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Thelon River 2004
Nestor Lewyckyj, Montreal, Canada
The picture above was taken on August 6th as we are ready to board the de Havilland Beaver behind us. The four of us, novice and intermediate canoeists at best, set out on a 2 week, 220 kilometre, canoe trip on one of Canada's most famous northern rivers, through a game sanctuary that passes you gently from a treed northern oasis, to a barren wind-blown tundra. We took many pictures, had many experiences, and all in all, had a great time. Oh, did I tell you, the fishing was great?? None of us were unchanged by the experience.
The trip took a little over a year to plan, which isn't so bad. I received a Canadian canoeing book which listed the Thelon as one of the ten best rivers to canoe in Canada. I was immediately intrigued. It was easy enough to find the Thelon Game Sanctuary on the map. A quick web search provided us with the all of the information we needed.
At right is an image of the Sanctuary, showing the river. The two red dots indicate the starting and stopping points of our trip. The exact coordinates are shown further down on this page. The starting point was Warden's Grove, the confluence of the Hanbury and Thelon Rivers.
One of the most compelling features of this section of the Thelon River, is that for 220 river kilometres (about 160 kilometres as the crow flies) you can canoe down stream without any portages. Depending on the time of year, parts of the river might be quite quick, but no real rapids for that entire section.
The domain name www.thelon.com is owned by Great Canadian Ecoventures and that is where we organized our canoe rental and flights to and from the river. Great Canadian Ecoventures is run by (Tundra) Tom Faess and he can always be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Tundra Tom is a product of the Far North and is in every way as interesting as the Barren Lands.
On a map, and/or with a GPS, the starting and ending coordinates are:
Thelon Bluffs: N64º 31.522' X W101º 20.771'
We all met up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. We had pre-booked a 2-bedroom suite at the Fraser Suites which was perfect for us. Keith arrived in Yellowknife hours ahead of the rest of us and spent that time casing the town, looking at the likely places to pick up last minute supplies. Nathalie and I flew from Montreal to Calgary where we were to transfer to Canadian North to fly through Edmonton on to Yellowknife. As luck would have it, we bumped into Taras, who was flying from Toronto, and had spent 5 hours in the terminal already, dying of boredom. We all clambered into the Maple Leaf lounge and prepared ourselves for the long flight north. We arrived late in the evening and reached the hotel near dark. Tundra Tom had one of his guys pick us up, and he took us for a quick tour of the town, on the way to the hotel. We were all so knackered, that we really didn't do any exploring that night. We had a bottle of wine, chatted, and that was it. Next morning was different. We could taste the excitement in the air. We and our gear were picked up in the morning and brought to Ecoventures where we met Tom, got a good briefing, signed off a ton of forms. Close by were several stores for souvenirs, supplies (fuel) and the like. We met Brad (the pilot) at this point and we packed our gear into the van and headed off to the bay where the Beaver (a small plane) was. Brad mentioned something about the weight of our baggage, but fortunately it all fit into the back of the plane, which is really not that large. We all clambered on board, Brad fired up the engine and away we went.
Flying in a Beaver
Now, you have to understand, that flying in a de Havilland Beaver is not quite the same as flying Air Canada. The plane fits 5 people barely (this includes the pilot) and only a modest amount of baggage. Production on the Beaver ended in 1967. I do not know how many were made but if you are at all interested, you can start looking here. The plane is all metal (aluminium) and its claim to fame is that it is as tough as nails. Apparently a Beaver in good condition can fetch $500,000 CDN, which floored me. Apparently, they are money machines for bush pilots and charter air lines. Tundra Tom couldn't do what he does with fishermen, photographers, and canoeists without one. The floats allow Brad to land on any straight section of a deep enough river or any any lake large enough to take off. He doesn't need more than a few hundred metres of flat, deep water. The Beaver was built as a workhorse, and not to coddle its passengers. The plane is small (our model), loud, cold, and rattled a lot. Given the fact that it was a 3 hour flight (through Whitefish Lake) to our starting point at Warden's Grove, it feels longer than that in the Beaver. Having said that, the Beaver is a phenomenal way to view the North. It typically flies low, and if there is any cloud cover at all, it will fly under it. I don't think Brad ever flew over 3,500 feet and was often at 2,000 feet. On the return flight, we started off at about 1,000 feet. You get to see a lot of detail at that height, including wildlife. We spotted things like pairs of swans, geese and other water fowl. Unfortunately, the caribou were not in that part of the Thelon, so we saw no mega fauna. After the take off in Yellowknife and the landing in Whitefish Lake, it was clear to us that Brad was an excellent pilot. I think we felt much more at ease at that point. It is hard to describe the feeling I had when we first spotted the Thelon from the air and Brad pointed out where we were going to land. It was then that I realized how wonderful a small float plane can be. Brad landed on the river as if he was landing at an airport. No fuss, no bother. Three minutes later he had run one of the floats onto the sandy beach and we were getting out of the plane, and stepping onto the Barrens, in the Thelon Sanctuary. We had arrived! The air was cool but sweet, and the excitement was palpable in the air. We were about to start our adventure.
