The Thelon sweeps majestically out of spruce-lined valleys, winding across the barrens through vast shimmering lakes set like mirrors in the treeless tundra, finally emptying into Baker Lake. This boreal-Arctic oasis supports a rich and unusually diverse northern concentration of wildlife. Paddle through a land of muskox, white wolves, moose, barren-ground grizzly, wolverine; soaring gyrfalcon, peregrine falcons and more than 10,000 moulting Canada Geese. The 275,000 strong Beverly caribou herd crosses the river in large groupings at a number of spots during the herd’s annual migration.
For the Inuit of the village of Baker Lake, the river is a vital source of caribou, fish and spiritual renewal. The Thelon, together with its sister river, the Kazan, has long been home to the Caribou Inuit, the only inland community of Inuit in Canada. The shores of the Thelon, particularly from Beverly Lake downstream, are a treasure-house of pre-historic artifacts and Inuit campsites, some dating back thousands of years. The Thelon continues to play a vital role in the lives of the Caribou Inuit, who now reside primarily in the community of Baker Lake at the river’s mouth. It was their strong desire and effort to have the river and their traditional life on that lead to its designation as a Canadian Heritage River in 1990.
Features of the Thelon
From as far apart as 200 km east of Great Slave Lake and the northern Saskatchewan border, waters of the Thelon collect to flow for 900 km across the NWT’s Mackenzie district, then through Nunavut into Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet. This 142,400 sq. km watershed is the largest unaltered drainage basin emptying into Hudson Bay.
The section designated a Canadian Heritage River includes the river’s entire middle and lower reaches, consisting of the 545 km from Warden’s Grove, 50 km from the river’s junction with the Hanbury, to Baker Lake. The 1-2 km wide, meandering, river channel contains considerable fast water but requires no portages from the Hanbury junction to the lower reaches where the Thelon widens into three vast lakes: Beverly, Aberdeen and Schultz. From Schultz Lake, the river narrows and a 100 km stretch of fast water leads to the river’s mouth at Baker Lake.
The pristine wilderness of the Thelon provides abundant and diverse wildlife habitat and many areas of exceptional natural beauty. Its forest-tundra supports a unique assemblage of boreal and arctic species and some of Canada’s most important northern ecosystems.
Among its more significant features are:
- 500,000 migrating caribou, following the river to calve north of Beverly Lake, sometimes swimming across in a kilometre-wide band;
- The largest flock in Nunavut of the large species of Canada geese, between Beverly and Aberdeen lakes ; and one of few inland colonies of lesser snow geese;
- Breeding grounds for the endangered peregrine, gyrfalcon and rough-legged hawk and habitat for the rare wolverine, and for arctic fox and wolf;
- 75-100 moose and more than 2,000 muskox between Warden’s Grove and Lookout Point. Muskox have thrived under protection of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. European demand for muskox robes at the turn of the century decimated the population to only a few hundred animals
- Important denning grounds for barren-ground grizzly preying on geese and eggs in spring and summer;
- An uncommon mix of boreal and arctic fish species in Beverly Lake; and,
- Impressive scenic features: extensive flats of pure white sand at the Thelon-Hanbury junction and Lookout Point; 15m high sand embankments fringed by boulder beaches at Thelon Bluffs, where rapids course through sandstone cliffs; seven terraces 20-100 m high – old lake and marine beaches, at West Aberdeen; and, the spectacular Aleksektok Rapids, 70 km from Baker Lake.
History of the Thelon
The Thelon barrenlands, long-time home to the Inuit, have been undisturbed for centuries. A trip on the river is truly a voyage back in time. Perhaps the most dramatic glimpse of past and present Inuit culture is an inukshuk – a pile of rocks standing quite visibly as markers on the landscape. The inukshuk marks almost every vital aspect of Inuit life land and water routes, caribou migratory paths and river crossings, fishing spots, campsites, lookouts, and food caches. Archaeological sites, structures and artifacts which include tent rings, stone fox traps, kayak stands, graves, hunting blinds and quartzite flakes used as scrapers, are plentiful and are protected under federal and Nunavut laws and must be left undisturbed.
