Follow the Thelon Expedition

Richard Jeo in the bow and Sanjayan paddle down the Thelon River in Canada’s Northwest
Territories, August 5, 2011. (Photo by Ami Vitale)

Editor’s note: In the summer of 2011, The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Sanjayan and Canada program director Dr. Richard Jeo went on an expedition through one of Canada’s most pristine areas with young members of the Dene First Nation. They traveled by canoe along the Thelon River ending in North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. You can relive their journey here.


Before the Trip: “The Place Where God Began”

July 23, 2011

Caribou. (Image credit: Kim Heacox.)

It is a place ruled by the biggest and smallest—the grizzly and the mosquito—and by the extremes of sub-arctic seasons. In the middle of it is the Thelon, the largest and most remote game sanctuary in North America, which almost no one has heard of.

Throw a dart at the map of the continent and aim for an area as far away from any city, town, village, road or airport, and chances are you will hit a region in Canada along the border of two territories; Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, just south of the Arctic Circle.

It’s tundra country packed with shrub, grass and sedge, skating on a bed of ice that liquefies during the short summers of perpetual days. Herds of migratory caribou, musk ox and moose browse the plant life and are in turn shadowed by wolves, foxes and bears. Migratory songbirds and waterfowl, lured by the sheer biomass of insects, arrive to breed en-mass.

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Thelon Expedition on PBS NewsHour

Before setting out for the Canadian wilderness, Sanjayan sat down with Hari Sreenivasan of PBS NewsHour to talk about the purpose of the trip, the biggest challenge and why he’ll be spending time on “the suicide tube.” Watch the interview below.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.



Day 1: The Things We Carry (With a Nod to Tim O’Brien)

July 24, 2011

Richard setting up camp. All equipment is packed in waterproof dry bags and hauled in canoes
and on our backs. All Rights Reserved–Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures

The great Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton had a hard time getting out of town, they say. On expeditions, he was decisive and brilliant — but in the run up to setting out, he dithered endlessly.

Likewise, in the modest town of Yellowknife (Northwest Territories, Canada), with just a couple of hours before we had to push off, we were still packing and repacking and weighing every item against the twin scales of need and comfort. My luggage had never made it out (lost in transit), and so I went on a tear through the local version of a big box store (something called Canadian Tire) to find everything from underwear to a tent. And I was trying to savor the last coffee made by someone else I would have in a while.

Preparing for an expedition is all a question of eventualities, and our heads ached with the worry of trying to plan for every contingency we might encounter along the way. What happens if wind or even snow pin us down? If a canoe is lost or someone injured? If we can catch fish to eat — or if we cannot? Each possibility spawned a myriad of probabilities…each with its own requirement of gear.

Is what we have superfluous, or do we have what we need? Do we have too much? Or — even more worrisome, as we stand in the parking lot of the local strip mall — too little?

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Map of the Thelon Expedition

The best way to view the map is to open a larger version in a new window. We’ll be adding the coordinates of their campsites as they become available. You can zoom in to see their route along the Thelon. Zoom out to get a better idea of where in North America they are.

View Thelon Expedition in a larger map

(Click the “Thelon Expedition” link just below the map to launch a larger version in a new window.)


Day 2: Postcards From the Thelon

July 25, 2011
See some amazing images of the expedition taken by Ami Vitale.



Day 3: Caribou and the Dene

July 26, 2011

“I never get cold in the barren lands; for me it always is like summer.” – Tristen Lockhart
All Rights Reserved–Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures

Joseph Catholique never was sent away as a kid to Catholic boarding school. Tuberculosis had sidelined him for three crucial years in an Edmonton hospital, and he returned afterwards to his village of Lutsel K’e to go to a local school and learn from his father the land and how to hunt it.

“To know it so sharply,” is how Joseph puts it.

The “residential school” had the insidious side-effect of severing aboriginal people from the Arctic to Australia from their lands.

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Day 4: Sanjayan’s Mysterious Find

July 27, 2011

“We’ve been traveling for four days now, probably 80 kilometers by river, haven’t seen a single sign of Western civilization and then bang …”



Day 6: Postcards From the Thelon

July 29, 2011



Day 6: Caribou on the Barrens

July 29, 2011

I write in the light of the endless Arctic dusk, filtered into a golden hue through the walls of my tent. Outside, I hear wolves howl across the river.

They don’t call this the barren lands for nothing.

