Scurrying acros the tundra, I follow Ruben Green, an Inuvialuit elder from the community of Paulatuk, N.W.T., toward a distant bull caribou. Bent low at the waist, we move quickly and quietly.
“As soon as that big feller puts his head down and starts nibbling, GO!” Green instructs. “If he looks up, freeze.”
The bull occasionally raises his head to glance around, and each time we halt mid-stride, remaining motionless. At one point, the curious animal takes a few steps in our direction, sniffing the air, but soon returns to eating lichen. Instantly Green is flying across the tundra again, almost floating over the hummocky terrain, and I struggle to keep up.
“Some people say caribou are colour blind,” the 58-year-old whispers after we gain the cover of a low ridge. I sure hope so, for in this bleak landscape, my fluorescent windbreaker stands out like a spotlight. Green wears an equally bright Ski-Doo parka, stained with blood and grease.
Hidden in the lee of the ridge, we creep to within 25 metres of the bull, a favourable wind carrying our scent and sound the other way. Settling behind a boulder, we watch the tips of his great antlers dip and bob above the horizon as he grazes.
“If we wait, he’ll walk right past us,” Green says. After 10 minutes, with mosquitoes buzzing angrily around our ears, the caribou has still not budged. “Patience,” Green nods. “Everything on the land takes patience.”
Green was born in a tent during the infinite darkness of the Arctic winter in the now-abandoned community of Letty Harbour. He bounced around the North as a child, his father a heavy equipment operator on the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. Sent to residential school at age nine, Green played a few seasons of competitive junior hockey before settling in Paulatuk. He remains there today, sustaining eight children and six grandchildren through the harvest of char, caribou, geese and beluga.
Last year, he started working for Parks Canada as well, sharing cultural knowledge with visitors to Tuktut Nogait National Park for a few weeks each summer; part of a newly minted series of “northern iconic experiences” designed to encourage and facilitate visits to the farthest-flung parks in the system. In these protected lands, we’ve stalked the caribou with a camera instead of a rifle.
Finally, the bull starts climbing toward us. Silhouetted against the steel-grey sky, his enormity is revealed: comically large antlers, the beginnings of a white beard that marks the approaching fall rut. Wandering past, he feeds relentlessly, never catching our scent. We watch for an hour as he moves steadily across the plains, until at last the tiny brown spot melts into distant tundra.
Established in 1998, Tuktut Nogait remains among Canada’s least-visited national parks. In 2014, it welcomed eight visitors; in 2015, just four. Almost three times the size of Banff National Park, this 18,000-square-kilometre expanse was gifted to the Canadian people by the Inuvialuit Nation to protect the birthing grounds of the Bluenose West caribou herd. But it came with one caveat: the national park would be co-operatively managed by both Parks Canada and the Inuvialuit, with all decisions reached through consensus. (It’s a model first established in 1984 for Ivvavik, also cooperatively managed with the Inuvialuit people. Gwaii Haanas, Nahanni, Torngat Mountains and 16 other national parks and historic sites now operate under similar models.)
Perched high in the northeastern corner of the Northwest Territories, the park’s rolling tundra landscape is transected by the deep canyons of the Hornaday and Brock rivers. I’m here on a six-day base-camp hiking trip organized and led by Parks Canada staff, who provide food, shelter and cultural interpretation. Accompanying me and another journalist is a single client, Marlis Belcher from Burlington, Ont., a self-described “park bagger” who has visited 34 of 46 national parks in the past two decades.
“Outfitting trips is entirely new for us,” explains Maya March, manager of Tuktut Nogait, who is accompanying our small group. “Parks Canada has not historically been in the business of marketing. In the past, we simply created campsites, and Canadians, with a deeply ingrained wilderness culture, used them.”
But a complex series of social trends that includes urbanization, sedentary lifestyles, busy schedules and shifting demographics has led to Canada’s national parks drifting from public consciousness. When Parks Canada conducted its first national poll of Canadians in 2002, it found that less than 60 per cent of Canadians had even “some awareness” of the national park system, and of the 17 per cent who claimed to have visited a park in the previous year, less than half could name it.
“That was a harsh wake-up call,” says March. “It was a warning that if we didn’t act, we might soon become irrelevant.”
Parks Canada is chartered to “protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage,” and recently, new strategies have been emerging to help fulfill the “presentation” facet of that mandate. One has been the creation of public education programs, such as those in Toronto’s proposed Rouge National Urban Park — soon to be the first of its kind in Canada — aimed at exposing Canadians (many of them new citizens) to the basics of hiking and camping. Another is the Northern Iconic Experiences program. The party I’ve joined is just the second to be led into Tuktut Nogait.
It’s drizzling and grey when we set off on foot to visit a collection of archeological sites some five kilometres away. The Inuvialuit elders accompanying us wear jeans and cotton hoodies and carry their lunch in shopping bags. How soft we must seem in our Gore-Tex jackets and bright backpacks.
