Starting in the Northwest Territories east of Great Slave Lake, just north of the Saskatchewan border, the source waters of the Thelon Heritage River collect and flow for 900 kilometres (559 miles) in a northeasterly direction through the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, feeding into Baker Lake which drains through Chesterfield Inlet to Hudson Bay. This 142,400 square kilometre (54,981 square mile) watershed is the largest drainage basin emptying into Hudson Bay.
The Thelon River sweeps majestically out of boreal forest valleys, winding across the barrens through vast shimmering lakes set like mirrors in the treeless tundra, finally emptying into Baker Lake at the Nunavut community of the same name. This northern oasis supports a rich and diverse concentration of arctic wildlife.
Following this great river course, visitors paddle through a land of moose and muskoxen, wolverines, barren land grizzly bears and arctic wolves. They see soaring gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and witness thousands of Canada geese. The most important animal found here to the Inuit people is the caribou. At a number of locations the Beverly caribou herd crosses the Thelon River during their annual migration.
The Nunavut community of Baker Lake is called ‘Qamani’tuaq’ in Inuktitut, which means ‘where the river widens.’ It is the only inland, non-coastal Inuit community in Canada.
— Qamani'tuaq — 'where the river widens'
The Inuit residents of Baker Lake are Caribou Inuit people for whom the Thelon — together with its sister river, the Kazan — has always been a vital source of caribou, fish and spiritual renewal. The shores of the river, particularly from Beverly Lake downstream, are a treasure house of prehistoric artifacts and ancient Inuit campsites, some dating back thousands of years. The Thelon River continues to play a crucial role in the lives of Inuit families residing in Baker Lake. It was their strong desire and effort to protect the river and their traditional way of life upon it that lead to its important designation as a Canadian Heritage River.
The section of the Thelon that is designated a Canadian Heritage River includes the river’s entire middle and lower reaches. This section has fast water, but few obstacles. Starting at Warden’s Grove, at the confluence of the Hanbury River, the Thelon River continues eastward for 545 kilometres (339 miles) to Baker Lake. An average canoe trip takes 10-12 days from this point, travelling downriver through the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, past the Thelon Bluffs, then crossing Beverly Lake, Aberdeen Lake and Schultz Lake to the final 100 kilometre long (62 mile) fast-flowing narrow stretch of the Thelon that feeds into Baker Lake, then a short distance northeast along the lakeshore to the community of Baker Lake. It is often windy on these lakes and sometimes it prohibits safe canoeing, which can delay progress for a few days. Some groups prefer to fly out from Beverly Lake to avoid the lake paddling bits.
The pristine wilderness of the Thelon Valley provides abundant and diverse wildlife habitat with many areas of exceptional natural beauty. Its transitional boreal forest and barren land tundra sections are some of Canada’s most important northern ecosystems, supporting a unique diversity of sub-arctic and arctic wildlife species, including:
Migrating caribou that follow the waterway to calve north of Beverly Lake, sometimes swimming across the river in a kilometre-wide (two thirds of a mile wide) band;
Nunavut's largest flock of greater Canada geese, located between Beverly and Aberdeen Lakes, plus one of the few inland colonies of lesser snow geese;
Peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and rough-legged hawks;
Wolverines, arctic foxes and arctic wolves;
A population of 75-100 moose living along the upper reaches of the river;
Barren land grizzly bears that prey on nesting geese and their eggs in the spring and summer;
A mix of boreal and arctic fish species, including arctic char, grayling, humpback and round whitefish, cisco, lake chub, spoonhead and slimy sculpin, plus trophy-sized lake trout;
A population of more than 2,000 muskoxen, usually seen in herds of 10-20 animals, living between Warden's Grove and Lookout Point. The muskox has thrived under protection of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. European demand for muskox hides in the late 19th century decimated the population to only a few hundred animals.