We spent the first night at Warden's grove, having arrived there in the late afternoon. Our canoes were not there yet and Brad was to return the next morning with them. We set up our tents, and having nothing better to do, we decided to try fishing, from shore. It was then that we realized what kind of fishing we were up for. Here is a shot of me with my first pike. We set up our tents on the bluff above the river, across from the old water surveyors cabin, trying to get a sense of the place. It seemed so foreign, so different, so isolated. I remembered having some doubts in my mind as to whether what we had planned was in fact a good idea. The good weather made easing into the Thelon easier, I suppose, as did the initial successes with the fish.
The four of us came with 3 fishing rods (the men) thinking of maybe catching fish, maybe not. We had read that although the fishing can be good, you cannot rely on catching fish for food. We took that as meaning that the fishing was not that great. That turned out to be completely not true. Had we wanted to, we could have lived off of fish the whole two weeks. We caught three types of fish: Northern Pike, Lake Trout, Grayling. The pike was the most plentiful and they were certainly fun to catch. Anywhere there was water grasses, or any place where a river or stream fed into the Thelon was sure to have pike lurking, waiting to feed on the smaller fish coming in from the streams. These pike were huge, and I was amazed at the size of their mouths and their teeth. Unhooking one of these monsters was quite the operation requiring two people, one to hold the mouth open with pliers or a rock, the other to unhook it. I haven't had much practice with pike lately and two of them got a piece of my thumbs. I bled freely. One of those gashes got infected several days afterwards, and I had to do some first aid work on it. We didn't eat any of the pike as none of us were that fond of pike meat. Fortunately, we didn't have to. The Lake Trout proved to be almost equally abundant and they were great fighters. The problem with the lake Trout was catching one that wasn't too large to eat. Many that we caught we simply could not have eaten in one sitting, and we didn't want to have leftover fish around with the prospect of barren land grizzlies around. So we released many good sized Lake Trout back into the Thelon. The trout we ate were about 5 pounds each and would make a great meal for the 4 of us. We were disadvantaged in several ways while fishing that made the landing of these large fish difficult. First, we were fishing from shore. While this makes for a very stable platform, it is tough to drag such large fish right to shore if its shallow and we had no waders. In such a shallow environment, nets are ineffective. You essentially are left with no alternative but to drag the fish as close as possible to you and then lunge at it with your bare hands. Fortunately, with three of you fishing, the one with a fish one would scream, which would bring the other two scrambling for help. I must admit that it worked rather well. The second difficulty is that we had weenie little trout fishing rods. I am used to fishing for 1 and 2 pound trout, not 25 pounds beasts. I had an 8 lb test line (Fireline) on my Shimano rod. Although I never lost a fish due to a broken line, several broke as I was struggling with the fish with my bare hands. The light line and small rod simply extended the time it took to land the fish, as you had to be very careful with the drag settings, in particular if you were working against the current. The large trout that I am holding above took at least 20 minutes to bring in. So the recommendation is, bring a solid fishing rod made for fish in the 20 lb range and bring 20 lb test line. If you have the room, bring both a larger rod and a smaller one for fishing the streams for grayling. That would be the ideal set up.
