Stuart Cowell

Stuart Cowell


There’s an important movement taking shape across Canada

Without doubt the smell of the spruce-bough floor of our wall tent made for one of my most memorable camping experiences. That and the small wood-fired stove – never had a tent with one of those before. Oh, and the huge and comfortable sleeping bags.

Or it could be the frozen solid tube of toothpaste – minus 30 degrees celsius overnight will do that.

But none of them looms as large as my tent companion, Walter, a Sahtú Dene elder full of stories and an easy laugh. Walter was my guide and mentor through a week of living in camp in a northern winter – taking me through the dos and don’ts, and the inevitably dumb things I would otherwise do that could land me in trouble. Without Walter my experience would have been altogether less comfortable or safe.

There is an important movement taking shape across Canada – the growth of Indigenous Guardian programs in support of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas – mirroring the growth of rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) in Australia.

I was at Nárehten (Ice Crossing), 20 miles north west of Rádelı̨hkǫ́ (Where the Rapids Are, Fort Good Hope) with the Sahtú Nę K’ǝ́dı́ Ke – Keepers of the Land Guardian Program at the end of their month-long training camp. Fort Good Hope – a name that might mean little to many, but to students of social impact assessment, Fort Good Hope was the epicentre of the mid-70s Berger enquiry in the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. For me it is akin to ‘holy ground’. It has been my privilege to work with several communities of the Sahtú region in Canada’s western arctic over the past few years, supporting them as they develop community-based caribou management plans.

This time we were talking about managing people –growing their Nę K’ǝ́dı́ Ke program in support of their developing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. During their time together the Nę K’ǝ́dı́ Ke had focused heavily on the critical importance of individual and community wellbeing – something we need to embrace in Australia.

Our camp was made up of about 10 wall tents, single-skin canvas sided dwellings about 4mx4m, and a couple of permanent log-cabin style buildings that would be our kitchen and meeting space. Both the buildings were maintained staggeringly hot, a stark contrast to the extreme cold outside. Oddly I spent most of my days in a t-shirt, but needing to pile on my newly-hired Extreme Winter Clothing for the 100m dash to the toilet.

The spruce bough floor lets the snow you inevitably track into the tent fall through. It smells like spring rain, particularly when the fire gets going. You don’t shower for a week (!) but smell fresh and clean. Supplemented with some modern kit, this practical tradition reinforces connections to the landscape on which you depend.

As it grows and strengthens, the Sahtu guardian program will do the same, building on the knowledge of people like Walter.

For more guardian stories watch the “Honouring the Land “ video here:

Nárehten Training Camp

Yes, I slept here!

Rugged up against the cold

Spectacular scenery

Contact us to discover how we can best help you.
We'll send you newsletters with stories from the field, grant opportunities and notify you of upcoming short courses.