The landscape is rolling, endless without being monotonous. It has the kind of emptiness that can, in some circumstances make you a bit mad, I think. It is not the emptiness of deserts, brimming with sparseness and sterility. Rather, it’s the emptiness of solitude; in this bigness I feel very small, and sometimes achingly alone.

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Video: Storm or Swarm?

Get an amazing glimpse at how “debilitating” the bugs can be in the tundra.



Day 8: Postcards From the Thelon

July 31, 2011



Day 8: Mosquitoes

July 31, 2011

It sounds as if it’s raining outside — a light gentle drizzle, perhaps. But outside is dry and the sound comes not from drops of water but the ferocious attacks of mosquitoes and black flies as they bounce off the nylon walls of my tent.

How naïve I was to think that the bug suit I brought alone — a cotton canvas hooded sweatshirt-like apparatus with mesh across the face and down the sides — and the DEET wipes would hold this horror at bay. How silly to think that the worst that could happen was an itch.

The pale walls of my tent are smeared in many places as if a little kid with fingers covered in chocolate had played inside. The smears are blood.

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Thelon Expedition: Life at Camp

Though the Thelon River is big and its banks wide, our campsites tend to be picked with great care. Often, starting around 4 pm, we will begin to scout likely sites and our Dene guides—along with Steve Ellis, who helps manage the canoes and the kids—will visit and reject sometimes three or four sites before being satisfied.

I am a bit mystified about the selection criteria, but one thing is almost guaranteed—it will be poor for fishing and great for bugs. In truth, there are bugs everywhere, so finding a bug-free site in the tundra might simply be impossible. What I suspect they are looking for is a flat area near trees (we need wood to cook), with a good spot to wash in and pull up seven canoes.

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Camp 8: The Country

August 1, 2011

For the past week, it is as if I have been travelling through the Thelon with blinders on. I am like an ant removed from its colony and set down in strange territory.

The only constant is the river, the only direction is down. Without this compass, each vista looks alike, and I am adrift in a featureless terrain.

Overnight, a storm gathered in silence and quickly pounced.

The hot windless evening of yesterday has been replaced by lashing rain and gale force winds. Our tents are anchored with heavy rocks, and yet we fear to leave them empty for too long lest they are tossed into the river.

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Postcards From the Thelon

August 6, 2011

Double-click the gallery or use this link to see the full size pictures with captions.



Camp 8 (continued): Left Things Late

August 2, 2011

Now at Camp 8 we were pinned by a storm that would last for four days.

The buggy evening, without a spot of wind, was transformed near midnight into a gale. We had picked out campsite on a ledge about 5m above the river, designed for the views and to catch the slightest breeze; we were unprepared for the hard rain.

The storm had shadowed us below the horizon and while we slept it sprang its trap. It was so strong that the walls of our dome tent became concaved and sizeable rocks we used to tie down the sides were edged forward grinding on the granite ledge we were on. In the middle of the night we had to awaken to do repairs, covering our tents with every spare tarp we had.

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Fluid Motion

August 8, 2011

River travel worried me. Two hundred kilometers on a poorly charted arctic river, with no cavalry to come to the rescue, is not the place to practice canoeing. You either make it or you don’t.

Months ago, back in my home in Montana, I had devised a solution.

I had found Doug Ammons.

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Thelon Expedition on PBS NewsHour: Part 2

August 9, 2011

Sanjayan checks in with Hari Sreenivasan from a campground along the Thelon and updates him on the weather, the bugs and more.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.



Postcards From the Thelon: Ami in Action

August 10, 2011

We have been shadowed on our Expedition by photo-journalist Ami Vitale, whose work has been published in a variety of media outlets including National Geographic. Many of the images you see on the blog are the result of her work. In addition to keeping up with the Expedition and doing everything everyone else has to do to canoe the river, pitch tents, keep the bugs at bay, and survive, Ami is also always working. Rain or shine, stormy weather or buggy weather, Ami is exactly where the action is. When Joseph Catholique stalked a caribou and shot it to sustain the kids, Ami was quiet literally at his shoulders. When her canoe hit a rock in some rapids and nearly capsized, she was out of the boat in minutes taking pictures of the rest of us navigating the same rapids. And late at night, she is usually up in her tent, squeezing the last drops of power from our solar powered batteries, backing up and sending her pictures. Usually in her bug suit, Ami can be recognized by Nikon cameras always around her shoulders. Here are some photos of our Expedition photographer at work.

Double-click the gallery or use this link to see the full size pictures with captions.



