canoe trips · canoeing clinics · canoe courses · whitewater canoe training · canoe trip guide training · canoe rentals · specialty camping gear · campfire tents · environmental fireboxes · fishing · family vacations · holiday planning
Horizons Unlimited · Churchill River Canoe Outfitters
Nu-thel-tin-tu-eh and the Thlewiaza River
The Land of the Caribou Inuit and The Barren Ground Caribou Dene
by Bill Layman
2735 words. For a condensed version, see Bill's article on GORP
The clear, cold waters of the Thlewiaza River run from the north end of Nueltin Lake, which straddles the Manitoba - Nunavut border, to the coast of Hudson Bay, just south of the small Inuit community of Arviat. This subarctic river has largely been ignored by veteran arctic paddlers, most probably because it is viewed as being too far south. The Thlewiaza, meaning "little fish" in Dene, is so named for the abundance of grayling that fill its numerous rapids. For centuries, the barren ground caribou Dene, a northern Athapascan Aboriginal group, penetrated this area by foot during the summer months as they followed the annual migration of the caribou herds they depended on for food, shelter, and clothing. They still, to this day, continue to travel to this area in the winter months to hunt and trap. As well, the Inuit of Arviat, as they have for generations, continue to utilize the tundra, and its wealth of caribou, to the north of "Big" River, as they know the Thlewiaza.
This is a young river; not having yet cuts its way down enough to drain the many small lakes, which occur along its length as it winds its way in and out of the tundra along the edge of the northern tree line. This area, not yet true tundra, but nearly out of the tree line, is called the taiga. It is a land of sand eskers, high windswept rocky campsites, infinite skies, deep blue lakes filled with red-fleshed lake trout, gnarled and wizened clumps of small black spruce, miles of raging wild rapids filled with delicate white-fleshed grayling, and is a spectacularly gorgeous landscape.
Lynda Holland, my paddling partner, and I read all that we could find about this river, and listened to the stories told to us by Dene we know in northern Saskatchewan who had seen parts of the river, or heard stories about it. As we pored over our maps of the area, we thought about the interconnected web of information we gathered about the Inuit and Dene, about the caribou and the wolves, and about the active fur trade for white fox pelts during the first half of this century. All this seemed to be held together by a thin blue line of ink on our map. This thread, the Thlewiaza River, running 180 miles almost straight east from Seal Hole Lake at the north end of Nueltin Lake, to Hudson Bay seemed to inexorably beckon us to paddle its length.
During the summer of 1997, Lynda and I paddled 450 miles from the north end of Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan's north through a series of lakes to Snyder Lake, and ultimately to Nueltin Lake. From Seal Hole Lake at the north end of Nueltin Lake, we followed the Thlewiaza River to Hudson Bay. Although we paddled well over a hundred rapids we only scouted from shore at a handful of places. We were able to avoid portaging even once along this river, and only found one particularly tough rapid that required us to line for about 3/4 of a mile.
THE HISTORY OF "BIG" RIVER
P. G. Downes’ book, Sleeping Island, had long captivated both Lynda and I. This book tells of the 1939 canoe trip made by Downes, a school teacher who worked just outside of Boston, and John Albrecht. They began their trip at the small trapping and trading community of Brochet at the north end of Reindeer Lake in northern Manitoba. Their final destination was the Hudson Bay Company post, run by Fred Schweder senior, on Windy River at the north end of Nueltin Lake.
From Brochet, these two seasoned travelers struggled upstream on the Cochrane River, portaging into Downes’ so-called "chain of little lakes", and finally into Fort Hall Lake. From here they worked their way through Kasmere, Graves, Sucker, and Nahill Lakes, following a river which flows into the south end of Nueltin Lake. In the confusion so typical of northern travel this river is also called the Thlewiaza by many. The land this southern Thlewiaza runs through is one of jackpine-covered, high, sand eskers, and long sand beaches. These eskers, running northeast to southwest, mark the paths of glacial rivers that carved their way through the land as the last ice sheets retreated some seven to eight thousand years ago. Looking from the air like sinuous snakes, these ridges are like well-groomed parks on top, and most often are covered in caribou moss and dotted with soft yellow-green coloured jackpine trees. They are like northern "highways", and make for excellent walking. It is little wonder the Dene, Inuit, and the caribou used them as such in their travels. On the tops of many can still be found the deeply cut trails of the millions of caribou that walked single file along their length during their seasonal migration. The beauty of this land is perhaps best expressed in the following dialogue, reportedly between a Dog-Rib Indian and a Catholic priest in Sleeping Island,
"Tell me, Father is (your Heaven) like the land of the little trees when the ice has left the lake? Are the great musk oxen there? Are the hills covered with flowers? There will I see the caribou everywhere I look? Are the lakes blue with the sky of summer? Is every net full of great, fat, whitefish? Is there room for me in this land, like our land, the Barrens? Can I camp anywhere and not find that someone else has camped? Can I feel the wind and be like the wind? Father, if your Heaven is not all these, leave me alone in my land, the land of the little sticks." (page xvi, Western Producer Prairie Books edition).
