Paddler's legacy continues on N.W.T.'s Thelon River thanks to guide he mentored

Several months after a longtime northern outdoorsman died, his tours — which ran each summer since 1975 — are running one last time, thanks to a young tour operator he mentored.

Alex Hall died in March but his mentee Dan Wong is leading his 2019 summer tours

Patrick and Dorothy Michiel paddling the Clarke River on the way to the N.W.T.'s Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary this June. The last of the late tour operator Alex Hall's trips are running this summer, thanks to his mentee Dan Wong. (Dan Wong)

Several months after a longtime northern outdoorsman died, his tours — which ran each year since 1975 — are running for one last summer thanks to a young tour operator he mentored.

For nearly half a century, Alex Hall of Fort Smith, N.W.T., built up his one-man business Canoe Arctic Inc., taking people to the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary — one of the most remote wilderness areas remaining in Canada. Hall died on March 2 after being diagnosed with cancer a year prior.

Dan Wong, owner of Yellowknife-based Jackpine Paddle, was tasked with guiding dozens of Hall's clients that were already signed up for this summer. The two established a mentor-mentee relationship last year, and agreed to split the profits from this season.

"I think back to the time that we spent together, the year after he got his cancer diagnosis — how generous he was to spend time with me," said Wong. 

Hall met Wong every time he was in Yellowknife for chemotherapy, joined him for thanksgiving, and even invited Wong to his Fort Smith home several times to learn about the Thelon and to copy dozens of his handwritten maps.

"It really meant a lot to him, I think, that this project was carrying on — [that] I was going to continue on his trips that he had pioneered over the many, many years."

Hall and Wong, right, at a Yellowknife Tim Hortons in June 2018. The two called each other mentor and mentee. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Like many of the clients, it was Wong's first time venturing into the Thelon barren lands this year.

"I was constantly thinking about Alex.... because we were literally following in his footsteps," said Wong.

Wong said he and his fellow guide followed Hall's notes and plans meticulously.

"Whenever we deviated from Alex's plan, and we haven't deviated much, that's where things have gone wrong," said Wong.

For instance, Hall originally scheduled the trips to start June 11. Wong said he decided to start the trip a few days earlier this year to match clients' schedules. 

Alex really was with us on the trip, every step of the way.- Dorothy Michiel, client on Hall's 2019 trip

"We show up on June 9 and it's basically winter," said Wong. "It's a snow storm. It's really windy, it's really cold, and we're basically frozen for two days." 

On June 11, Wong said there was a boost in temperature and out came "the most beautiful, sunny, gorgeous day you can imagine."

"And we're all just thinking, like, of course, right?" 

Wong said it was 'basically winter' when the first of Hall's 2019 clients hit the waters this June. (Dan Wong)

Wong said the highlight so far was brushing shoulders with a herd of muskox early in the morning.

"I got super excited. Still in my boxers, ran around to all the tents to the guests, basically immediately woke them up," said Wong. 

"They just went around around our camp, feet away from our tents," said Wong. "It's just one of these magical things that happen to you when you're out in the barrens." 

The highlight of the trip was when a herd of muskox passed by their campsite, says Wong. (Dan Wong)

Patrick and Dorothy Michiel of Prince George, B.C., signed up as a couple for Hall's trip this year — but found out about Hall's illness.

"We were extremely disappointed because we were looking forward to going with him," said Patrick.

Hall was another member of the trip, said Dorothy.

"Alex really was with us on the trip, every step of the way. And it was amazing to experience the spirit of his life in retrospect," said Dorothy, who began reading Wong's signed copy of Hall's book Discovering Eden during the tour.

Zimmermann, left, with his daughter and wife on the trip to the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. The family came from Connecticut, U.S.A., for Hall's and Wong's trip. (Dan Wong)

Kurt Zimmermann went on a trip to Horton River in the N.W.T., back in 1997.

"And this was [what] I call the beginning of an addiction," said Zimmermann, who lives in Connecticut.

I was struck by how many of the thousands of lakes have no names at all. Alex certainly deserves to have one named after him!- George Wing, client on Hall's 2019 trip

Zimmermann, his wife and daughter arrived back home a few days ago from paddling the Thelon.

"Sorry to have not have had the chance to have travelled with Alex and experience some of his knowledge and love for the land," said Zimmermann. "But Dan did a wonderful job in taking care of us and giving us the best possible experience."

He, too, said the highlight of the trip was the muskox.

Alex Hall spent 46 years paddling the Thelon River, every summer. He died on March 2, 2019. (David F. Pelly)

"Even though he did his best to pass on his 40-plus years of knowledge to Dan, a lot of what he knew died with him," said George Wing, a client from Seattle, in an email.

"I was struck by how many of the thousands of lakes have no names at all. Alex certainly deserves to have one named after him!" Wing added.

Wong said his company will continue running trips to the Thelon next year, and "well into the future."

Wong leaves again this week for the third of five trips.