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Thelon Expedition: Life at Camp

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From July 24 to August 4, young members of the Dene First Nation of Canada will embark on an exploration through one of Canada's most pristine and sacred areas with The Nature Conservancy's lead scientist, Sanjayan. They'll canoe along the Thelon River, ending in North America's largest and most remote wildlife refuge, the Thelon Game Sanctuary. The region is facing potentially devastating resource extraction threats and the youth attending the trip will be responsible for many important decisions in the future.

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Photo credit: Ami Vitale

Though the Thelon River is big and its banks wide, our campsites tend to be picked with great care. Often, starting around 4 p.m., we will begin to scout likely sites and our Dene guides along with Steve Ellis (who helps manage the canoes and the kids) will visit and reject sometimes three or four sites before being satisfied.

I am a bit mystified about the selection criteria, but one thing is almost guaranteed -- it will be poor for fishing and great for bugs. In truth, there are bugs everywhere, so finding a bug-free site in the tundra might simply be impossible. What I suspect they are looking for is a flat area near trees (we need wood to cook), with a good spot to wash in and pull up seven canoes.

Once the spot is picked, the tents go up fast -- and often in under 30 minutes there is fire roaring and a kettle atop a small metal grate, boiling water. Usually my tent is the last one up; I am slow and typically like to dawdle and look at the views and try, even though it's often pointless, to catch an arctic grayling or two.

Supper is prepared by Mike Palmer, a Nature Conservancy staffer based in Yellowknife. It's one big pot -- tonight, it was a stew of caribou meat and couscous. I didn't ask him the recipe, but I can guess; half dozen packs of Lipton Soup, some dried vegetables, and a side of caribou, boiled with spices. It ends up tasting pretty good.

One thing about camp is that the kids are really terrific and are fully capable of taking care of themselves. They need no supervision and set to work collecting firewood, setting up their tents, hauling food barrels or heading down to the river to wash up.

After dinner, it's a round of cookies, or maybe a bar of chocolate, and then some Labrador Tea (usually half a mix of black tea and the actual Labrador Tea plants pulled up from the tundra).

The sun stays up till almost midnight, so there is always something to do afterwards. I am usually in my tent trying to stay clear of the flies while I write something about the day. It's hard to write sitting cross-legged in a tent and my back pays the price, but it helps keep my word count down. Our photographer, Ami Vitale, is usually downloading the day's supply of video and photos, while Richard Jeo tries to charge up our Goal Zero batteries and manage power output for the four laptop computers we have with us. He is also in charge of the BGAN satellite system that gets our dispatches out. Joseph usually goes out for a hour or two with his rifle to scout from a low hilltop.

Sometimes we go on a short walk, looking for wildlife; sometimes we paddle in the river; sometime we just do laundry and try to stay sane despite the bugs. Cold windy days are best, while warm sunny ones are murder (bug-wise).

By midnight the camp is quiet, save for the occasional howl of a wolf, the whine of the mosquitoes, and the blessed wind.

We awake around 7 a.m.. The fire is lit, and breakfast -- now oatmeal and Mike's home-dried strawberries -- along with coffee (but no sugar; the three pounds of which we brought were gone by day two). And we are in the canoes by 9:30 a.m. or so for a long day of paddling and scouting ahead.

Funny thing: I brought my Kindle with me and downloaded half-a-dozen books for the trip, in the hopes of leisurely evenings full of readings and musings. But I haven't had a minute free for reading. If I am not working, paddling, hiking or simply running from the bugs, I am asleep in my tent, dead to the world.

Follow Sanjayan's journey on Twitter and Cool Green Science.

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