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Home Story Yellow Dog Lodge: Resilience and Recovery

Yellow Dog Lodge: Resilience and Recovery

Resilience and Recovery: these words define the experience of the Northwest Territories’ Yellow Dog Lodge which faced, and overcame, catastrophic wildfires and terrifying experiences in 2023.

Gord Gin and his wife Kathy run the Yellow Dog Lodge, nestled between Duncan and Graham Lakes, 55 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife. It’s a cozy hub for wilderness activities and an ideal Northern Lights viewing point, but during the summer of 2023 wildfires nearly destroyed the lodge and broke their spirits.

Looking outside the lodge windows in late February, Gord says he couldn’t see any traces of what he calls the “Summer of Wildfire and Fear.” Instead, the tranquil snow-covered land twinkled in the early morning sun before him.

But Gord says he will never forget going through the fires which hit him and the others running at the lodge like blows, “one after another.”

A terrible moment was “realizing that we were in the line of fire, and didn’t have a lot of resources to fight fire,” he says.

Throughout the summer, the wildfires grew to destroy properties and torch wilderness lands across the territory and, in August, they forced an unprecedented three-week emergency evacuation of the capital city of Yellowknife.

 By July 25, the fire’s front had already moved close to Yellow Dog Lodge, so close that Gord could see flames and hear them roar. The fire appeared to be alive, he says, as the sky glowed and smoke blotted out the sun.   

“Tears flowed down my cheeks and lumps formed in my throat as I watched the fire consume the hillside, not 50 metres from the lodge’s back door,” Gord wrote in a big document he wrote about the summer.

“I took some photos and videos to document the process and watched in horror as the skies turned black and the flames rose 30 metres into the air. Over the next few hours, we would witness the destruction of our surroundings.”

The fire reached out to the South Yellow Dog beach picnic area and burnt the outhouse there to the ground. Many marked hiking trails which they had maintained over the past 17 years were burned. Only ash and standing dead tree trunks remained.

As Gord prepared to receive his first guests of the 2024 season on March 2, he was instructing staff and readying snowshoes, cross-country skis, snowmobiles and fishing gear for guests’ use.

“We’re recovering. It’s almost a rebirth coming out of this bad period,” Gord says, adding that as he snowmobiled from Yellowknife to the lodge, he saw many animal tracks, signs that wildlife are also returning.

 Gord says he often thought about the animals whose homes were destroyed and lives were lost. “That could have been us. This is as close as I ever want to be,” he says. 

But the lodge’s buildings were spared after a controlled back burn, succeeded in eliminating fuel in the path of the fires front; that came as a huge relief to Gord.

Gord also points to a sign, still standing, erected in memory of his nephew, Braden, who was 14 when he died of leukemia in 2009.

“He watches over us and he and our angels come to visit all the time. He was with us on this day and kept us safe,” Gord says.

By the end of June, four NWT communities would be evacuated over the threat of wildfires, including K’atl’odeeche First Nation, Hay River, Sambaa K’e, and Wekweeti.

Those early fires would later transform into a “dragon,” threatening the North Slave Region communities of Yellowknife, Behchoko, N’dilo, Dettah and the Ingraham Trail, consuming more than 500,000 acres of wilderness along the way.

As the wildfires continued to grow, the lodge ended up closing and transforming into a remote incident command post for the firefighters. Meanwhile, its tourism operations suffered: the fires led to a huge loss in expected income, prompted staff resignations and a huge amount of stress.

Sometimes tempers would boil over, relationships were strained and a few more tears were shed due to the stress of the work and ever-changing plans, he says.

Striking not long after Covid-19 restrictions, the wildfire emergency quickly rekindled emotions of fear, sadness, anger, regret, and “just plain uncertainty on what would happen next,” Gord says.

In early August, the lodge tried to welcome guests back, but the “experiment” of having both guests and firefighters in residence put more stress on the team: Kathy, Sonia, Noah, Andre, Kaitlyn, PJ, Antonio, Janelle and Debbie – Gord adds, mentioning his staff who helped through the summer of 2023 at the lodge.

On August 13th, Kathy was evacuated by Air Tindi after they brought in supplies for the firefighters. Gord raced the boat back to the lodge, getting back just in time to kiss her and say goodbye before she left on this chartered evacuation flight. This was the last time he would see Kathy until he returned to their home 2 months later in Cochrane, Alberta.

The emergency evacuation of Yellowknife occurred August 18th.  Nearly all Yellowknife’s population left.  This caused disruption to the supply orders. Yellow Dog Lodge had become a camp for 30 firefighters and a staging base for helicopters to refuel for the massive firefighting operation.  It was not until Sept 6th that all firefighters had left the lodge and Yellowknife began to accept their residents back home.

For the next few months, Gord and his staff witness the natural rejuvenation. The changes are amazing.  “The fires took out a lot of the forest but we are already seeing signs of improvement. The grass is getting green again, birds are singing, wolves are howling and small animals are returning, not to mention sightings of moose and bear.”

Now, Gord wishes to put the summer of 2023 behind him, as he focuses on the lodge. He’s concentrating on getting the lodge’s sundecks and Aurora viewing locations ready and preparing the docks and marina for fishing, swimming and relaxing.

As Gord mulls over the season to come, he’s already visualizing guests basking in the outdoor wood-fired hot tub, watching the spectacular aurora or sitting around the wood stove in the gazebo to exchange fish-tales. He imagines the boats full of fisher people, young families laughing and sharing good times together.

With visitors returning to Yellowknife in increasing numbers, Gord says they are hopeful more guests will decide to take that short hop over to the lodge and share in its special experience of the wilderness’ recovery.

“This winter we’re seeing owls, ravens, eagles, foxes, wolves, lynx and tons of squirrels. and hares. If they can survive, we can too,” Gord says. “That’s the message I want to get through. It was a terrible time and a terrible period, but people and wildlife and forest will persevere.”

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