Nearly one year after its formal recognition, the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous protected area – the Land of the Ancestors – is welcoming a host of visitors to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.
Thaidene Nëné’s manager, Iris Catholique, told Cabin Radio the area is “pretty active” with people coming to experience the land and take in the scenery. Day camps, fishing, and boating are popular activities among visitors.
During a recent sojourn across the lake to deliver staff supplies, Catholique said she saw at least 30 boats and one sailboat on the water.
“There’s a lot of activity,” she said. “A lot of people are coming out to the East Arm and enjoying our beautiful lake, our beautiful country, and our abundance of fish.”
Because the Covid-19 pandemic is restricting international travel, Catholique and park staff are working hard to make Thaidene Nëné a staycation hotspot.
On Thursday, the territorial government issued a news release encouraging visitors to plan trips ahead of time and look for updates on the Parks Canada webpage. Visitors are asked to refrain from entering the nearby Łutselk’e community, limiting travel to the park itself.
Thaidene Nëné was created last August when the federal, territorial, and Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation governments signed an establishment agreement to protect the area and jointly govern the space.
The area includes a national park reserve, a territorial protected area, and a wildlife conservation area. Traditional Indigenous harvesting and hunting rights in the park are protected.
Earlier this year, the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation was one of 10 Indigenous communities around the world to win a UN Equator Prize for its leadership in establishing and caring for Thaidene Nëné.
In an earlier interview with Cabin Radio, Chief Darryl Marlowe said receiving the award was a “great honour” and taking care of the land a “sacred responsibility” passed down by Elders.
Alongside welcoming guests, park staff are busy at work developing Ni Hat’ni Dene, a local network of Łútsël K’é Dene members who act as stewards for the park, Catholique said.
Consisting of four full-time monitors and four youth monitors, the Ni Hat’ni Dene crew travels the park and ensures visitors are following safety protocols and respecting the land.
They regularly monitor wildlife in the park, such as catching and releasing fish, to check up on the health of the animals.
The community of Łutselk’e. Photo submitted to the United Nations Development Programme for the 2020 Equator Prize
While the park itself might be getting its fair share of visitors, it’s a different story for some local operators.
James Marlowe runs River’s East Arm Tours out of Thaidene Nëné. He offers tourists a variety of guided experiences, including fishing trips, wildlife viewing, and cultural camps for youth from the community.
Marlowe started the business last August after he received funding from the territorial Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment (ITI). For him, tours are an opportunity to celebrate the Land of the Ancestors.
It’s also a chance to work with local youth and pass on the traditions of the Łútsël K’é Dene peoples.
“One of the reasons I do culture is I want the young people today to learn to do stuff that our Elders taught us before, like fixing game, wildlife, show them how to make dry fish, dry meat, and other traditional activities,” he said.
Last summer, Marlowe led 15 different tours for visitors from all over, including one group from Toronto and another from Seattle. He also ran ice-fishing tours for guests in the winter.
Yet this year, Covid-19 has meant many of Marlowe’s bookings were cancelled. Plans for a cultural camp for a group from Calgary were nixed, and a group from London, England had to postpone a fishing tour until next summer.
It’s incredibly frustrating for Marlowe.
“I could have been busy if this disease wasn’t around,” he said. “I’m trying to survive as a business and no business is no income for me to pay my bills.”
Marlowe told Cabin Radio he applied for emergency funds from CanNor and ITI but was turned down.
Once the threat of Covid-19 subsides, Marlowe said he hopes to be “overwhelmed with bookings” – although the territorial government announced on Thursday that the public state of emergency was being extended for the ninth time since late March.
In the meantime, Marlowe said, he hopes people in the NWT will take the time to visit the park.
“[It’s] a special place,” he said. “It’s untouched. The land is as [it’s been] since Earth began.”
Catholique said there are “lots of goals for the future” – one of which is making the Frontier Fishing Lodge operational year-round for tourists.
Most importantly, Catholique said, it’s part of a bright future for Łutselk’e.
“The Thaidene Nëné Park is a gateway for not only for the community to grow, but for our youth to grow and to obtain employment,” she said.