The Thlewiaza River is uniquely bound into the Nueltin Lake fur trade history, as it was a route into the area from Churchill via Hudson Bay. Inuit elders in Arviat remember travelling inland on this river, still known to them today as Big River, to trap arctic foxes and hunt caribou. Gerry Dunning’s book, When the Foxes Ran, paints a fascinating picture of many of the European trappers who worked their way up "Big" River to gain access to the white fox runs. The Schweder family, the Bucholtz brothers, Cliff Cochrane, Frits Oftedal, George Yandle, Dave Lundie, Jack Hogarth, Ragnar Jonsson, and others, all trapped the Nueltin Lake country at one time or another, and are all prominently featured in his series of interviews with the old timers of Churchill, Manitoba. Many of these trappers discovered the ‘Land of Little Sticks’ by travelling north from The Pas, as did Downes. As they moved further and further toward the northeast, into the Nueltin Lake and the Thlewiaza River area, they soon found that they were closer to Churchill than they were to the fur trade post at Brochet. Soon the coast of Hudson Bay became the base of operation for many of them.
The Thlewiaza River formed a small part of the epic canoe journey undertaken by Ernest Oberholtzer and Billy Magee in 1912. R. H. Cockburn in his January-February 1986 Beaver magazine article entitled, "Voyage to Nutheltin", recounts their 1600-mile trip. These two seasoned woodsmen started their canoe trip at The Pas, Manitoba on June 26, 1912. Not until August 27, did they arrive at Seal Hole Lake, at the north end of Nueltin Lake. Fifteen days later, they made it to Hudson Bay, just south of present-day Arviat, where they luckily met an Inuit family who they persuaded to take them the 130 miles to Fort Churchill in their sailboat.
Following a brief stay at Churchill, the two intrepid paddlers left on September 22, embarking on a hazardous paddle down the coast of storm-tossed Hudson Bay toward York Factory. Paddling 12 or more hours per day, often through high seas, and with ice forming on their paddles and clothes, they eventually arrived, exhausted and no doubt somewhat jubilant, at York Factory after eleven grueling days. From York Factory, they followed the Hayes River to Oxford House, and then proceeded on to Norway House. A final 250-mile dash down Lake Winnipeg found them at trip’s end on November 5, 133 days after they had set out.
Nueltin Lake is known to the Dene of northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan as Nu-thel-tin-tue - "the lake of the sleeping island", and was, and still is actively used by them. Nueltin Lake runs north south for over ninety miles, and is one of the most beautiful lakes Lynda and I have ever seen. As you paddle north along its length you move from the forests of the south, to the sparse taiga that is its mid-point, finally arriving in true tundra at its north end where it rushes through a twisting, wild rapid into Seal Hole Lake.
Our first camp spot on the Thlewiaza River was just above Seal Hole Lake where we set our tent up on a fine, high, tundra riverbank with rolling hills in the background, and the river in full view. We had just run a very big class 2 plus rapid, after a thirty-two mile day, and we were thrilled to be in such a beautiful spot. Then, out of nowhere, a male caribou with a huge rack wandered onto the top of a nearby hill. On seeing us it started to move closer .... and closer .... and closer .... until I literally had to back up to fit the curious creature in the viewfinder of my camera. Every night for the entire trip we would find the caribou at our camp spots, and grew somewhat used to their visits. Several mornings we could see where they had walked through the area while we slept.
Along the length of the river we found several places where there were ancient Inuit and Dene campsites. One spot yielded a gorgeous old handmade canoe paddle (still there I hope), and some other paddlers we met found the remains of an old kayak at another. We found an old cabin that was no doubt the home of one of the white trappers in the thirties written about in When the Foxes Ran.