Much of the area’s prehistory can be learned from these sites, and, if disturbed, that opportunity may be lost forever. The best sites are at Schultz and Aberdeen Lakes, Peqetuaq, and Isarurjuaq Peninsula.
The journals of northern explorers who travelled the Thelon can add immeasurably to a trip here:
- Samuel Hearne crossed the Thelon on his overland walking expedition from Churchill to the unknown interior, recording it in his 1770-71 “Journey from Prince of Wales Fort to the Northern Ocean”.
- In 1893, J.B. Tyrrell, one of the great pioneers of the Geological Survey of Canada, explored the Thelon and Dubawnt. His brother, J.W., described the journey in “Across the Sub-Arctics of Canada”.
- David Hanbury travelled the Thelon in 1889 and returned 2 years later. The detailed journal of his explorations entitled “Life and Sport in the Northland of Canada” is considered, even today, the best written account of a trip on the river.
In 1927, the federal government established the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary inspired by the 1924-25 explorations of naturalist John Hornby. Although a veteran northern traveler, Hornby tragically starved to death with his companions on the banks of the Thelon, as he waited for caribou which never came. The ruins of Hornby’s cabin and the graves lie beside the river.
Cabins still stand at Warden’s Grove. Here the finest stand of spruce trees on the river shelter three cabins one built in 1928 by the park’s first warden, W.B. Hoare and another in the 1960’s by the Canadian Wildlife Service for wildlife research. Ernie Kuyt, famous for his work with sandhill cranes, was one of the first biologists stationed here.
Designation of the Thelon as a Canadian Heritage River was based, in part, on the unique wilderness recreation experience which it offers. It is virtually impossible to travel the Thelon without encountering wildlife especially the shaggy muskox, often seen foraging in groups of 20 or more. Rough-legged hawks soar and peregrine falcons dart and dive overhead, while tundra swans paddle peacefully along the river.
Although the canoeing season is short, only 8–10 weeks from late June to mid-August, the Thelon offers a first- class experience that is well known to pioneers of wilderness canoeing. Eric Morse, whose northern voyages marked the beginning of recreational canoeing in the Keewatin, paddled the Hanbury Thelon route in 1962. Now more than 100 canoeists travel down the Thelon each year, most on the Hanbury-Thelon route. The first stretch on the Hanbury, however, is extremely arduous: spectacular waterfalls at Dickson Canyon and Helen Falls, require strenuous portages. The alternative approach, from the upper Thelon, is also arduous, with numerous rapids and an excruciating portage of several kilometres around the Thelon Canyon. From the Hanbury-Thelon junction, however, the 300 km to Beverly Lake is generally free of portages. The current carries canoeists through the boreal forest of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, past impressive sand flats and tundra hills rising 160m, to Beverly Lake. Here and on Aberdeen and Schultz lakes caution and patience are required: sudden storms and frigid waters can be life-threatening. The final 100 km stretch is a stimulating paddle through high-walled banks enclosing a swift current, past the 200m high Halfway Hills and on toward Baker Lake.
Beaches along the shores of the ‘great lakes’ section of the Thelon make excellent campsites, as do the eskers overlooking the river and lakes. The eskers also offer exceptional, mosquito-free hiking, with 360 degree vistas over the tundra.
The Thelon is prime habitat for trophy lake trout, arctic char and grayling. Humpback and round whitefish, cisco, slimy and spoonhead sculpin, and lake chub are also common. A Nunavut Territory fishing license, available at stores and government offices in Iqaluit, is required.
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
First Air and Canadian North both fly regular daily schedules to Iqaluit from four main southern airline ‘hubs’: Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton (via Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet). Flights from Winnipeg (via Churchill and Rankin Inlet) are also available.
Kivalliq Air operates flights from Cambridge Bay to Baker Lake (en route to Rankin Inlet), Monday through Friday. Calm Air flies from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet and then on to Baker Lake daily except Sundays. Please check with the airline for schedule changes.
