As our third plane of the day, from Calgary to Yellowknife, circle in over Great Slave Lake to land at Yellowknife airport, I looked out of the window at the water below and the shrubs and bushes sprouting out of the rocky islands and shores of the lake. As I looked more closely, my eyes and my mind adjusted and I realized that the shrubs were not shrubs but actually 30-40 foot conifers, and that the rocks they were growing out of were huge outcrops of stone rising out of, what I now saw, was a massive expanse of water.
Coming from the dry land of New Mexico it was perhaps understandable that I was not used to seeing such a great amount of water and so many tall trees, but still I realized I had to get used to the size of the land we were now entering.
David Witt, Patty Nagle, and I had come from Santa Fe, New Mexico to travel to Aylmer Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada to research and explore the history of a much more intrepid expedition made here in 1907 by Ernest Thompson Seton. Traveling by canoe and by foot for almost six months, Aylmer Lake was the northernmost destination that Seton and his colleagues reached, investigating the wildlife here and, for Seton, fulfilling his dream of entering into untouched wilderness far from the touch of human civilization.
We three have come – along with Canadian curator, Michale Lang – on behalf of the Academy for the Love of Learning, a non-profit transformational educational organization based on the land of Seton’s last home, his “Castle”, in Santa Fe, as part of the Academy’s Seton Legacy Project. David Witt is the Seton Legacy Project curator and the inspiration behind our trip. Patty and I are program staff and faculty at the Academy, and Michale is an independent curator with a long-standing interest in Seton.
Alas, we don’t have the time to take a six-month canoe trip – though I think all of us would have jumped at the chance! – and so early this morning we took a float plane from Yellowknife to Aylmer Lake. We flew at 8000 feet for fully 90 minutes, crossing miles and miles of rock, lake and river, this land untouched by human buildings, mining or roads, landed on the lake and chugged into the jetty beneath the five buildings of Alymer Lake Lodge – a main building with kitchen and dining area, and four cabins – where we were met by the owner, Kevin and his two sons, Rudy and Cody.
We settled ourselves into the cabins and then made our way over to the main building for a breakfast of pancakes and fruit, spiced with tales of the wildlife they have seen here recently. The big male wolf they saw a couple of nights ago across the bay sparked all of out interest, partly because of Seton’s connection with wolf, especially through the Lobo story and his subsequent transformation from hunter to protector of wildlife and the environment. But what really livened up the breakfast table was Kevin’s story of the single male grizzly that came to visit last week. The bear found his way into bathroom of the main building and left his paw print high on the mirror (the mirror left uncleaned as a memento of his visit, where I measured his reach and figured he must have stood 8-9 feet tall on his hind legs) before wrecking the shower unit and making his way outside again. Kevin had arrived by this time with his gun, and the two came face to face at the backdoor of the cabin, where Kevin had no choice but to shoot and kill the bear.
None of us are here to hunt. Like Seton before us we are interested in seeing wildlife and understanding more about how life and ecosystems work in areas uninhabited by human populations, and the death of a magnificent animal like the grizzly is a sobering reminder of what it takes and what it costs to live this close to the wilderness.