Perhaps the most memorable event for Lynda and I occurred after four hours of paddling into a ferocious headwind that literally blew us back up the rapids. We stopped for an early lunch at a very marginal spot - the kind of spot we would pass by a hundred times in a row unless we were forced to stop. We made a hurried windbreak, and as we made tea and bannock on our gas stove, I saw a couple of caribou on the far shore less than one half mile away. I mentioned this to Lynda, but we were so "ho hum" about seeing caribou she didn’t even look. Besides, we had just seen a group of thirty or more minutes earlier. As I drank my tea, a few more moved into sight, then a few more, then a few more, and within twenty minutes the entire far shore as far as we could see, and up to the edge of the river bank, was covered in caribou - well over six hundred. After lunch we paddled across the river, got out of the boat, and walked into the middle of the herd. They didn’t run, and really didn’t seem to care if we were there or not. The herd simply drifted off at a constant distance of about thirty feet or less. Lynda came upon a sleeping calf, and when it got up on its wobbly legs it looked at her with big brown eyes, then at the herd, then at her, then lay down again, finally getting up and slowly walking over to its mother. Lynda could have easily patted it on the head. As impressive as this small throng was to us, one can only imagine the feeling of the Dene and Inuit who depended on the presence of the caribou for their very survival.
The last day's paddle to Hudson Bay was spectacular. The riverbank is deeply cut, and there are huge sand and gravel ridges, and at each turn there are gigantic boulder trains extending out into the river. On the tops of the fifty-foot banks of the river are to be found willows and scrub-brush scoured and uprooted by the ice at breakup. We saw several seals on Ranger Seal Lake, and had a marvelous final six-mile paddle to the Bay through a series of braided channels of constant 1+ rapids.
A final treat for us was three wind-bound days at Hudson Bay where we camped next to a 73 year old Inuk and his son, both from Arviat (Tony and Lute Otuk). They had caribou meat and arctic char with them, having just been down the coast hunting, and fishing, at Nunalla the night before. During the night four polar bears smelled their meat, and kept them awake all night long. The Inuit can't shoot the bears without a permit, and they only had small-bore guns in any case, so even though the weather was atrocious, they set out in their twenty-two foot freighter canoe in seas that would have made me scared were I in a much larger boat. After six hours, and almost sinking once after a wave swamped them, they realized they would not make it to Arviat, so they came into the Thlewiaza to camp. Lute was nearly hypothermic, and couldn’t quit shaking - part from cold, part from fear. The old man, even though awake all night and thoroughly soaked, seemed none the worse for wear and had a huge smile. Later, when Lute told me they had a wave break over the front of the canoe nearly sinking them, I stated that he must have been terrified. In a matter of fact voice he said, "I was scared half to death".
As I write this remembrance of the Thlewiaza River, I am overwhelmed by a flood of memories about our trip, and strangely I feel as if I won't really be at home again until I feel the bite of my paddle in one of Nunavut's many rivers.
Lynda and I already have our maps out and have so many possible trips planned for next summer it is hard to settle on just one. It is quite likely we will do the Kazan River from Kasba Lake to Baker Lake, but then there is the Dubawnt, and the Thelon, and the Coppermine, and the Tha-anne and all those other sub-arctic rivers. The only certainty is that wherever we go it will be into "the land of little sticks" somewhere.
IF YOU GO:
Access to Wollaston Lake is north from La Ronge on Highways 102 and 905. It is a 6 hour 250 mile drive to the Wollaston Lake Landing. This landing is not a community, and in fact is only the overnight resting dock for a barge, which services the community of Wollaston Post across Wollaston Lake, but you can make arrangements to leave your vehicle here. Alternately, you can proceed another 85 kilometers north to Points North Landing, where you can charter a float airplane to drop you somewhere along this canoe route to the north-east of Wollaston Lake. As well, you could drive to Lynn Lake, Manitoba, and charter a floatplane from La Ronge Aviation Services. Paddling along Hudson Bay is extremely dangerous, and is best avoided by arranging, ahead of time, to have a boat come from the nearby town of Arviat to pick you up. Several Inuit provide such a service for canoeists, and they can be contacted throughout the Nunavut Tourism Office. Scheduled flights can be arranged from Arviat either on Skyward Aviation or Canadian North. Horizons Unlimited has canoes for rent at Points North Landing and can arrange a guided trip. Maps can be bought from World of Maps in Ottawa, Ontario.
1/250,000 NTS Maps required: