The section of the Thelon River designated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System includes the river’s entire middle and lower reaches, consisting of the 545 km from Warden’s Grove on the western border of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary to the community of Baker Lake, Nunavut. The upper stretch of the river, and the majority of the designated Heritage River is protected within theThelon Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Thelon is the largest river in Canada flowing into Hudson Bay. The designated section of the river starts 110 km east of Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories, near Whitefish Lake, and flows north and eastward across the barren lands into Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet, before entering the Hudson Bay. The river has impressive scenic features, such as extensive flats of pure white sand at the Thelon-Hanbury junction; 15 metre high sand embankments fringed by boulder beaches at Thelon Bluffs; and rapids that course through sandstone cliffs.
The pristine wilderness surrounding the Thelon provides abundant and diverse wildlife habitat. Its taiga and boreal forest support a unique variety of boreal and arctic species. The Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary protects the breeding grounds of the muskox, which are often seen along the river’s length, as well as part of the calving grounds of the Beverly caribou herd, thousands of which can be seen along the river during their migration. The caribou attract predators and sightings of wolves, wolverines and grizzlies are common.
Bird species found along the river include peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, golden and bald eagles, as well as rough-legged hawks, and in the boreal forest of the upper Thelon, great grey owls and merlins. Tundra swans and four species of loons nest on lakes along the river.
The upper reaches of the Thelon River, upstream of the portion of the river now designated as a Heritage River, are part of the traditional territory of the Dene. Des Yá Tué is the Dënesųłıné name that refers to section of the Thelon River located approximately 140 kilometres west of the NWT-Nunavut border. This area and the surrounding lakes are used in the wintertime by Akaitcho Dene. Des Yá Tué eventually flows into Łu Cho Tué (Whitefish Lake) which is a place where the Akaitcho Dene harvest whitefish.
For many centuries, the lands surrounding the Thelon River have been seasonal hunting grounds for the Caribou Inuit people. A trip on the river is truly a voyage back in time. Perhaps the most dramatic glimpse of past and present Inuit culture is the inukshuk – a pile of rocks standing as markers on the landscape. Inukshuks mark almost every vital aspect of Inuit life, and are found on water routes, and caribou migratory paths, at river crossings, fishing spots, campsites, lookouts, and food caches. Inuit called the portion of the river from Shultz Lake to Baker Lake Kangirjuak, with different names given to the individual lakes west of Shultz Lake.
Archaeological sites, structures and artefacts are plentiful and protected under federal and territorial laws – they must be respected and left undisturbed. Much of the area’s prehistory can be learned from these sites. More modern camps and land use areas may be found along the lower reaches of the River as it nears Baker Lake and the community of the same name.
The Thelon offers a first-class wilderness canoeing experience, though the canoeing season is short, lasting only eight to ten weeks from late June to mid-August. Route options include the Hanbury-to-Thelon route, although the first stretch on the Hanbury River is extremely arduous, as the spectacular waterfalls at Dickson Canyon and Helen Falls require strenuous portages. An alternate journey beginning on the upper Thelon River is equally demanding, with numerous rapids and a challenging portage of several kilometres around the Thelon Canyon. The 10-12 day journey downriver from the Hanbury-Thelon confluence to Baker Lake is less difficult. It has some fast water stretches, but it is generally free of portages.
The Thelon is a prime location for fishing trophy lake trout, arctic char, grayling, whitefish, cisco, slimy and spoonhead sculpin, and lake chub. Due to its location within two Territorial jurisdictions, fishing licenses are required for both Northwest Territories and for Nunavut portions of the river.
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.
Who Manages the River?
The Thelon River is managed through a collaboration of several community partners, which is jointly coordinated by Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Government of Northwest Territories and Nunavut Parks and Special Places, a division of the Government of Nunavut.
The ree line follows the Thelon partway up into what would otherwise be sub-arctic tundra, creating an ‘oasis’ where wildlife from two ecosystems come together, resulting in the unusual diversity of wildlife the area is known for.