If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times.
Ask what brought someone to the Northwest Territories and you’re probably going to get a version of a very familiar story: I came for a week and here I am, 10 or 20 or 30 years later.
The easy pace of life up here hooks some. For others, it’s the great wild world literally at their doorsteps. Those factors both had something to do with the way the NWT captivated Margaret Peterson, Olav Falsnes and Ted Grant—three long-time tour operators. But what really made them fall in love with the place? The humble, hardy, and hilarious people who live here.
Here’s the story of how three quintessential tour operators first came to the NWT—and how they wanted to share it with the world.
"I came North in 1979 for a two-year job posting."
The Petersons were used to packing and unpacking boxes.
Margaret met her husband Jim, a medic with the Canadian Armed Forces, in Victoria, B.C. in the mid-70s. Soon, they moved to Ottawa after Jim was posted there. But something was missing. When a posting came up in Yellowknife, “we jumped for it,” says Margaret, owner of Peterson’s Point Lake Lodge and My Backyard Tours.
The Petersons immediately took to the outdoors, with so many fishing and camping spots so close to the city, and they renewed their posting in Yellowknife after two years. But when they were posted back to Victoria, they didn’t go. “We just loved it here,” Margaret says. “Isn’t that funny? Many people want to retire in Victoria.”
The Petersons haven’t had to pack their boxes since—Yellowknife has been home for 40 years.
After settling in the city, Jim began to seriously think about making his life dream of starting a lodge a reality. That search began inauspiciously. The family—by then Margaret, Jim and their two children, Amanda and Chad—decided to take a trip to Point Lake. They flew out to the lake—located above the tree line roughly 300 kilometres north of Yellowknife—on a hot, sunny Canada Day long weekend in the capital city. It wasn’t quite so at Point Lake. It snowed. “We went into survival mode for a couple of days,” Margaret says. Eventually, they came across a narrow strip of beach on a sheltered section of the lake. “We said this was going to be it and that’s where we are.”
What started as a tent camp focused on providing hunting and fishing adventures is today a premium Arctic lodge that still offers world-class fishing but also magnificent aurora viewing and popular autumn Arctic photography workshops. The Petersons also began a Yellowknife-based company, My Backyard Tours, that provides guided tours of the city and surrounding area. This growing, second-generation family business all evolved from that job posting in 1979.
“We have a saying—you come up as guests and you leave as friends and family,” Margaret says. That’s only true if you actually leave.
"I came North in 1966 to drop off a plane."
His dream was to overwinter on his own in Eastern Greenland. Or to drive an army jeep through Europe to the Middle East. Or follow in David Livingstone’s footsteps on a journey through Africa. For Olav Falsnes, none of this ever materialized.
Instead it was in Canada’s North that he found the adventure he’d been craving for so long. Growing up in Norway, he was passionate about flying, learning to pilot a glider towed behind a speeding Cadillac. Later, a flight instructor would tell Olav that two of his students had gone to Canada to become bush pilots. This stuck with Olav, who moved to Edmonton in his early 20s to get his Canadian pilot’s license.
In 1966, he was asked to drop an airplane off in Cambridge Bay. Alone at the controls of a Cessna 180, flying over Northern Alberta and then the Northwest Territories, he felt a rush of excitement. “It was new territory. It was unknown,” he says. “You had no idea about what you were going to run into.”
He stopped in Yellowknife, where the plane was put on floats for the rest of the trip. There was just one problem: Olav had never flown with floats before. Luckily, getting signed off back then wasn’t much of a task. “It consisted of one take-off and one landing,” he says. (After a 20-minute flight, the pilot turned to Olav and told him, ‘You can fly this as good as I can.’) Olav flew on to Port Radium, on Great Bear Lake, and then to Kugluktuk, known then as Coppermine.
“Back in the 60s, small airplanes didn’t have anything fancy to navigate by,” he says. GPS was decades away. Olav used maps and landmarks to guide him. In Coppermine, he was told to follow the coast to Cambridge Bay. “I got up to the Arctic Ocean and there was ice everywhere.” He made his fourth landing ever on floats and was soon recruited to fly a DC-4 for aviation legend Willy Laserich.
Thus began Olav’s life in the North. He spent the next few summers shuttling geologists and biologists around the Arctic. His training as an aeronautical engineer helped him get work, he reckons. “I could fix my own plane. They would say, ‘Let’s send Olav up because we know he’ll come back.’” He hopped between Churchill, Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit for the next decade before settling in Inuvik in 1982. There, he and his wife Judi began to think about “a retirement project.”
In 1990, they purchased a place outside of town and fixed up cabins from Inuvik’s early days that had been left on the property. Ever since, their hospitality business has grown into a full-service tourism company, Arctic Chalet Resort and Adventure Tours, which offers dog-mushing excursions, snowmobiling adventures, Dempster Highway tours—you name it. “There’s nothing more exhilarating even today than driving the Dempster Highway,” says Olav. “I’ve driven it 100 times and I still love it no matter what time of year.”
Olav and Judi can’t imagine living anywhere else. “We both love the North,” he says. “We both enjoy the people, the peace, the quiet and the solitude. The remoteness even, it doesn’t bother us.” Nor, obviously, does sharing his love for adventure with guests.
"I came North in the 1970s with the RCMP."
The farming community of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, is a long way from Nahanni National Park Reserve, but that's where a young Ted Grant first dreamed of joining the Mounties, of owning a plane and running a fishing lodge. He wanted the lodge, he says, because he hunted and trapped with his father. The plane? His neighbours owned a two-seater—"but they never let me get inside," he says. So, he decided he needed one of his own. As for the RCMP, it was the sight of an older cousin decked out in the red serge that hooked him.
Ted joined the force on his 19th birthday and began training the next day. After being posted around Saskatchewan for nine years, he was sent North. He hasn’t left.
Ted served in several communities, including Grise Fiord, the northernmost community in North America. That’s where he made his first foray into tourism, when he and the settlement manager hosted the "Grise Fiord Open Golf Tournament." On a lark, they designed a nine-hole golf course, then welcomed a Twin Otter from (relatively nearby) Resolute loaded with 16 competitors.
But it was during his posting to Fort Simpson that he really caught the bug. In the summer of 1976, he took a flight with bush pilot Dick Turner. "We got to fly in and see the Nahanni," Ted says, noting the area had just been designated a national park. He fell in love with it. Then and there, flying in the North became his goal.
Ted eventually quit the RCMP. Armed with his pilot's license, he bought Simpson Air. The small company had been offering charters in the Mackenzie Valley since the 1960s, far longer than anyone else. A few years later, a trapper sold him some log cabins on Little Doctor Lake. They became Ted's lodge – one more thing he could check off his list. "If you have a passion for something," he says, "just take a step forward."
Fast-forward to today and Ted is still flying tours into the Nahanni with the same energy and wonder he first had seated next to Dick Turner. He points out notable landmarks like Virginia Falls and the Cirque of the Unclimbables and describes the geology and history of unnamed peaks and rivers. He seems to want to pinch himself when talking about the beauty of the park and how pristine the water is, standing next to Little Doctor Lake. “Feeling a little crowded in the city?” he asks. “Come and try this.”