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Learning on the Deh cho: Whitewater rescue adapted for Land Guardians

Skills training in K’ahsho Got’ine district, Northwest Territories

Author: Willa Mason, Boreal River

A small group of K’ahsho Got’ine Land Guardians stood on the banks of the Dehcho (Mackenzie River), with their instructor Caleb Roberts. It was the first morning of a Whitewater Rescue course, but there was no whitewater in sight. Behind them sat the village of Fort Good Hope, a fly-in community in the Northwest Territories with a population of about 500 people. Before them stretched the Deh cho, the longest river in Canada and the second-largest drainage basin in North America. Travelling through boreal forest and wetlands, the river flows from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean with an average flow of 9,910 m3/s. Though sprinkled with powerful rapids, most of the river is flat, fast-moving water. In some places, it is more than one kilometer wide.

A small group of Nę K’ǝ́dı́ Ke Land Guardians practicing whitewater rescue on the Dehcho (Mackenzie River), with their instructor Caleb Roberts.

Photo: Alexa Scully

Established in 2019, the K’ahsho Got’ine Land Guardians group care for territory in the K’ahsho Got’ine district, supporting the established Indigenous and Territorial Protected Area Ts’udé Niįiné Tuyet. With activities that include water quality testing and monitoring wildlife activity, K’ahsho Got’ine Land Guardians are one of multiple groups of Guardians across the Northwest Territories working together to preserve over 100,000 square kilometres of their lands.

While a Whitewater Rescue course is normally tailored to recreational whitewater users, the goal in this instance was to present a version of the course that would be applicable to the Guardians’ main activities. For example, practicing with lightweight equipment and building a foundation of versatile skills would have good crossover benefits for the Guardians’ program.

A group of Nę K’ǝ́dı́ Ke Land Guardians standing along the shores of the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) around a fire warming up after practicing whitewater rescue.

Photo: Alexa Scully

After a 30-minute motor up a tributary, the group settled into their course location on the Rabbitskin River. In a role reversal of the normal instructor-student dynamic, Caleb says he felt nervous about working in such unfamiliar territory, a landscape different from the narrow and steep rivers which he’s used to in Ontario. Yet once they arrived at their location, he recognized the camaraderie that always grows on the river through problem solving and teamwork.

Starting each day with the motor boat commute from Fort Good Hope, the Land Guardian team went through the foundational components of a river rescue course, including how to safely walk in current, rescue swimmers, and rig a mechanical advantage system. Techniques had to be suited to the landscape of wide rivers, silty banks, and few trees or boulders for anchors. At one point, Caleb used a “deadman” style anchor on the gravel bar; in Ontario, he would have used a tree or boulder.

A group practices throwing throw bags on the shore of the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) for their whitewater rescue course

Photo: Alexa Scully

Throughout the course of the day, the group discussed  relevant applications for each technique. While a 3:1 mechanical advantage system is typically taught in the context of freeing a pinned canoe or kayak, one participant pointed out that used in combination with the deadman anchor, this technique could be a game-changer to release a motorboat beached on a sandbar. Together, the team shaped a course relevant to their local applications.

With extensive firsthand experience travelling the river, the K’ahsho Got’ine Land Guardians brought substantial knowledge to the course about the terrain, river, and the nuances of working in this environment throughout different seasons. Hopefully the experiences gained on this course will provide the Land Guardians with lasting strategies to facilitate their travel throughout the watershed, critical to their work of research and preservation along the Deh cho.

Though we are striving to be as accurate and respectful as possible in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, we recognize that we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime – we welcome the opportunity to listen, to learn, and to connect with you. info@borealriver.com


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