Tour operators in Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area poised for post-pandemic boom

As the territory makes plans to move out from under public health orders this spring, tourism operators in Canada's newest national park are getting ready to provide visitors with an experience that goes beyond fishing.  

Lodge owned by Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation, currently booking into 2023

A lichen-covered rock sits on a rocky outcrop on the shore of Artillery Lake in Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve is part of the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area as designated by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, which includes the adjacent Thaidene Nëné Territorial Protected Area. (David Murray/Parks Canada via CP)

When Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation bought the Frontier Fishing Lodge in 2019, part of its vision for the newly created Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area was to create local jobs and a sustainable economy for the community. 

The lodge lies about three kilometres west and a bit north of Łutselk'e, N.WT., and has been welcoming sports fishers to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake for 60 years. 

Those plans to operate an Indigenous-owned tourism business at the "gateway" to Thaidene Nëné have been stalled for two years because of COVID-19.

This week, however, N.W.T. Health Minister Julie Green said her department is expecting the public health emergency will be lifted in the spring, likely opening the door to leisure travel and tourism.

The phone at Frontier Fishing Lodge has been "buzzing off the hook for the last year," Corey Myers, the lodge's general manager, told CBC Trailbreaker host Loren McGinnis. 

"I think there's just a huge pent up demand to, not only come up to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, but just to get away from the cities and get away from home," Myers said. 

The Frontier Fishing Lodge is owned by the Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation. The lodge, which hasn't seen outside tourists for two years, is already booked up for 2022. (Submitted by Frontier Fishing Lodge)

The lodge is fully booked for 2022, even after extending their season into September, and is now booking into 2023.

And it turns out the delay may have been a mixed blessing, allowing time for much-needed renovations. 

"We've got a lot of hand-crafted log cabins that just needed some love and this was an opportunity COVID-19 presented," Myers said. 

Making the lodge the community's own

Those renovations also helped accomplish something else the new owners wanted to see — returning the lodge to community members. 

Myers said a lot of southerners, including himself, came up to be guides. He started working on the dock 11 years ago. 

"Back in the day, 100 per cent of the guides were from the community of  Łutselk'e," Myers said "They knew the land, they knew the water, they knew where the fish were." 

The pandemic has allowed more time "to add the cultural side into the lodge experience," he said.

Drummers take part in the opening celebrations for Thaidene Nëné in Łutsëlk'é in August 2019. (CBC)

"So we actually held community meetings with elders last winter to determine new cabin themes based on culturally significant places within Thaidene Nëné." 

That led to changes like door signs in the Dënësųłinë́ language, and archival photos of elders, local crafts, beading and sewing in the decor. 

Myers said the lodge may have a reputation for fishing, but it's always been more than that. 

"There's herds of muskox, there's bald eagles," he said. "You've got the community right there, the northern lights, it's the whole package."

The kind of things tourists are looking for, post-pandemic, according to the New York Times. 

This year the Times annual list of "52 places to go" focused on places where visitors can be "part of the solution."

It featured an image of the pristine water and soaring rock faces that characterize the islands and shoreline in Thaidene Nëné, and describes the protected area as a model for "Indigenous control in a spectacular landscape."

A waterfall in Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, as designated by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. (Parks Canada)

James Marlowe, who runs River's East Arm Tours out of  Łutselk'e, said it's "an honour" that the Times mentioned Thaidene Nëné. 

The pandemic has been tough on small operations like his.

"We  had a lot of bookings from overseas, the States, all over Canada and other parts of the world," he said. "And when the pandemic hit, we had to cancel because all the borders were closed and no outside visitors from Canada were allowed." 

Marlowe applied for some of the programs the territorial government offered, but said he wasn't approved.  Changing focus to "staycation" tourists from within the N.W.T. wasn't enough either, and he said his tourism business is currently "in abeyance," or temporarily paused. 

Marlowe currently doesn't expect to be back in business until at least 2023, but he said there's interest in the kinds of packages he offers, taking tourists out fishing, showing them how to set rabbit snares, trap muskrat and letting them experience life in the bush. 

James Marlowe, left, and Loren McGinnis, host of The Trailbreaker on CBC North, on the water near Łutsëlk’é, in the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Marlowe's tourism business is currently paused, but he wants to take visitors out again when the territory lifts leisure travel restritions. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

He recalls a family from New York City he took out ice fishing prior to the pandemic, who stayed in touch and are eager to come back for a summer experience. 

Up to that point they had no idea there were still Indigenous people that "actually live in the bush," Marlowe said. 

He said the Times article should help him and other businesses in his community. He's hoping he'll be approved for some government funding to restart his business. 

He said he's already got the equipment to help visitors have a full experience of Thaidene Nëné.

"It makes me glad and happy that I can share my culture and traditions and stories of our ancestors and our way of life to people that are willing to learn how we live here," Marlowe said.

Written by Joanne Stassen with files from Loren McGinnis and Lawrence Nayally