Ron Desjarlais was working at Snap Lake, a diamond mine 220km northeast of Yellowknife, when its closure was announced six years ago. After more than twenty years in the territory’s diamond mines, it seemed the perfect opportunity for Ron to do something different, something he had been thinking about for a while: start a tourism business in his home community of Łutsël K’é.
It was good timing for Ron’s new venture, East Arm Pop-Up Camp, not least because of a surge in interest in Indigenous-led tourism. In Canada, between 2014 and 2017, the Indigenous tourism sector grew by 23 per cent, well exceeding the broader industry’s growth of 14 per cent in the same period. Meanwhile, the Łutsël K’é Dene were in the final stages of signing establishment agreements for the creation of the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area. Completed in August 2019, the protected area, which spans 26,376 square kilometres at the transition between the boreal forest and tundra, includes a national park reserve, territorial protected area, and wildlife conservation area.
East Arm Pop-Up Camp, as the name suggests, is mobile, allowing Ron and his guests to visit different parts of Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake), depending on the season. A pop-up camp also allows Ron to offer visitors to Thaidene Nëné something different than conventional lodges, a chance to live more like Dene on the land. “The East Arm Pop-Up Camp has wall tents for guests to sleep in, or dome tents if they prefer, a teepee with a fire in case it is windy or raining, and a place down by the shore for fixing fish,” explains Ron.
While his business may be new, Ron is no stranger to the tourism industry. One of his first jobs as a young man in the 1970s was working as a fishing guide at Frontier Fishing Lodge and Arctic Star Lodge. While he learned a lot by watching the other guides work, many of whom were also Łutsël K’é Dene, it was Ron’s late father that showed him the ropes: “He taught me how to troll using a boat and how to handle the motor and the gases. I learned that you needed to be polite and kind, and that you need to tell visitors some of stories about the area that you know.” While much has changed in tourism in the years since Ron worked at Frontier and Arctic Star, these lessons about service and authentic experiences still hold.
There’s a reason that lodges near Łutsël K’é specialize in fishing experiences. The cold, clear, and deep waters of the East Arm of Tu Nedhé are home to monster trout that attract sportfishers from around the world. Guests of Ron and the East Arm Pop-Up Camp can take advantage of area’s fabulous fishing opportunities, but they will also see that Thaidene Nëné has lots more to offer, including stimulating hikes, rejuvenating paddles, awe-inspiring birdwatching and wildlife viewing, delicious shore lunches, and spectacular aurora viewing.
Bettina Koschade and her 12-year-old daughter, Hali, from Wakefield, QC, had the pleasure of staying with Ron and his wife, Shirley, in Łutsël K’é—the couple now also have a bed and breakfast. Travelling and camping on the big lake with Ron “was an experience of a lifetime” for Bettina and Hali: "Ron took such good care of us. He has a steady methodical way of preparing every boat trip, whether a spontaneous fishing outing, or packing up for a long trip to a new location. Ron was always attentive to our needs and comfort without spoiling us or taking away from the experience of catching our first trout and showing us how to prepare a shore lunch and then eat the fish right there on a spread of spruce boughs without any dishes or cutlery. Travelling with Ron was always fun, always safe, and we could feed off the joy he showed in teaching us about this beautiful place he calls home.”
Tour operators on the East Arm lost their season in 2020 because of the pandemic. While the territory remains mostly closed to visitors from elsewhere in Canada and international guests, this summer Ron and others are open for staycation visitors. As Ron notes, this is the perfect opportunity for NWT residents to visit Łutsël K’é and Thaidene Nëné: “The air is clean. The water is clear. There are high hills and cliffs and lots of wildlife. There’s also lots of history.” Oh, and don’t forget, the great fishing.
If you’re interested in visiting the East Arm Pop-Up Camp or scheduling a day trip with Ron Desjarlais, contact 867.765.8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the East Arm Pop-Up Camp can be found on Ron’s website: www.eastarmpopupcamp.com.
We are the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation. Our vision for Thaidene Nëné is:
Nuwe néné, nuwe ch'anıé yunedhé xa (Our land, our culture for the future).
We’re working with our partners to permanently protect Thaidene Nëné—part of our
huge and bountiful homeland around and beyond the East Arm of Tu Nedhé.