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Thelon River Canoe Trek 2019

From Double Barrel Lake to 64.880°N/103.69°W Past Hornby's Point


This year, Zenon, Greg, Esme, and I canoed the Thelon River through the heart of the Thelon Game Sanctuary. For the three of them, it was their first time to the Barren Lands. I was returning to the Thelon River system for the 6th time. Call me an addict. Zenon and I drove, for the first time, cross country to Yellowknife from Montreal. We stopped in at good friends in Edmonton and spent a night there going up and coming back down. A fascinating road trip across the country, with a trailer in tow with most of our gear. Greg and Esme were flying to Yellowknife and meeting us there. We did not use any guides or outfitters, organizing the trip ourselves. We used Air Tindi for the third time and they were absolutely excellent, super professional, and very flexible. I do not hesitate recommending them. They flew us and two nested canoes from Yellowknife to Double Barrel Lake on the Thelon and then picked us up two weeks later. The weather was so-so this time out but the bugs were very very bad, the worst that I have seen in 6 trips. I think that it was a wet summer. This affected our behaviour, fewer photography forays away from the river. I had trouble with my small waterproof camera so no shots from the water. But we had a good time. We caught some nice fish to eat, and it was a good intro to the near arctic for the three of them. The pictures below chronicle our trip.



Esme chilling at Double Barrel Lake. There is a great little place to camp right by the water between the two barrels.


It did not take very long for Zenon to feel relaxed


Although I remember where some of the good camp sites are, you sometimes have to take what is available. Towards the end of a long day, I remembered this site from many years ago.


The weather is always a changing factor


We had a lot of good on-shore discussions


The water levels were dropping in late summer


Some of the evenings were so very peaceful


Like glass


With some great sunsets


MEC's Nunatak tents rule!



If you are a group of 4 or 6, you can afford to bring a bug tent. And I strongly recommend it!


I developed a different style for self portraits on this trip


Zenon was adjusting very well


We had tea to drink, or maybe we even had some Jack left!


Esme was an absolute trooper, a very quick learner and fiercely independent


We had some excellent camp sites


We did have some great weather at times


Esme brought books


There is not a lot of relief in the land around the Thelon, for the most part


Father daughter relaxation


Greg looking like he might be in the Himalayas


Esme was always in a good mood


The strongly recommended Bug Shirts


We did go exploring in our down time


The safety of the bug tent


Greg and I had matching tents


Hard to judge distances up there


I think this particular laughter was at my expense


Zenon was getting that Hemmingway look


Esme was sporting some black fly tracks


Greg kept it cool

A new addition this year for me was a folding table. This proved to be a big winner, especially if you are a group of no more than 4. It was very practical to eat from, or place food on.


Zenon loved to check the maps every evening

You looking at me?


The brilliance of youth


We had some nice evenings and a full moon!


There was usually driftwood around to build a fire for warmth and amusement



But the bugs were around, a lot!


There is a lot of sand along the Thelon


Like I said, a lot of sand!


Did I mention the sand?


This is us camped at the head of the Thelon Canyon, our biggest portage of the trip





The beginning of the Thelon Canyon and rapids, shelves. Pull out here and now!


This is us camped at the head of the Thelon Canyon. The last time I was here was in 2010, having canoed the Elk River from Vermette Lake. On that trip we decided to portage the canyon to the left, cutting the corner and putting in way below the canyon. That was very hard and wet and the flies were horrendous. This time we took my old friend (RIP) Tundra Tom's advice from way back to portage on the right bank. I must say, that while the ground is much firmer on the right side, and you are higher up so the wind helps with the bugs, it is still a tough portage that took us a day and two nights. We had a lot of gear for sure, but it was hot and we had a hard time.


The Thelon Canyon is a very interesting place. It is very large, wide and long. The canyon isn't so much a long rapid as a series of sandstone steps and shelves, that make running it, or lining it, essentially impossible. I have heard of people trying to do it, but I have not heard of many favourable results.


It is a wildly beautiful place



Down around the far bend is the Clarke River coming in from the right, and after a small rapid (run it very tight to the right, stop mid rapid on the right for a nice swimming hole) is the Hnabury River coming in from the left, and then Warden's Grove follows shortly


Our gear was finally coming down to the water after the worst of the canyon. We portaged about 4k in each direction


The river ahead after our planned put in


This was the steep slope that we had to come down on to get back to the river


What is difficult to see is that in that bend, before the confluence with the Clarke from the right, there is a final sandstone shelf under the water. With the water levels low, this comes into play. Our two canoes ran it in different spots, but both partially swamped and had to pull up to shore to bail


And after the Thelon Canyon, the wide beauty of Warden's Grove


The remnants of the Warden's cabin is still there, in the upper center of the photograph. I had explored it years earlier. This time Greg and Esme went to take a look


The Gap beyond. The winds shifted that day and started blowing strong from the Northeast. We ended up staying put for two nights, forcing us to revise our pick up spot


But we had lake trout fillets for dinner!


My yellow pelican case containing my photo gear


It was windy!


I love the old tree stumps. if only they could talk!


In the heart of the Thelon Game Sanctuary, it is beautiful country


Old caribou antlers


The Gap is visible in the background



Aspiring tree


The tundra seems to stretch forever to the horizon. With a GPS, you can just go and explore. You often get detoured by swamp and pools of water, but you have high visibility as to where you are going at all times


We did have a chess set



By the second wind-bound day, we were getting bored, so we went out on safari.


It was cool and windy but that helped keep the bugs away and we did not need our bug shirts

Esme was ok with that


Greg was starting to look like he belonged


And we were always on the lookout for game, but we saw very little


I have started bringing my .308 for safety's sake. I do not hunt and have never hunted. But I feel better bringing friends and family up to the Barren Grounds having it around for protection. The only animal I am careful with is the Barren Land Grizzly. Wolves are friendly enough


We ended up exploring a huge esker on the opposite shore of Warden's Grove






It was a whole separate ecosystem in there






Our tents are just visible, several kilometres away, in the very left of the photograph



Beautiful expansive wilderness


Thelon stand off




The amount of sand on the Thelon is staggering




Greg maintained his vigilance



Heading back




The blueberries were in season, not as plentiful as in 2017 but enough to pick




We ate a lot of Scaber (Birch) Boletes mushrooms. Yummy!


Arctic cotton sedge!


A beautiful misty morning


We camped out on a huge exposed sand bank and saw a young moose off in the distance





Chilling at Hornby Point




The tundra was starting to turn colour to fall foliage



There is still a bit of a forest there








Pasta and meat sauce! Yummy!


Yes, there is always the book to read


Camped out at our modified end point, and again we were hit with strong winds that drove the sand




Rocks on pegs in sand make sense




Barrels hidden away from the wind


But we had a gorgeous sunset





And so another trip to the Barren Lands and the Thelon River comes to a close. This area occupies a special place in my heart. It's a harsh land, and being there is tough, but I always long for it when I am away, always wondering when will be the next time! It calls to me. It is as pure and unspoiled of a wilderness that Canada, or the World, has to offer. And so I wait. Wait and plan for the next trip.


Drop me a line if you are planning a trip to this or other northern area. I am always looking for places to go. I would love to talk to you and see your trip pictures. Email me at webmaster@lewyckyj.com




Copyright Nestor Lewyckyj 2020