The Thelon River flows through terrain with impressive scenic features. There are extensive flats of pure white sand at Lookout Point and at the Hanbury River confluence. There are 15 metre (50 ft.) tall sand embankments fringed with boulder beaches at Thelon Bluffs, where rapids course through sandstone cliffs. At the western entrance to Aberdeen Lake there are seven terraces from 20 to 100 metres (66-328 ft.) in height that were once ancient lake and marine beaches. Plus there are the spectacular Aleksektok Rapids, located 70 kilometres (43 miles) upstream from Baker Lake.
For many centuries, the pristine lands surrounding the Thelon River have been seasonal hunting grounds for eleven distinct groups of Caribou Inuit people:
Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut — from the Ennadai Lake and Back River area
Akilinirmiut — from the Akiliniq Hills and the Thelon River area
Hanningajurmiut — from the Garry Lake area
Harvaqtuurmiut — from the Kazan River area
Hauniqturmiut — from Whale Cove, Sandy Point and Arviat area
Illuilirmiut — from the Adelaide Peninsula, Chantrey Inlet area
Kihlirnirmiut — from the Bathurst Inlet to Cambridge Bay area
Natsilingmiut — from the Taloyoak, Kugaaruk, Repulse Bay area
Paallirmiut — from the Baker Lake to Arviat area
Qaernermiut — from the Chesterfield Inlet to Whale Cove area
Utkuhiksalingmiut — from the Back River and Gjoa Haven area
A trip down this great river is like a voyage back in time. Perhaps the most distinctive sign of both past and present Inuit culture is the inukshuk — a cairn of stacked rocks standing as a highly visible anthropomorphic marker in the barren landscape. Inukshuks mark many vital aspects of traditional Inuit life, including land and water routes, caribou migration paths, river crossings, fishing spots, campgrounds, lookouts and food cache sites. Archaeological structures and artifacts found along the Thelon River include tent rings, stone fox traps, kayak stands, graves, hunting blinds and quartzite flakes used as scrapers. These ancient sites and their artifacts are protected under federal and Nunavut laws and must be left undisturbed. Much of the region’s prehistory can be learned from these sites and, if disturbed, that opportunity can be lost forever. The best sites to visit are at Schultz and Aberdeen Lakes, Peqetuaq and Isarurjuaq Peninsula.
Deep inside the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary at Warden’s Grove is the finest stand of spruce trees along the river. These boreal conifers shelter three small cabins. The park’s first warden, W.B. Hoare, built one cabin in 1928. The Canadian Wildlife Service built another one in the 1960s. The famous biologist Ernie Kuyt, who helped to save the whooping crane from extinction, was once stationed here.
Although the canoeing season is relatively short, lasting 8-10 weeks from late June to mid-August, the Thelon Heritage River offers a first-class paddling experience that is well known to pioneers of wilderness canoeing. More than a hundred canoeists travel down the river each year. Some groups follow the Hanbury-to-Thelon route. 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 an excruciating 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.
Beaches along the shores of the Beverly Lake, Aberdeen Lake and Schultz Lake sections of the Thelon Heritage River journey make excellent campsites. As do the tall eskers overlooking the waterway, which also offer exceptional, mosquito-free hiking, with panoramic views over the seemingly endless tundra.
How to get to Baker Lake:
First Air and Calm Air have regular scheduled flights from Iqaluit to Rankin Inlet and then on to Baker Lake. Baker Lake is also serviced by airlines arriving — via Rankin Inlet — from Winnipeg, Churchill and Yellowknife.
Iqaluit is reached from Ottawa and Montreal on First Air and Canadian North. Yellowknife is reached from Calgary and Edmonton on First Air, Canadian North, Air Canada and WestJet. Rankin Inlet is reached from Winnipeg on Calm Air and First Air.
How to get to the Thelon Heritage River:
The community of Baker Lake is the main access point to the river. Canoeists paddling the upper Thelon may arrange for a floatplane drop-off on Whitefish Lake, Lynx Lake or Eyeberry Lake. For those paddling the Hanbury-to-Thelon route, floatplanes can drop canoeists off on Artillery Lake or Sifton Lake. 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 arrange for a pickup at several locations along the Thelon waterway, either by floatplane or by powerboat arriving from Baker Lake.