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At the dawn of the twentieth century, only a handful of intrepid explorers had journeyed to the Arctic. Most came back with harrowing tales of rugged survival in an unforgiving wilderness—if they came back at all. Ernest Thompson Seton was different.
In 1907, he paddled from Athabasca Landing, down the Mackenzie River to Great Slave Lake, eventually reaching Aylmer Lake and Clinton-Colden Lake. He returned, not with stories of starvation or barren landscapes, but ready to tell the world, “What I did on my summer vacation.”
Seton was one of the most famous nature writers of his time and an early advocate of the conservation movement. His animal stories, illustrations, and novels have fascinated millions the world over. He only travelled to the Arctic once, but it was an unforgettable experience.
The expedition, undertaken with colleague Edward Preble and two Métis guides, was only the fifth to reach the Northwest Territories’ untouched Barrenlands. Despite the name, Seton found the area anything but barren.
“There is absolutely no timber. But the land is not desert land by any means,” he later told reporters. “It is all rich prairie, and simply filled with game of many kinds, most especially caribou.”
Seton and his group waded through waist-deep flowers and lush summer vegetation, surrounded by abundant caribou, muskox and wolves. Life was everywhere in this “land of infinite interest and promise to the whole world.” He christened the Barrenlands, “the Arctic prairies.” His 1911 book of the same name chronicled the 3,200-kilometre voyage with photos and sketches from his three volumes of travel journals.
Born in England, Seton’s family moved to Canada in 1866. He grew up in Toronto before beginning his studies in London and Paris. He was the provincial naturalist for the government of Manitoba before moving to New Mexico to continue writing about human’s often-neglected relationship with the natural world.
A few years after his Arctic trip, Seton co-founded the Boy Scouts of America to instill a love and respect for nature in future generations. The scouts may have overly romanticized the natural world, while appropriating from Indigenous cultures, but Seton remained a pioneering figure in the burgeoning environmental movement up until his death in 1968.
“He was in the advance guard of a new era of wildlife conservation, having sensed that a way of life fundamental to all mankind was rapidly growing extinct in the face of modern technology and communications,” writes Richard Davis, a professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, who’s studied Seton’s journey to the North. “Unlike many outdoorsmen of his time and certainly unlike those of past generations, Seton saw the wilderness as a place that needed to be preserved, rather than conquered.”
Though his fame in North America dwindled, Seton is still well-known around the world. His collection of animal stories was adapted into a popular manga and anime series in Japan, and translated into Catalan, Arabic, German, and Czech.
These days, it’s a lot easier to reach Aylmer Lake than the months-long paddling and portage journey Seton undertook. Welcomed by operators like Aylmer Lake Lodge, travellers come to take in the world-class fishing and unforgettable Aurora. The unmatched wilderness that greeted Seton on his adventure still remains. And the experience is no less memorable.