The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary includes an expanse of 52,000 square kilometres, straddling the border of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Located approximately halfway between Baker Lake and Yellowknife, the sanctuary was established in 1927 to conserve muskox populations.
In the past, the sanctuary drew Inuit inland from such distant areas as Bathurst Inlet, the Back River/Chantrey Inlet, and the Kazan River. All sought the valuable driftwood brought to the shores of Beverly Lake by the Thelon and Dubawnt Rivers. Travelling by dogteam during the winter, these trips likely involved many chance meetings of Inuit from distant and diverse areas of Nunavut in Akiliniq, a trade centre for the central Arctic and provided opportunities to exchange material goods and information.
Archaeology documents the first arrival of people to the area 8,000 years ago, shortly after the retreat of the continental glacier. Paleoeskimo caribou hunters moved here around 1500 BC after climatic changes in the Arctic closed the ice leads on the Arctic Ocean, making seal hunting impossible. Ancestors of modern Dene peopled the Thelon valley around 2,500 years ago, and then around AD 1000, Thule Inuit whale hunters moved east across the Arctic islands from Alaska in pursuit of the bowhead whale. These people, too, were ultimately attracted by the caribou and muskoxen of the Thelon valley, and by the trees and driftwood they found there.
The modern Inuit descendants of the Thule continued to draw on the sanctuary’s resources. The area around Beverly Lake and the middle Thelon River was home to the Akilinirmiut, so named because of the Akiliniq hills on the north side of Beverly Lake. Their historical life, based mainly on caribou hunting, is much in evidence here in the form of stone features such as tent rings, meat caches and inuksuit.
This part of the sanctuary has also drawn Inuit inland from such far-flung areas as Bathurst Inlet, the Back River/Chantrey Inlet, and the Kazan River. All sought the valuable driftwood brought to the shores of Beverly Lake by the Thelon and Dubawnt rivers. These trips were made by dogteam during winter, and likely involved many chance meetings of Inuit from distant and diverse areas of Nunavut. These occasions were opportunities to exchange material goods and information, and it has been recorded that Akiliniq was a trade centre for the central Arctic.
The land of the Akilinirmiut was not visited by Euro-Canadians until 1893, when brothers Joseph and James Tyrrell, in the employ of the Geological Survey of Canada, descended the Dubawnt River. A return trip in 1900 convinced James Tyrrell to lobby for the creation of a game sanctuary to protect the muskox population, whose numbers had been drastically reduced due to the trade in muskox hides. Tyrrell’s idea was not acted upon until the Department of the Interior sent John Hornby and Captain J. C. Critchell-Bullock to assess the area’s resources in 1924-25. These men added their voices to the call for a protective sanctuary.
History of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary
Established as the Thelon Game Sanctuary in 1927, the boundary of the original 39,000 square kilometres was changed in 1956 to accommodate mining interests in the southwest portion, and the sanctuary grew to 56,000 square kilometres.
From the beginning, hunting was off limits. Billy Hoare, the sanctuary’s first and last warden, journeyed inland with warden A. J. Knox of Wood Buffalo National Park to spend many arduous months hauling equipment and supplies from Great Slave Lake to the Thelon, although always availing themselves of the opportunity to inform the local Dene of the rules of the sanctuary. A warden outpost was established at what is now known as Warden’s Grove near the Hanbury-Thelon junction in October 1928. Canoeists today can still view the log structures built by Hoare and Knox.
After Hoare’s tenure as warden ended in 1932, the RCMP continued the task of informing native people that the sanctuary was off limits for hunting. These warnings were taken seriously by Inuit, and their self-restraint, in addition to a few arrests for hunting, caused much hardship and ill will.
Although the sanctuary was imposed on its aboriginal inhabitants, it did succeed in its purpose. A muskox population once limited to the area of the sanctuary has flourished and expanded beyond the Kazan River to the east. The 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement required that the Territorial Government coordinate the preparation of a management plan to jointly conserve and manage the Thelon Game Sanctuary.
Management of the Sanctuary
The management plan, developed by the Akiliniq Planning Commission (a community-based committee) is a long-range plan intended to define the values to be protected in the Sanctuary and to provide the foundation upon which the structures and processes needed to protect these values can be established. To this end, the Plan includes a vision for the Sanctuary and associated conservation goals, recommendations on the establishment of ‘Special Management Areas’ adjacent to the sanctuary needed to support the area’s conservation goals, and management/advisory structures by which the plan can be implemented.
In 2001, the Akiliniq Planning Commission, set up to coordinate the development of the plan, approved the Management Plan. In June 2003, following reviews and approvals by the Kivalliq Inuit Association and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Government of Nunavut presented the plan to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, and subsequently to the Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, who approved the plan in August 2005. Though the Sanctuary straddles the Nunavut/NWT boundary, the Government of the Northwest Territories has decided not to become a signatory to the plan based on interventions by the Métis Tribal Council, but intends to abide by the spirit and intent of the plan and has encouraged implementation of the plan.
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.
Due to the very remote nature of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, it is still only accessible to those adventurous enough to travel the Thelon River by canoe. The attraction to canoeists is not the technical difficulty of the river, as there is relatively little challenging white water, but the abundant wildlife. Muskoxen are numerous. Caribou may be seen swimming across the river on their annual migration. Other wildlife such as moose, wolves, grizzly bears and waterfowl are also there in plenty.
Access to the Thelon by bush plane can be done from Baker Lake, Fort Smith or Yellowknife. It is an expensive proposition, especially paddling only the sanctuary portion of the river. If your itinerary extends to Baker Lake, scheduled flights are available. Still, the many large lakes along the way can be dangerous due to commonly windy conditions on the barrens. Calculate a few extra days in your trip to allow for being wind-bound.
Visitors should inform the local RCMP of their travel plans. For those uncertain about their ability to pull off such a trip independently, there are licensed outfitters who will arrange everything, including guided trips. Check with Nunavut Parks for information on regulations in the Sanctuary.
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.
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.