Alex Hall laughs at the memory of riding in a Cessna on his first trip North. The plane skimmed above dense clouds, then dove into the fog, then emerged below, with the wide, caribou- and snow goose-scattered tundra spreading out before him. It was the exact moment his life changed forever.
“Looking back on it, I sort of think I was training for this occupation all my life without really knowing it,” says Hall, now a renowned river guide, from his home in Fort Smith. “It just so happened that that’s what I loved doing.”
Beginnings in the outdoors
Raised in Brampton, Ontario, hunting and fishing were a mainstay of Hall’s early life. So were trips to the fishing shack his father had built on a lake just outside Algonquin Provincial Park.
In 1970, Hall was working toward a Masters in biology – specializing in animal ecology – at the University of Toronto. One of his professors was taking a group of students up north on a wolf study, operating out of a shuttered DEW line site called FOX 2. Three hundred feet above the ground, as the Cessna carrying Hall descended, he already knew it wouldn’t be his last trip.
“I graduated after that and the only thing I wanted to do was come back to the tundra,” he says.
A big idea
Having read a magazine article about an early recreational canoe trip down the Thelon River, Hall dreamed up an expedition. In the summer of 1971, he and a friend drove from Ontario to Yellowknife, boarded a floatplane, and embarked on a 37-day canoe trip all the way to Baker Lake.
Still, Hall says, the idea of making a career on the lakes and rivers of the Barrenlands hadn’t yet set in.
He returned to Ontario and put his schooling to work at an environmental consulting firm. The nine-to-five wasn’t for him. “I didn’t like the job. I hated it. I was chained to my desk and started thinking about the Thelon trip,” says Hall. “Suddenly, it occurred to me that I could be doing that as a business.”
He headed back to the Northwest Territories – the hard way. In the summer of 1973, Hall and another friend set off on an 11-week paddling trip northbound from the Saskatchewan border. At the end of the journey, they sat down in Yellowknife with government tourism officials.
“I talked to them about starting my business and they basically thought I was nuts,” Hall says with a laugh. “They thought I was really naïve – just some young nutcase.”
A career for the books
Regardless, in 1974, Hall established Canoe Arctic Inc., becoming the first professional canoe guide in the Northwest Territories. At first he headed out on numerous solo exploratory trips, slowly taking on clients – in ‘75 and ’76, he guided one guest each year. But soon his business was growing, and by 1979, Hall says, his trips were selling out completely.
More than 40 years later, with more than 100 trips under his belt, Hall remains the pre-eminent guide on the Thelon. His years in the region, and his background as a wildlife biologist, have made him famous.
His experience has also led to publication: In 2003 his book, Discovering Eden, was published, chronicling his trips and illustrating his connection to the land that drew him at first sight.
This summer, Hall will guide five trips, ranging from eight to 12 days in length and of varying difficulties – lot of people these days, he says, are deterred by lengthy portages.
While the shortest of trips will navigate small lakes and rivers, and another will bring paddlers through the soon-to-be national park of Thaidene Nene
, the Thelon is still Hall’s main river.
He points to a chapter of his book that’s dedicated to its waters. It reads: “I have paddled dozens of rivers across the Barrenlands
– most of the famous ones and some known only to me or a select few – but none have the allure and mystique of the Thelon.”
“The Thelon draws me back again and again. To my mind, the Thelon is the quintessence of wilderness – the jewel in the crown – and home to the most beautiful places left on earth.”