Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve tour operators ready for post-pandemic boom

When the Łutsel K’e Dene First Nation purchased the Frontier Fishing Lodge in 2019, part of their vision for the new Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area was to create local jobs and a sustainable economy for the community.

The lodge is about two miles west and a little north of Łutselk’e, Northwest Territories, and has hosted sport fishers on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake for 60 years.

These plans to operate an Indigenous-owned tourism business at the Thaidene Nëné “gateway” have stalled for two years due to COVID-19.

This week, however, Northwest Territories Health Minister Julie Green said her department expects the public health emergency to be lifted in the spring, likely opening the door for travel. leisure and tourism.

Frontier Fishing Lodge’s phone has “been buzzing for the past year,” said lodge general manager Corey Myers. CBC Trailbreaker host Loren McGinnis.

“I think there’s just a huge pent-up demand to not just come to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, but just to get away from 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 full for 2022. (Submitted by Frontier Fishing Lodge)

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

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

“We have a lot of handcrafted log cabins that just needed love and that was an opportunity that COVID-19 presented,” Myers said.

Make the lodge the property of the community

These renovations also helped accomplish something else the new owners wanted to see: return the lodge to community members.

Myers said that many southerners, including himself, had become guides. He started working on the wharf 11 years ago.

“At the time, 100% of the guides came from the Łutselk’e community,” Myers said. “They knew the land, they knew the water, they knew where the fish were.”

The pandemic allowed more time “to add the cultural side to the lodge experience,” he said.

Drummers take part in the opening celebrations of Thaidene Nëné in Łutsëlk’é in August 2019. (Radio Canada)

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

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

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

“There are herds of musk oxen, there are bald eagles,” he said. “You have the community right there, the northern lights, that’s all.”

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

This year the Time annual list of “52 places to go” focused on places where visitors can be “part of the solution”.

It featured an image of the crystal-clear water and soaring rock faces that characterize the islands and coastline of Thaidene Nëné, and described the protected area as a model of “indigenous control in a spectacular landscape”.

A waterfall in the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area, designated by the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, which includes the adjacent Thaidene Nëné Territorial Protected Area and the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve. (Parks Canada)

James Marlowe, who runs River’s East Arm Tours from Łutselk’e, said it was “an honour” that the Time mentioned Thaidene Nëné.

The pandemic has been tough on small operations like his.

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

Marlowe applied for some of the programs offered by the territorial government, but said he was not approved. It was also not enough to focus on “staycation” tourists from the Northwest Territories, and he said his tourism business was currently “on hold” or temporarily on hiatus.

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

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

He remembers a New York family he ice-fished with before the pandemic, who stayed in touch and can’t wait to come back for a summer experience.

Until then, they had no idea there were still indigenous people who “actually lived in the bush,” Marlowe said.

He said the Time this article should help him and other businesses in his community. He hopes he will be approved for government funding to restart his business.

He said he already had the equipment to help visitors have a full Thaidene Nëné experience.

“It makes me happy and happy to be able to share my culture, my traditions and the stories of our ancestors and our way of life with people who want to learn about how we live here,” Marlowe said.

About Patricia Kilgore

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