The Thelon and Elk Rivers

A Canoe Expedition Across Canada's Tundra

Those who meditate say you should be prepared to chant your mantra hundreds of thousands of times before it works its magic 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 mantra.

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 vanished. I realize that feeling of calm that I find on the tundra is the tundra herself. She gladly shares her beauty and magic with you when you visit her. And when you leave she wraps her shroud of magic tight around her shoulders and turns away from you. But when you return, she unfolds her arms and shares her beauty and warmth with you—and your heart melts once more.

The Elk River
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 7,000 years ago. Rivers that flowed under the melting ice that covered this land left behind the eskers. The eskers on this river are spectacular and make for magnificent camping.

This was, and still is, the land of the indigenous Dene. The Dene from Fond du Lac, 150 miles to the southwest, still hunt and trap this area. The Dene call the area "the land of little sticks," after the small black spruce trees that grow few and far between here. This area is the wintering range of a large part of the Beverly caribou herd. The caribou return to the area about the middle of August each year. The sandy soil of this country is perfect 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.

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.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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