ranges.

The challenge for northern Canadians, who rightfully want the amenities of modern life that we in more developed places enjoy, will be to achieve higher standards of living without harming that which can't be replaced: a land that in every criterion--free-roaming wildlife, the presence of historic predators, pure water, clean air, and lack of services and safety--rings of the earth's original condition.

This may be difficult to do, but not impossible. If communities on Hudson Bay want road service, a highway could be built south to Churchill. Manitoba, where there is now a railhead, leaving the central barrenlands intact. That will make the cost of mineral exploitation higher, but the history of nations has been one of selling natural resources for a pittance, especially when the costs of environmental degradation and restoration are accurately factored. If ecotourism--river running, angling, hunting, wildlife photography--is developed, as surely it must be, Inuit and Dene might consider that the numbers of visitors could be limited more strictly than has been the case in other parts of the world. The Colorado, Nahani, Kongakut, Dudh Kosi, and Zambezi were all once wild rivers; they are now simply rivers with wild water, overrun with people and loved to death.

In the various languages of the north, Thelon means "Wooded River" or "Fish River," signifying its importance to the people who lived on the tundra. The sort of "fish" or "wood" it now offers are precious indeed: the Thelon isn't a representation, in miniature, of what the earth once was. It is not a park, or a wilderness corridor, giving a hint and a flavor of the once wild earth. It still is that place. The people of the north have a daunting challenge and charge: holding on to what the rest of us have destroyed.

Visitor's Note: To see the Thelon country contact Great Canadian Wildlife Adventures, which guides and outfits paddling, angling, and photography trips. Call 1-608-370-5071; on the Web:

Tundra Tom 'dancing' for caribou herd along Thelon River / copyright Ted Keresote

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