Canoeists paddling the upper Thelon may arrange a float-plane drop-off on Whitefish, Lynx or Eyeberry lakes and for the Hanbury-Thelon route, on Artillery or Sifton lakes. The lakes on the lower Thelon are also accessible by canoe from the Dubawnt River system, but Dubawnt Lake is often frozen into July. Canoeists can pre-arrange pick up by float plane or power boat pick up from Baker Lake.
Tour operators in Baker Lake also offer day trips and sight-seeing tours on the Kazan. The 100 km trip to Kazan Falls from Baker Lake by charter floatplane or motorized freighter canoe is quite spectacular.
Where To Stay
There are three hotels in Baker Lake, and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association can help you arrange guiding and camping supplies. You can also camp at Inuujaarvik Territorial Park, located between the airport and the town on the shores of Baker Lake. The campground is equipped with picnic tables, tent platforms, firepit, a cookhouse/shelter and washrooms.
Iglu Hotel – Inns North
Baker Lake Lodge
Hunters and Trappers Association
Edwin Evo Outfitting & Naturalist Tours
Qataq Sports Hunts
Outfitters offering Thelon Heritage River/Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary Trips
Canoe Arctic Inc. has been operating on the Thelon Heritage River and in the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary since the summer of 1975.
Arts & Crafts
The Jessie Oonark Centre and other local galleries showcase the art of Baker Lake’s talented local residents. You will see Baker Lake’s famous carvings of black soapstone, stitched and appliquéd wall hangings, jewellery, and silk-screened prints and clothing.
Jessie Oonark Centre
Baker Lake Fine Arts & Crafts Shop
Ookpiktuyuk Art Gallery
Email Ookpiktuyuk Art Gallery
Qamanittuaq Fine Arts Gallery and Studio
Email Qamanittuaq Fine Arts Gallery and Studio
The Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre is located in the restored Hudson’s Bay Store/Trading Post in Baker Lake. The centre features the original store and storehouse areas, counter and shelves, and the fur loft. It provides interpretation of the Caribou Inuit people and the community of Baker Lake; and the cultural and natural heritage of the Kazan and Thelon Rivers. Staff at the centre, which operates from July to September, will also provide you with information on local outfitters, businesses and other local attractions.
Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre
A diorama of the Fall Caribou Crossing national historic site is located in the Inuit Heritage Centre, as is a collection of photographs from the Fifth Thule Expedition.
Inuit Heritage Centre
To reach either the Vera Akumalik Visitor’s Centre or the Inuit Heritage Centre, email the Hamlet of Baker Lake.
Nunavut Parks publishes a wide range of documents and reports on the work it does for each park – ranging from master plans, management plans, maps, brochures and other reports and publications. Many of these resources are available here.
Thelon Heritage River and Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary Editorial [.pdf – 882KB] – This four page editorial offers information on the Thelon Heritage River and the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary.
Thelon Heritage River Nomination Document [.pdf – 2.2MB]
Thelon Heritage River Management Plan [.pdf – 500KB]
Thelon Heritage River Management Plan 10-Year Review [.pdf – 1.3MB]
Visitor information is available from the Visitor Information section of the website, and at relevant visitor and information centres throughout Nunavut. Contact Nunavut Parks for any additional information you may be looking for.
Dienger, Carol. 1990. “The Timeless Thelon.” Up Here Magazine, March/April.
Hanbury, David.1904. Life and Sport in the Northland of Canada, Edward Arnold Co., London.
Pelly, David F. 1996. Thelon – A River Sanctuary, Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association.
Rossbach, George. 1966. “By Canoe Down the Thelon”. The Beaver, Outfit 297, Autumn.
Thomson, Sheila. 1989. “Down the Thelon: The tundra casts a spell.” Borealis, Fall: 34-38.
Thomson, Sheila. 1990. Journal of a Barrenlander, W.H.B. Hoare. Box 4435, Station “E”. Ottawa, K1S 5B4.
Whalley, George. 1962. The Legend of John Hornby, Macmillan, Toronto.