Final Camp: The Place Where God Began

August 12, 2011

The end is in sight.

We have reached Hornby Point where the hungry bones of three men rest beneath wooden crosses staked in a copse of black spruce. John Hornby and his companions had counted on caribou that had not come, and had paid for the vastness of the land with their lives.

We have been on the river for over two weeks, accompanying a group of youth and two hunters and guides (Joseph Catholique and James Lockhart) from the Dene First Nation into the their ancestral hunting ground and spiritual abode. We have endeavored to expose Dene youth to the heartbeat of their land and to the culture of their people. We supported this expedition because we believe that this next generation of young leaders will be the ones who will need to speak for the Thelon the loudest.

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Postcards From the Thelon: The Final Gallery

August 14, 2011

Double-click the gallery or use this link to see the full size pictures with captions.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Excellent writing and excellent pictures.
    Wish your expedition good luck.

  2. Safe travels, Sanjayan and team. Good luck.

  3. I am very happy Tristen and Brendan agreed to participate; it is a chance of a lifetime. More so that we can join them through media. My prayers are with you all.

    what an opportunity for us all.

  4. wishing you all good luck and safe travels…

  5. Lucky all of you to have this opportunity to travel into that pristine land of our ancestors. The bugs will be bad and so try to stay where there is a breeze and wear white or light clothing so as not to attrach them. Enjoy and take in the fresh air and clean water. Keep safe.

  6. It was great to see you all in the pictures. . Just love the variety in ages as everyone has different perspectives as different ages.

    It really brings to mind this is much like how families travel. In fact, we had begun taking Tristen to the Barrens in March since he was two and his sister Alexis started going to Reliance when she was two weeks old. The land is very kind.

    Hey Tristen and Brendan …guess we might have to get the canoes for home use eh….

  7. Hi Richard,
    We met a couple of years ago in Yellowknife and crazy enough, I’m currently sitting at Ian and Karen McAllistar’s kitchen in Belle Bella on vacation. We couldn’t believe it last night when Gloria from Lutsel K’e arrived here for dinner. This is truly a wonderfully small world. We are enjoying talking and dreaming about the amazing special places. Take care and savour your opportunity.


  8. I am reminded about the short story ‘The Things They Carried’ by Tim O’Brien. The whole life is about things we carry, sometimes too much and sometimes too little. I too pray that you don’t make use of bear spray and first aid kit.

  9. Hope you are enjoying the trip, guided by my brother – Mike Palmer. Could you post a pic of him?

    Many thanks!

  10. Anyone up for a chat with CBC about the trip?….via sat phone. You can respond to my email address.
    So envious of those who are on this trip.

  11. Happy very happy that my little brother Shonto Catholique is on this incredible journey!! safe travels to all the dene people and all people on this great experience!! Oh yah sandra lockhart sends james lockhart a message!! we all miss you dad/grandpa

  12. best of luck to all of you….where is Mike Palmer…mom and dad xxoo

  13. Very happy for my son, Shonto and his gilrfriend, Amber, to be on this trip together. This is an experience of a lifetime to follow the trails of our ancestors. Pay the land as you go along and enjoy the land and nature. We’ll be waiting in Desnedhe Che! Have fun!!!! 🙂

  14. Palmer family, we now have a shot of Mike up on the site. Check out the slideshow from day two.

    More to come!

  15. Is totally loving the live footage of the Men traveling through the barren like our forefather have done. To my bro James and the boys Tristen and Brendon. We are think of how much fun u guys are having, an experiance that u never be forgot. Traveling the route of grandfathers’ and to joesph awesome photo..

  16. Very happy to see the Creator blessed you all with caribou. Now its drymeat and berries; can’t beat that.
    We are starting to get ready for Desnedhe Che and look forward to seeing Tristen and Brendan. Bet you have lots of stories to share.

  17. We are so blessed that our youth have the opportunity to see the land and footprints of our ancestors. Enjoy this life time experience that most of us may not see. You are our eyes. Take care of little Hawke.

  18. I’m there in spirit but don’t envy you those bugs. A far cry from Kenya, Richard…no? The blog and photos are painting a beautiful picture of a magnificent land and its people. Thank you!

  19. Sounds like a great trip but I’m afraid the bugs would deter me. And to see some people topless . . . must have been windy. Good luck.

  20. Hey ami, great pictures and sounds like a wonderful expedition….

  21. that was fun wish there was more like that

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