“You are on tundra time now,” says Big John “Muffa” Kudlak, another Paulatuk elder accompanying our group, who smiles so broadly that his eyes practically melt away into buttery cheeks. “We eat when we are hungry. Sleep when we are tired. And we’ll be home before dark.” Up here, that means September.
Our group traipses across boggy lowlands and gravel ridges. The ground beneath our feet is peppered with sedge, saxifrage and butterwort, cinquefoil and lupine. It’s early August, but summer is already fading. The wildflowers have gone to seed. Knick-knick and bearberry carry hints of red. Soon these rolling hills will flame orange and yellow before descending into the long, cold winter.
We pass occasional stones balanced atop bigger boulders, meant to guide hunters or herd caribou, Green explains. Across southern Canada, cairns and faux- Inukshuks are common, but all have been built relatively recently and can feel like intrusions on the landscape. Not these. Around 450 cultural sites have already been catalogued in Tuktut Nogait, and the number is steadily growing. The chance we’ll stumble upon something new feels both rare and exciting.
“We didn’t know our people came here until the park was established,” says Kudlak. “We thought we were a coastal people, but we are still learning about ourselves.”
Suddenly Sadie Lester, our quiet camp cook, lets out a squeal. She’s spotted a patch of qungulik (sorrel) and insists we all taste the tangy leaves, which are vaguely reminiscent of rhubarb. “Good for quenching the thirst when you don’t have water,” she says while stuffing her pockets with qungulik to add to seal oil at home.
Atop a windswept headland, we approach a pair of graves. Unable to dig into rocky ground or permafrost, the Inuvialuit traditionally cover their dead beneath piles of rock. Green falls silent. Kudlak bows his head and sprinkles a pinch of tobacco in the wind. “We always give a little tobacco or food. It’s important to show respect.”
A mossy skull can be spotted inside one grave, a scattering of wooden tools lies beside the other. The Inuvialuit have requested that these sites not be disturbed. For that reason, no carbon dating has been done, and no one knows when these two were laid to rest. With passing time, the two lonely piles will slowly return to the land.
Higher on the ridge lies a collection of caches, 20 or more, built into shattered bedrock overlooking the Hornaday River. Centuries ago, migrating caribou would be herded toward the deep water and then hunted using kayaks and spears. To preserve and protect the butchered meat, it would be piled in these cool cracks and buried beneath piles of stone. Too heavy to carry on human back, it was transported back to sod houses on the coast during winter by qamutik (dog sled).
A few of the caches remain unopened today. “Probably the hunter died,” Green says. “We never take what belongs to another, even the dead, in case they come this way again and need it.”
If a national park exists in isolation, protecting the landscape it was meant to but without any visitors, does it lose relevance?
It is a question that has hovered on my mind since arrival. I absolutely love being here, but wonder why Parks Canada is going to such effort and expense to expose a handful of people to these remote locations.
We are deep in the Hornaday River Canyon, standing on the brink of La Roncière Falls — a sight equally as impressive as the Nahanni’s famous Virginia Falls — when I pose the awkward question to Diane Wilson, superintendent of the western Arctic national parks (Tuktut Nogait, Ivvavik and Aulavik).
“Fundamentally, we can’t protect without support,” she nods. “To most Canadians, the North seems an isolated, inaccessible and expensive place.”
Wilson points out that very few have the skills required to travel on this landscape, or the time to organize the considerable logistics, including chartering a Twin Otter airplane to get here. So Parks Canada deems it important, she explains, to make opportunities such as this available for Canadians who are interested. “The landscape is stunning, but the highlight for every single participant we’ve polled has been their interactions with local Inuvialuit. And you simply can’t arrive in Paulatuk and get that glimpse into their culture without Parks Canada being involved.”
Indeed, never before, in decades of wilderness travel experiences with First Nations and Inuit across Canada, have I felt the boundary between us melt so completely.
“We are getting our feet wet here. This is a first effort, but if Parks Canada is going to remain relevant, we need to get it right.”
For five days, we wander the tundra, collecting berries and casting lures in lakes teeming with trout. At night, over dinners of caribou and char, we gather in camp chairs, listening to stories of botulism that stole grandparents and of hunting cabins ransacked by polar bears. Stories of hardship and change and adaptation on this barren land.
“When I was younger, we used dog teams to hunt polar bears,” says Kudlak. “Travelling with dogs means you can look forward and see what’s coming. You can look behind and see where you’ve been. You can watch for changing weather and ice. You find shortcuts. You see everything. But today, on a Ski-Doo, it’s just a blur. You can’t see nothin’. You just pin it, and go.”
Which sounds a lot like modern life. And it’s a reminder of why presenting these remote parks, and not just protecting them, matters — perhaps now more than ever.
Hours later, a Twin Otter arrives. The elders pile out at Paulatuk, while we continue south. Green will spend the next week at his cabin, netting char. Kudlak is off to harpoon beluga. Lester has plans to go blueberry picking and, later, goose plucking. “We’ll put pictures on Facebook,” they all promise as the plane door closes.
This story was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel