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, 50 km from the river’s junction with the Hanbury River, to Baker Lake. The upper stretch of the river is protected within the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Thelon is the largest river in Canada flowing into Hudson Bay. It starts 200 km east of Great Slave Lake, in the Northwest Territories, near the Saskatchewan border, and flows north and eastward across the barren lands into Baker Lake and Chesterfield Inlet before entering 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.
For many centuries, the lands surrounding the Thelon River have been seasonal hunting grounds for eleven distinct groups of 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.
Archaeological sites, structures and artefacts are plentiful and protected under federal and Nunavut laws – they must be left undisturbed. Much of the area’s prehistory can be learned from these sites. Some of the best sites to experience this important history are at the Schultz and Aberdeen Lakes, at Peqetuaq, and on the Isarurjuaq Peninsula.
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. 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 jointly through a collaboration of several community partners, which is coordinated by Nunavut Parks and Special Places, a division of the Government of Nunavut.
Over 330,000 migrating caribou follow the river to calve north of Beverly Lake.