James Marlowe zips along the glassy lake surface of the water in his aluminum fishing boat, and the town of Łutsël K’é quickly falls from sight. We stay close to the shoreline, avoiding hidden reefs, and steer straight for his net. It’s closing in on midnight, but Great Slave Lake—the deepest lake in North America and the 10th largest in the world—is flashing with fish and the tree-covered hills are aglow in the setting summer sun. Marlowe cuts the motor and begins hauling in the 150-foot net hand-over-hand.

Splop! The first fish lands in a large plastic bin. Splop! Splop! Marlowe moves along the net, plucking whitefish from its mesh. With some effort, he untangles a 30-pound trout and heaves the rare find into the bin. “Oh, there are still more fish! It’s not going to stop, man,” he says with a laugh.

Since he was a teen, Marlowe has hunted, trapped, and fished these wilds for caribou, moose, ducks, whitefish, and lake trout. Like his neighbors and ancestors of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, he’s followed traplines that meander from the forest to  tundra and strung nets under the lake ice to harvest food. “We depend on the land and the water for survival,” says Marlowe. “It’s like our grocery store.”

In the early 1990s, however, diamond mining and mineral exploration in Canada’s Northwest Territories began to threaten this tradition of living off the land. The mines produced some jobs and revenue for the community, but they also caused problems. The industry’s high interest in the area concerned the elders, who then directed Marlowe’s generation to find a way to protect the land, water, and animals for their own children—and for the survival of the Dene culture, language, and way of life.

After more than 15 years of discussion, the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation has now signed a landmark agreement with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories to form a massive new protected area called Thaidene Nëné, or “Land of the Ancestors.” Almost twice as large as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone national parks combined, Thaidene Nëné encompasses more than 6.4 million acres, stretching from the easternmost tip of Great Slave Lake northeast toward the Arctic territory of Nunavut. It spans the boreal forest and its transition to the heath-dominated tundra, making it one of the only protected areas in Canada to straddle the tree line—an important bridge for plants and animals that may migrate as the climate changes.

.::. Read more at Audubon Magazine.

Written by Hannah

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