Rainbow Lake resident Bill Ulinski had always been fascinated with Canada's Northwest Territories, one of the world's most remote and rugged lands. Last August, with the help of a guide, he was able to explore a section of it.
Ulinski traveled with a group of eight people along a string of unnamed waters east of the Thelon River. He spent 12 days on the water in the bow of a tandem canoe, camping at different sites along the way. The group encountered about 40 sets of rapids, portaging four times for about a half-mile each.
"I've always been mesmerized by this area," said Ulinski, who has read dozens of books set in the Northwest Territories since the 1970s.
Bill Ulinski stands along an unnamed river where the group portaged a set of rapids.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Ulinski)
Ulinski traveled with Alex Hall, a guide who has been in the Northwest Territories for decades. Ulinski, Hall and the other members of the guided trip met in a small village of about 2,000 people called Fort Smith, located on the Slave River in the southeastern part of the Northwest Territories. From there, they flew via floatplane more than 200 miles northeast to a tributary of the Thelon River.
Once in the backcountry, they traveled more than 100 miles north, paddling through a chain of unnamed lakes and rivers. Upon completion of the canoe trip, they were met by floatplanes that flew them back to Fort Smith.
Ulinski described the Northwest Territories as a barren land marked by eskers and that had, at times, a moon-like landscape because of its dry climate. It has large bodies of water, small pockets of trees, lots of wind, and black fly and mosquito populations that dwarf the Adirondacks.
"We don't know what black flies and mosquitoes are," said Ulinski, a former mountain manager at Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire who now works at the Saranac Islands state campground. "If you were a little squeamish about a black fly or mosquito in your morning hot water or coffee or your hot chocolate or your oatmeal, you didn't eat because we ate a lot (of black files). We joked about it. On the water, they didn't bother you."
While traveling along the river, Ulinski also saw numerous animal tracks in the sandy sections of the shoreline from wolves, hares, wolverines and grizzly bears. Though there are plenty of predators that make their way through the area, they didn't see any or have problems, though that potential existed.
"If you catch any fish, (Hall) really doesn't want you getting any fish juice on the canoe because he had a grizzly eat a hole through a canoe once because it smelled," said Ulinski, who caught and ate some Arctic grayling on the trip.
Hall actually hasn't had many problems with grizzlies, Ulinski said. They have walked through his campsites at night, but haven't caused any serious problems for him or his clients.
Though Ulinski didn't see any grizzlies on the trip, he did see a few animals, including musk ox and caribou. Caribou from the Beverly herd have worn paths across the landscape. The animals have roamed from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan into the Northwest Territories and Nunavut for thousands of years.
The herd once numbered close to 300,000 caribou as recently as the mid 1990s. Now only a few thousand are left. Those in the area aren't sure whether this is a result of a natural cycle or a result of some other factor such as climate change, Ulinski said.
Native people from the Dene tribe, who lived near the Thelon River until the middle of the 20th century, also no longer live in the area where Ulinski traveled through. Many have relocated to villages along the major water bodies.
Overall, the population of the Northwest Territories is only about 40,000 people, and they are spread out over about 440,000 square miles. About half the population lives in the capital of Yellowknife.
When the natives used to travel through the area, they would follow and hunt the caribou herd.
"We found some spearheads that were over a thousand years old," Ulinski said. "One thing you have to realize is nothing decays up there. We found some old lumber from a cabin that had been there in the '20s from trappers."
It was this history, the wild character of the land and its wildlife, that drew Ulinski to the Northwest Territories.
"(Hall said) he's seen 10 to 20,000 caribou come across (the barren lands)," Ulinski said. "The Indians have this thing, the caribou are like the wind. They suddenly appear; they suddenly disappear and you never know when (it's going to happen)."