Views of M’behcho: the “Big Knife” in northern Alberta
Under the fall colours and warm days, Kecia and Gillian were treated to a trip to M’behcho (or Bistcho Lake) – one of the largest lakes in Alberta, and the focus for conservation by the Dene Tha’ First Nation.
A visit to M’behcho
If you know Gillian, you may know that it takes a lot for her to be speechless. But, surprisingly, on a beautiful September day, Gillian and Kecia found themselves unable to quite find the words to express the breathtaking scenery flying over autumnal boreal forest and landing on the larger-than-life lake in northern Alberta – joining a community gathering led by the Dene Tha’ First Nation at M’Behcho (also called Bistcho Lake).
M’behcho is Dene for “big knife” – describing the characteristic sweeping shape of the lake. Found in the northwestern corner of the province, and in the heart of Dene Tha’ traditional territory, M’behcho is one of Alberta’s largest lakes.
Photos by Gillian Chow-Fraser
The lake is so large that it can support a collection of islands scattered throughout the vast expanse of the lake – some small islands are simply outcrops of spruce trees, while others are so large that they can sustain wildlife like caribou, lynx and bears. Through a Dene Tha’ First Nation Guardians program, wildlife monitoring cameras have captured caribou and calves using many of the larger islands on the lake – according to traditional knowledge these islands act as refuges from predators that do not want to swim across the lake to get to them.
Photo of islands on Bistcho Lake by Phillip Meintzer
The lake remains one of the last places in Alberta currently untouched by industrial development and destruction – a rare story for anywhere in the boreal forest in the province. With no active forestry around the lake, and decreasing oil and gas interests, the only signs of industrial presence are the scars in the forest from historical oil and gas exploration (called “seismic lines”). While this doesn’t mean industry couldn’t be knocking at Bistcho’s door in the coming years, it does mean that the lake is in excellent condition and is a part of a still vibrant ecosystem.
Decades-old seismic lines go all the way to the lake shores. Photos by Phillip Meintzer.
With the beautiful weather, we were ready to spend all our time out on the water. As M’behcho is a large lake, it takes time to make it across even the more narrow parts of the lake, so the best way to break up the travel time was by taking fishing breaks! Unusual for a large lake, M’Behcho does not have high tourism pressures, which means that the water is healthy and full of fish. Fishing efforts were rewarded with delicious pickerel and jackfish every night of the trip.
Photos by Phillip Meintzer
Kecia, Gillian, and collaborator Lauren Thompson ride in a boat!
The trip was made extra special by spending time with Dene Tha’ community members and Guardians. Gillian was thrilled to spend time with the Guardians, Felix and Thomas, who were part of the first crew deploying wildlife cameras around the lake! Hot tea and coffee paired well with poring over photos of wildlife that had been captured in the first two years of the program so far. Dene Tha’ Lands Department technician and close friend and collaborator, Matt Munson (Dene Tha’ name: Yves Claus Didzena), was keen to show everyone new audio recording devices to enhance the wildlife monitoring program. The visit was an opportunity to showcase many of the successful monitoring programs established by the Dene Tha’ First Nation Guardians Program.
Felix, Matt and Gillian downloading and going through images from wildlife cameras! Photos by Kecia Kerr.
But most of all, Kecia was the most excited about the possibility of seeing dancing northern lights from the docks on the lake. On one our last evenings together, we had one of the most quintessential boreal experiences: watching green and blue northern lights stretch across the night’s sky (with Jupiter shining brightly) while we heard three packs of wolves communicating to each other from distant parts of the lake with long howls. We sat on the docks in awed silence for what felt like hours – trying desperately to soak it all in.
Photo by Lauren Thompson
These are the kinds of trips that remind us that at the heart of our work is one thing: hope. Hope that we can do everything in our power to support the Dene Tha’ First Nation as stewards of the area. Hope that the Dene can spend all their days on M’behcho if they so wish – not only on special occasions and gatherings. And hope that there are places in this province where the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land has not been severed and can thrive.
Gillian and Matt on a boat.
Kecia and Gillian enjoying the lake.
This is our first blog post in a two-part series highlighting our trip to the community gathering at M’behcho. Stay tuned for our next blog post which will highlight stories with the community members and our collaborative work with the Dene Tha’ First Nation.