At a Cli Lake lodge, a lifelong dream comes together
It’s Loyal Letcher’s lodge, and even he sometimes can’t believe it. “It’s exciting,” he says. “Basically, I’m living my dream. I planned this my whole young life.”
The North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge sits at the edge of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a midway point between the majesty of Virginia Falls and most travellers’ jumping-off point of Fort Simpson.
Loyal and Ria Letcher have together invested decades of time into a facility they describe as an Indigenous owned and operated eco lodge and wilderness resort on Cli Lake, a lake with special meaning to the Letchers.
The lodge was built in the 1990s, when the pair were in their twenties, calling on help from family and friends to piece everything together over three years.
“I’ve been out there my whole life with my family,” says Loyal. “I decided, when I was young, it was a beautiful place to build a lodge. My uncle actually wanted to do it first and then he passed away, and I decided that if anybody in my family’s going to do it, it’s going to be me.
“We built the place – and to tell you the truth, I don’t know how we did it.”
“You sit there,” added Ria, “and you look at the enormity of the place, and the challenging geography in which it’s situated – it was sheer will and determination.”
The main lodge, with electricity, plumbing, a sauna and a hot tub, offers six bedrooms. Three guest cabins are nearby.
The lake itself, Loyal says, is named for his great-great-grandfather, former chief Joseph Cli. Both Loyal and Ria are Dene from Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́, and establishing a lodge on Cli Lake means a huge amount to them.
“Run the lodge, promote our area, help establish our family back into the lake and the area, and put people to work in the community,” says Loyal, listing the things he hoped to accomplish back in 1998, when the lodge first opened. All of the lodge’s guides are Indigenous, he said.
“There are a lot of spin-offs for the community. The airlines are happy. People are staying in the hotels, using the restaurants or the Northern store or buying crafts,” says Loyal.
“And then the people that work at the lodge, they come home and they spend their paycheques in the community and they’re feeding their families here. Those are the things that I was trying to do.”
For years, the family barely had time to enjoy their creation.
Loyal says he worked for 27 years in forest fire management for the NWT government, while Ria served as executive director for the Dehcho First Nations among other roles.
“So we’ve had quite intense careers, plus we raised four children, trying to run the lodge and everything on the side,” says Loyal.
Only in the last three or four years has that changed. Retirement has arrived, transforming the time the two have to invest in the lodge.
Loyal begins describing how the lodge specializes in incorporating Indigenous culture, only to be interrupted by Ria, who states that it’s more than a specialism. “It’s a part of our life,” she says.
Visitors can simply relax and fish in Cli Lake, or they can take on a range of hiking trails – from easy walks around the lake to day trips atop Mt Cli, returning to the lodge for supper.
Plant walks and medicinal walks are on offer, while visitors can be shown how to set nets then clean, smoke and dry fish traditionally. (Stops at Virginia Falls and the Nahanni National Park Reserve are often part of broader travel packages, too.)
“Cli lake is a beautiful, pristine lake. It’s clear water. We have canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and recreational equipment,” said Loyal.
“We’re family-based, and we’ve done cultural camps, language camps. Since the pandemic, we’ve also been doing some healing camps out at the lodge.”
This year, the month of June is given over to renovations. “Now that I’m retired, I’m putting 100 percent of my efforts into managing and operating the lodge,” Letcher says.
After that, Ria says a special rate is available for travellers from the NWT who want to take in the lodge. Inquire directly for details, she told Cabin Radio. (You can even choose to come in by plane and out by jet boat, or vice versa, Loyal said, describing that as an opportunity to see the region by land, air and water.)
Easing into life at the lodge after retirement, the Letchers say the prospective of a first fully pandemic-free season excites them.
“It’s all coming together,” Loyal says. “We’re really happy. Things are looking really positive.”
This article appears as part of a paid partnership between Cabin Radio, NWT Tourism and the Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment celebrating Tourism Week 2023 in the Northwest Territories. To explore more, visit Spectacular NWT on Youtube.