Sunday, September 5, 2010

Elk and Thelon Rivers: A Brief History

Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan

Northern Saskatchewan has been the traditional home of the Denesuliné (pronounced as Den-a-sooth-leh-na). They have survived in this landscape for millennia by hunting the Beverly Lake caribou that make annual migrations to the north through the Thelon River watershed. Stony Rapids and Black Lake, are two communities where the present day descendants of the so-called Et-en-eldili-dene or "caribou-eaters" now live.

In 1893, the Tyrrell brothers (J. W, and J. B.) travelled through Stony Rapids and Black Lake from the eastern end of Lake Athabasca on their way north and onto the Dubawnt River, a tributary of the Thelon. An excellent account of this expedition can be found at the online book archives as an e-book. In his report to the Canadian government, following the earlier 1890 expedition J. W. Tyrrell recommended that the Thelon basin be "set aside... as a game preserve" to ensure the survival of the muskoxen in the region (Pelly, 1996 pp 28).

The Elk River

I was unable to gather information prior to our trip as to the European history of the Elk River. I was able to find a description of the Bill Layman's trip (undated), but not much else. Layman's description of the rapids was generally accurate, although I think his account underestimates the seriousness of the last set of rapids before Granite Falls. In general, his account did not seem to provide sufficient information by way of a river guide, so I did not think to take it with me. Re-reading it after the trip, I realize that there may have been a couple of places where his account may have been useful.

On the morning of July 13, Nestor, Taras, Roman and I shuttled our gear down to the dock and prepared to board the Twin Otter bound for the upper end of Vermette lake on the short stretch of river that flows into Rennie Lake. In surveying the maps in advance of the trip it was the expanse of open water on the lakes of the upper Elk that caught my attention. Looking at these large lakes, I envisioned being wind bound for long stretches as we negotiated the 60 to 90 km of flat water.

As we touched down on the river, the sand spit made an excellent landing place to unload our gear and prepare for the trip. The day was an omen for the weather we were about to encounter during the rest of our trip; it was bright and warm with a slight haze in the air form the forest fires of Northern Saskatchewan to the south. The black flies were out in large numbers as we set about the task of assembling the canoes that arrived with Tundra Tom on his Cessna 180.

Before we set out Tom gave us a briefing on the indigenous and European history, points of interest along the way, several rapids to watch for on the Thelon River and the general description of the Elk as a "Class III river". It was the last statement that concerned me, given that this was the first time I had heard the Elk river described this way. Layman had referred to the rapids as "easy", Tom was giving a whole new dimension to the nature of the trip on which we were about to embark.

Despite any reservations we may have had, we were eager to get started and so headed in a northerly direction to the a peninsula where the lake swings to the east. It was on this peninsula, where the lake narrows, that we made our first camp. We were in the vicinity where the Denesuliné would camp in family units waiting for the fall caribou migration. And there was ample evidence of past hunts to be seen in the abundance of caribou bones and antlers in the sand eskers.

Next: Travelling on the large lakes; of wind, lake trout, swifts and Class I rapids.

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