Ancient Knowledge, Modern Journey in Wild Canada

The Thelon Game Sanctuary in northeastern Canada is North America’s largest and most remote wildlife refuge, but it is not without a human history as well.

For thousands of years the Lutsel K’e Dene people have visited this area for seasonal hunting, and its vastness and starkness inspired them to call it “The Place Where God Began.”

Last year, this ancient cultural heritage came together with modern conservation efforts as Sanjayan, the lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy, along with local experts lead a group of First Nation youths far from their modern villages on a 200-mile voyage along the Thelon River. (Read about similar journeys from NG Explorer Jon Waterhouse.)

I spoke with Sanjayan just after his return and he shared interesting stories and reflections as well as beautiful photos from the journey. A few months later, at the Annual General Meeting of the Lutsel K’e Dene, the youth told their elders about the journey, similarly using their favorite stories and photographs taken during the trip.

Now the team’s photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale has worked with The Nature Conservancy to release a video chronicling the journey and revealing the many threads of human and animal stories that weave through this unique northern landscape. Watching it becomes clear that this ancient land has become separated from its people, but that it is also moving back into their lives in two important ways. The first is through the questions of development around the uranium and other raw materials in the land itself. The second is the renewed interest in and appreciation of the natural state of the land by the Lutsel K’e Dene younger generations.

As one member of those younger generations says in the video above, “I’d always want to be a voice for the land. We wouldn’t want the animals to be pushed off their roots, and pushed of the land. This is theirs, you know? They have the right around here. We come here just to visit, explore, we eat off the land….and we give back by just leaving it the way it was.”

The Nature Conservancy is also giving back by continuing to partner with the Lutsel K’e Dene community to create a fund that will help ensure the region’s culture, traditions, and natural resources are protected for current and future generations.


Learn More

Thelon River Journey Photos

The Nature Conservancy

Jon Waterhouse’s Healing Journey Blog Posts

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.