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Where nice comes with the territory: One last guided journey on the Barrenlands

Alex Hall holds a wolf pup in the Barrenlands, Northwest Territories

Where nice comes with the territory: One last guided journey on the Barrenlands

In 2019, Jackpine Paddle took over operations in the central barrenlands from legendary canoe guide Alex Hall. 

Alex spent forty-six years paddling under big tundra skies, sharing the central barrens with more than two thousand clients. He saw more than a million barren-ground caribou, more than a hundred grizzlies, thousands of muskox, and more than one thousand Arctic wolves—his favourite species.

On March 2, 2019, after an eleven-month battle with cancer, Alex passed away peacefully at home in Fort Smith, NWT.

Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle, now takes nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts into the Barrenlands every summer. Here, Dan tells the story of the significance behind a wolf sighting the summer after Alex passed away:

Hiking on the Barren Lands, Northwest Territories.  Photo Credit Dan Wong

In his award-winning book Discovering Eden, Alex wrote: 

“The Barren Lands have become my religion, my church; they’re sacred ground. I worship them. My soul is there. That is why my ashes will go there one day, so my body and spirit will remain part of the Barren Lands forever.”

Prior to his passing, Alex and I spent many hours going over a career’s worth of detailed map and route information, in preparation for the upcoming season. Alex pointed out the locations of dozens of wolf dens he had marked. 

Throughout that summer, my fellow Jackpine Paddle guides, our guests and I searched in vain for Alex’s wolf dens. Getting into August, we had yet to find a single one.

Hiking on the Barren Lands, Northwest Territories

On August 12, 2019, we were hiking off the Horton River during a guided canoe trip with five guests and we decided to crest one final ridge before calling it a day and heading back to camp. Unknown to us, an active Arctic wolf den lay on the opposite side of the hill.

As we reached the summit, the adult wolves darted away from the den, yipping and howling. We froze. At this moment, two Arctic wolf puppies came bounding back to the den—headed straight for us! 

Roughly 20 metres from us, the wolf puppies came to a skidding stop in the sand esker. We must have been the first humans they’d ever seen! After a second of shock (on all sides), the puppies bounded off towards the safety of an alternative den site.

As if to complete this Arctic safari, one of the guests then shouted “Look!” and pointed to a nearby open stand of white spruce trees. There, across a carpet of lichen, a lone male muskoxen sauntered along. 

The excitement was infectious, as we all agreed we had made the right decision to crest that one final ridge. We had found our first wolf den that day.

As it turned out, this was the same day Alex’s ashes returned to the barrens, more than 600 kilometres away. Alex’s sons Graham and Evan, stepdaughter Esmee, stepson Dominic, and widow Robyn Hall stepped out of a Turbo Otter floatplane sponsored by Northwestern Airlease, and spread his ashes on top of a magnificent esker overlooking the Elk River, a major tributary of the Thelon River.

Remote canoe expeditions in the Northwest Territories can be full of magic and unforgettable experiences. August 12, 2019 is a day we will never forget.

 

Dan Wong

Owner of Jackpine

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