While driving along the Dempster Highway in 1988, former RCMP officer Gerry Kisoun of Inuvik got a first glimpse of his future career. He met a couple from Vancouver who were driving back south after the long road journey to the Beaufort Delta. Kisoun discovered their visit hadn’t exactly showcased what he knew the region has to offer.
“They said they’d wanted to go for a speedboat ride and see the Mackenzie Delta” – maybe even travel to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic coast –“but there wasn’t any company in Inuvik to do that,” Kisoun says. “So they spent one night, had a shower, and headed back south.”
According to Kisoun, “I said, ‘Right on, safe travels,’ and headed back to Inuvik and started a company.” He applied for a license, revved up his outboard motor and has been leading excursions for Tundra North Tours ever since.
As well as boat tours through the Mackenzie Delta, Kisoun guides dog-team trips out from Inuvik, sometimes as far as Herschel Island, nearly at the Alaskan border. And though he doesn’t manage the company any more (he turned the reins over to his nephew, Kylik Kisoun-Taylor), he’s still at the heart of Tundra North, much loved by the company’s clients.
What do visitors enjoy about travelling with Kisoun? “I think a lot of them just like to be out there with nature,” he says. “They travel with us and listen to some of our stories that we share with them about being out on the land.”
Indeed, having grown up “out on the land,” Gerry Kisoun has a lot of stories to share. “I was born on the trapline and was living there for a couple years with my father,” he says. From an early age he was always around huskies, and by the time he was 12 he had his own team.
“I used to travel out to the Mackenzie Delta to visit my relatives,” he says. “On a weekly basis, I’d leave Friday afternoon after school and end up at one of my great uncles’ camps, 18 or 19 miles out,” he says. “The following day I’d go another 40 or 45 miles out, to the heart of the Delta. Those are the stories I share with the travellers. My environment was right here. It’s my habitat.”
Making a career of guiding visitors through the Northern wilderness came naturally. “Prior to even doing tourism as a paid product, I used to take my friends out fishing in the fall-time, out with snowmachines,” he says. “I was always sharing our culture with many different people, I guess.”
Decades later, Kisoun says talking about his culture remains essential. “I think we have to share those stories with the traveling public because a lot of people don’t know about our part of the world.”
Kisoun knows firsthand what a shock new places can be. He remembers his first trip to Edmonton one summer as a child. He couldn’t believe that the sun was setting – during summer in the Mackenzie Delta, after all, the sun never goes down.
So it’s fun for him to show visitors things that surprise them. “I had a crew from National Geographic a few years back that did a little something on ice-road survival. They were all hooked up with microphones, the truck was hooked up with cameras on the side. We got on the ice road out there and an 18-wheeler was coming along with a fairly large load. I said, ‘Hold on, just listen,’ and as the truck went by, the ice was cracking under us. Some of them were very nervous!”
It’s these moments of sharing a new experience, a story about the land he grew up on, or a part of the culture of the Mackenzie Delta, that makes the job ideal for him. “I think we have to share more of those stories,” he says. “And, we’ve got room for more people to come up here if they want to come visit.”