After Alex Hall, the Thelon River awaits a new era

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Alex Hall led guided canoe trips down the Thelon River for decades. His passing, in early March, leaves a significant space for other outfitters to fill.

Hall started Fort Smith-based Canoe Arctic in 1974, but had to step back after receiving a cancer diagnosis in April of last year.

In late 2018, Hall began mentoring Yellowknife outfitter Dan Wong, who started his own company, Jackpine Paddle, a few years ago.

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Wong will take over Hall's licence to guide in the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary this season, guiding at least five 10 to 12-day trips along the river – the same number Hall had planned for both 2018 and 2019.

The Thelon River runs through the Barrenlands of the eastern Northwest Territories into Nunavut, emptying into Baker Lake.

While they never paddled the Barrenlands together, Wong did spend time with Hall poring over his notes and maps, learning everything he could from the man who spent more time than anyone on the river.

"We will be thinking about him a lot this summer," said Wong. "We will never fill his shoes … no one will. He stands alone.

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"It's unlikely anyone will ever paddle that area as much, know it as well as he did, and love it as much as he did.

"It’s going to be an adventure this summer, and it's something I'm really looking forward to and working hard to get ready for."

'We don't want to lose what Alex had'

Change on the Thelon comes at the same time as the Nahanni River opens up for a new licensee.

In both instances, there is friction between operators.

The Nahanni licensing process has seen Wong suggest the river's current operators, none of which are based in the NWT, are a "canoe cartel" monopolizing guiding in Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Joel Hibbard, who runs one of those operators – Nahanni Wild – feels Wong should be focusing on the Thelon and maximizing that river's potential.

"Dan was gifted a business," said Hibbard. "He sees business in the Nahanni as something he deserves as well."

The Hibbards' two companies have guided trips on the South Nahanni River for decades and are both promoting trips on the Thelon River this year.

Wong suggested this is unusual: “The companies currently operating in the Nahanni are now starting to run regular trips on the Thelon," he said.

“They’ve seen opportunity here to grow their market share in the area."

But Hibbard says his company has been offering guided tours with various partners since the early 1990s. He sees more investment in guided Barrenlands tours, by more operators, as a good thing.

"Alex presented the best of the industry," said Hibbard. "He really lived each moment of his life to try and see those places celebrated."

If the Thelon River is not promoted and paddled, said Hibbard, Alex's legacy will "get left in the dust."

This is one point on which the competing companies agree.

“We really want to get up to speed as fast as we can," said Wong. "We don't want to lose what Alex had going out there."