The Land of Little Sticks

Paddling Manitoba's Thlewiaza River
Tent frames along the river bank
Old tent frames found in an isolated area of Nueltin Lake perhaps no one has been here for decades.

The clear, cold waters of the Thlewiaza River run from the north end of Nueltin Lake, which straddles the Manitoba-Nunavut border, to the coast of Hudson Bay, just south of the small Inuit community of Arviat. This subarctic river has largely been ignored by veteran arctic paddlers, most probably because it is viewed as being too far south. The Thlewiaza, meaning "little fish" in Dene, is so named for the abundance of greyling that fill its cold clear rapids. The Barren-Ground Dene, a northern Athapascan indigenous group, penetrated this area by foot during the summer months as they followed the annual migration of the caribou herds on which they depended for food, shelter, and clothing. They continue to travel to this area in the winter months to hunt and trap. As well, the Inuit of Arviat, as they have for generations, continue to utilise the tundra, and its wealth of caribou, to the north of "Big" River, as the Thlewiaza is known to them.

This is a young river, not having yet cut its way down enough to drain the many small lakes which occur along its length as it winds its way in and out of the tundra along the edge of the northern treeline. This area, not yet true tundra, but nearly out of the treeline, is called the taiga. It is a land of sand eskers, high windswept rocky campsites, infinite skies, deep blue lakes filled with red-fleshed lake trout, gnarled and wizened clumps of small black spruce, miles of raging wild rapids filled with delicate white-fleshed greyling, and is a spectacularly gorgeous landscape.

Lynda Holland, my paddling partner, and I read all that we could find about this river, and listened to the stories told to us by Dene we know in northern Sakatchewan who had seen parts of the river, or heard stories about it. As we pored over our maps of the area, the interconnected web of information we gathered about the Inuit and Dene, the caribou and the wolves, and the active fur trade for white fox pelts during the first half of this century, seemed to be held together by a thin blue line of ink on our map. This thread, the Thlewiaza River, runnning 180 miles almost straight east from Seal Hole Lake at the north end of Nueltin Lake, to Hudson Bay seemed to inexorably beckon us to paddle its length.

During the summer of 1997, Lynda and I paddled 450 miles from the north end of Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan's north through a series of lakes to Snyder Lake, and ultimately to Nueltin Lake. From Seal Hole Lake at the north end of Nueltin Lake, we followed the Thlewiaza River to Hudson Bay. Although we paddled well over a hundred rapids we only had only to scout from shore at a handful of places. We were able to avoid portaging even once along this river, and only found one particularly tough rapid which required us to line for about 3/4 of a mile.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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