Foraging and Meals
In a land known as The Barrens, it felt odd and certainly unexpected to be pulling so much tasty protein form the river. We were also able to supplement our diet with some foraging on land. There were two things in abundance in mid August that we took full advantage of. One was the blueberries. There were literally tons of them in huge berry fields. If we had wanted to, we could have literally eaten pounds of them each day. Nathalie was usually the one who would spend the time we fished picking blueberries, which we ate just like that, or we would save them for Keith's famous blueberry cobbler. The second item we found was real surprise. On the third day, someone brought a mushroom to me, inquiring whether it was edible or not. My father is the big mushroom picker and I know some of the main types that are good. This mushroom was of the Boletes variety, a "pidberiznyk" in Ukrainian. This mushroom is called the Common Scaber Stalk. "This is impossible", I said. This type of mushroom grows primarily under birch trees (the Ukrainian name literally means this) and we were hundreds of kilometres, maybe thousands, from any deciduous forest. Keith quietly pointed out that he thought that the small shrubs that covered the hill we were standing on were dwarf birches (Keith would know something like this). Voila! mystery solved. We went nuts picking all of the mushroom we could find. Just our luck that they were exactly in season when we were passing through. Although the rest of the group expressed some apprehension towards eating them (some doubt about my knowledge of mushrooms), when no one got sick after our first meal, we just kept on picking. They were delicious, in fact, and supplemented a number of our meals. Nathalie, Taras and Keith became, quite literally, barren lands chefs, discussing and debating the menu of each meal. I was amazed at the attention to detail, the zeal and excitement with which each meal was created from the food we brought, the fish we caught, and the mushrooms and berries we found. We were rather well organized for our trip but we had decided that everyone would be responsible for their own food. Given the fact that we were coming from 3 different cities, we felt that coordinating food as a group would be tough. This meant that once on the Thelon, we started to discover who brought what, and we ended up sharing a lot. I brought a lot of freeze dried food, a habit I picked up from hiking, where weight is critical. Taras was on the other extreme, bring all kinds of breads, pork fat "salo", cured meats, etc. This variety fed the barren lands chefs' imagination and produced stunning results at meal time every day. I must admit that I was truly impressed with what and how we ate for the 2 weeks. I never expected it and it was one of the highlights of the trip.
We had read much about the Thelon's large animals but we were only partially lucky in seeing them. We did not see any musk ox or wolverines but we got lucky with bears and wolves. Keith and Taras spotted a barren land grizzly on shore as we rounded and bend but he spotted us and ran off before Nathalie and I could see him. Couple days later we spotted this one on the opposite bank of the river. It was a difficult spot. It was a bend in the river where it turned into the stiff wind that was blowing that day. Nathalie and I were battling the winds and the white caps while at the same time trying to paddle closer to the opposite shore to get a closer look at the bear. As we got closer, I grabbed my camera with its 300mm lens while Nathalie steadied the canoe in front. I snapped at least 20 shots, not knowing if any would be sharp enough due to the frenzied bobbing of the canoe in the waves. I remember Tundra Tom telling us that barren land grizzlies are different from their western cousin in that they are leaner and lighter in colour. They don't eat as much protein. As Tom said, its hard to corner something in the barrens. But grizzlies are intelligent and curious animals. Where the first bear we spotted scampered off right away, this one was as curious in us as we were in him. He was walking upstream along the shore when we first saw him. As we approached the shore, he climbed up the 20-foot bank to get further away but he came down to shore as he got upstream from us and came right up to the waters edge, sniffing the air (we were now upwind from him). For a moment, I even thought it possible that he would enter the water to get closer to us. I was trying to remember what I had read about grizzlies and remembered one writer recounting how he waded into neck deep water to get away from an overly curious grizzly that came to visit his camp. But what was on my mind was that this would be a terribly inconvenient spot to capsize the canoe, and if we were not careful, the wind would ground the canoe and the grizzly would have a very close up view of US. As we paddled away, he tried the air a few more times, then ambled off upstream, following the shore. We saw bear tracks a number of times, along the middle section of our trip. We saw tracks close to our camp one day, probably made while we were at camp. We were always (almost always) very careful about where we ate and how we cleaned up. When we cleaned our fish, we threw all of the body parts far into the river, much to the delight of the local sea gulls. But given how sensitive their noses are, bears will find you if they are in the area.
The sole wolf we saw was under very different circumstances. We had made camp by a small (and only) clump of trees, less than 40 kilometres from our journey end point. We were wind bound there for 3 days and nights. We placed our tents downwind from the trees and they provided considerable shelter. We were sitting by our fire at midday when this wolf just trotted by, perhaps 200 metres away, just avoiding our camp. For some reason, as he trotted away from us, I howled at him. This got his attention! He stopped, looked towards us and howled back. this went on for several minutes, the wolf and I howling at one another until Taras suggested that perhaps my toying with carnivorous mega fauna should come to an end. The wolf howled several more times with no response from me. His sense of curiosity very interesting. He laid down for a while, perhaps wondering why we were no longer "speaking" to him. He then retraced his steps towards the shore and upstream from us perhaps to get a better smell of us. he then trotted back to his previous spot and lat down again. The entire encounter took something approaching an hour, at which point he gave up, and quietly went inland from the river. We talked about this for a while and I wondered if such a similar encounter 50,000 years ago paved the way to today's modern dog. I can't help but think that had we persisted in our calling, the wolf would have stayed around much longer. And had we given him food.......
We saw caribou on a number of occasions, but the large Beverly herd was apparently in the North Eastern section of the sanctuary. We only saw individual animals and groups of threes. Apparently you have to plan to see the caribou. As we found out, its not automatic. You do see the occasional sign if them most notably old antlers and the like. We did not see any carcasses or skeletons. They do not call it the barrens for nothing. Its, well, barren. Its not filled with large mammals like the African plains. There isn't enough food to support them and the climate is just too harsh. Aside from bears, wolves, and caribou, the only other large mammal we saw was multiple moose. They are rather skittish and they can see you coming from quite a ways off, so getting close enough for a picture is difficult and would take a far bit of time.
They say that Montana is Big Sky Country. I've never been to Montana, and it may be true, but its hard to see how anything can be bigger sky country than the barrens. The land is very flat with only gentle rolling relief. Its Huge Sky Country, if ask me. The sky is ever present and you are constantly aware of it. It is such a big part of what you are seeing because of the low relief of the land. The combination of low relief and the almost complete absence of any landmarks also gives you a weird perspective of distances. Everything seems to by much closer than it really is. It can take you what seems like forever to get out of visual range of the tent. It can easily take a kilometre or more.
As compared to June, August has a real night. It starts rather late (23:00) and finishes early (04:00) and it never gets pitch black, but its close. We never stayed out very late as night. There isn't much to do and it gets quiet chilly. The coming of night sometimes brought some interesting images. We had a fair bit of cloud cover so we saw the Northern Lights prominently only one night. There probably is a whole technique to photographing them because it is quite technically challenging. You are photographing them (naturally) in very low light, yet they move and change quickly. The shot on the left is the only decent shot I was able to take, although I did not take many. What was odd about the Northern Lights was how low they were on the horizon to the SOUTH of us. We were so far north that the Northern Lights were to the south of us.
The River and Canoeing
Although the land in the Thelon Sanctuary is called The Barrens, the river itself goes through a number of different stages visually, as the terrain slowly changes. In the first half of the trip there are a lot of small trees on either side of the river. This is what is referred to as a forest oasis and it occurs as a narrow band on either side of the river. The trees are small and scraggly and they are rather sparse, but it is technically a forest. There are also a lot of dwarf birches, especially on elevated ground above the river. In some sections the river runs quite quickly with small cliffs on either side. In other sections, it spreads out for many hundreds of metres and can be very shallow. In some spots, like the picture to the right, we actually ran aground in the sand. The river was only a few inches deep and had spread out considerably. I suspect that the sand really moves around year to year and that the river changes in so far as which parts are readily navigable and which are not. In mid-August, we had probably picked a time when the river is at its lowest. There were no rapids at all between Warden's Grove and Thelon Bluffs. There are a number of swifts where the water surface breaks a bit and these are a useful distraction. You can cover considerable distance in a short period of time. using my running GPS (Garmin Forerunner 101) I clocked a top speed for us at about 17 Km/hr. This was in a long wavering swift with us paddling as hard as we could. Hardly white water stuff but this is what makes the Thelon so accessible to many people. Who really need only basic canoeing skills. As I understand it, in early June, the river is quite a different story. The canoes that Tundra Tom provided us (and Brad and a friend assembled for us at Warden's Grove) were tough, plastic canoes. I don't believe they were ABS but some other plastic. They were quite heavy but we were not doing any portages so they served us very well.
Although we were on the river for almost 2 weeks, we did only limited side trips. In general, there is not much to see, because its the Barrens. There were a few exceptions. The map showed a large pingo a few kilometres north of the river at one point. Given the fact that there is precious little high ground up there, we decided it would an interesting excursion and it might give us some views. Like in the dessert, there are very few distance markers in the barrens so its tough to know how far an object is away from you. We knew the pingo was about 5 km in land but it still seemed like forever to get to it, even though we could see it the entire time. The pingo is surrounded by water most of the time (evidently) and we had a hard time reaching it. We found areas of dried mud and made it across abut a good rain would have made it impassable without some serious boots. We saw a large Snowy Owl on the way to the pingo. It was going through a serious of swoops and landings but never close enough for a good picture. I was impressed by its size and wingspan. It was wonderfully white. The top of the pingo was perhaps 40 feet above the plain. It looked like a small volcano with a crater in the middle. It seemed to be ,made of hard mud. A number of rodents (marmots?) inhabited the pingo and had a series of burrows in it. They were very curious in us but were too shy to come close. The pingo did give us a good 360° view, but as you can see, there is not much to see except more tundra. We did see a moose of in the distance. He must have heard us because by the time we spotted him, he was crashing through the bushes away from us. Its hard to sneak up on something in the barrens. It was reasonably warm that day but there was a nice breeze in our face as we walked to the pingo. Flies were non-existent and we shed our bug nets, as the pictures attest. The walk back to the river (and our canoes) was quite different. The wind was at our back now. The relative difference in our speed with the wind made all the difference for the black flies. They were now all around us. We quickly donned our head gear and continued on. But it was an example of the fact that the black flies are always present but certain weather conditions keep them down in the grass while other conditions unleash them. Which brings us to the next obvious section.
The one thing that is true of tundra is that there are a lot of bugs. That is inescapable. Especially in this band of tundra. You go further north where its REALLY barren like Baffin Island or Ellesmere Island, and the bugs are less of a problem, especially because it tends to be windy there. We had read a fair bit before setting out that black flies could be terrible depending where you were and the time of year. In mid-August its apparently better than in late June. We were prepared with bug shirts as well as some smaller head nets. Its black flies during the day and mosquitoes at dawn and dusk. The bugs are always there. But whether they bother you completely depends on temperature and wind. If its warm and no wind, the black flies can be brutal during the day. If the wind picks up to even 10 or 15 kph, the black flies literally disappear into the tundra, into the grass. If its cooler, the black flies tend to be less aggressive as well. On our walk to see the pingo above, we were walking west, and the westward wind increased our relative wind velocity. The end result was that the flies were not bothering us. On our way back. the wind was at our backs, and the black flies all of a sudden started harassing us, so we had to put the nets on. You don't need a big shift in conditions to bring on or turn off the black flies.
Given how cold the winters are out here, its amazing so many bugs (or larvae) survive year to year.
Out on the river, the bugs rarely bothered us except if the wind was completely dead, which was rare.
The mosquitoes are just as sensitive to the wind, if not more so. However, they are really active only at dawn and dusk so they tend to be less of a problem as we were typically either in our tents, or in the bug tent. The worst thing about the black flies was going to the bathroom, when you had to squat. Because they hide in the tundra, squatting down simply invites an assault on your most intimate body parts. You learn to do this very quickly. We did not have a separate small tent for this, and next time I go, I am bringing one. In general, the following points need to be observed:
1) I strongly recommend the use of the Bug Shirt, available at many stores catering to the outdoorsman
2) A separate small head net can be handy when you don't want to put the whole shirt on
3) Good quantities of Muskol (full strength) are a must, for your hands, ears, etc.
4) A dining tent is a must. Sitting outside to eat will simply be very unpleasant. A mesh tent is perfect for this. The only problem we had with it is that it does not tolerate wind very well. I will have to search on the internet to see if there are any other models available that are more resistant to wind. Typically they tend to be tall so that you can stand in them which hurts their wind tolerance.
5) A small tent to act as a latrine would be a great asset. I plan to have one next time I go.
In general, the bugs are not bad enough to keep me from coming back. But if you are not prepared for them, you will suffer terribly
It is 4 years later that I write this. I often think about our trip on the Thelon, and I plot my return. I would go tomorrow if I had a crew ready to go. A 2-person team is ok for those that are adventuresome, but I think that groups of 4 are best. You have a spare canoe, 2 tents in case of trouble and the group is not too large to manage. Once you get to 6 and 8 persons, the logistics become more involved. If anyone out there reading this is interested in going and does not have anyone to go with, drop me a line email@example.com
All Photos © Nestor Lewyckyj 2007