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When James Marlowe leveraged his lifetime of learning traditional skills on the land to launch Rivers East Arm Tours in August of 2019, he experienced a booming first month.

His Lutsel K’e-based company was full of bookings for fishing trips by visitors from across Canada and some from the U.S.

Fall went well, and he welcomed clients in the winter for ice fishing trips.

Traditional instructor Michael Sanderson teaches youth how to prepare dryfish at a fish camp organized by Rivers East Arm Tours in June. James Marlowe photo

But the boom went to bust when Covid closed the border in March, halting the flow of tourists. Several travellers cancelled their bookings, including a group from the United Kingdom, three from Yellowknife and one from Calgary. Marlowe has had no bookings since.

There has been no staycation salvation for Rivers East either, partly due to the cost of reaching Lutsel K’e and partly because Marlowe said he’s had no success in accessing assistance from any government.

Marlowe said his application to the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) was turned down because he didn’t meet the criteria. An application to the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) for tourism operator assistance also fell flat due to an outstanding bill he has with ITI.

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“The two governments boast about support for Indigenous tourism outfitters. And they talk about the need for teaching culture to people. And they want people to learn the culture, they bring it up in the legislative assembly, they put it in the newspaper. CanNor and ITI both turned my application down. I didn’t receive any assistance from the federal government or Canada. It’s a slap in the face for me,” Marlowe said.

Help eventually came, but not from the GNWT or Ottawa.

Cathy Marlowe, left, and James Marlowe rest after picking berries near Lutsel K’e. James Marlowe photo

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada helped keep Rivers East afloat with funding for new equipment and ice fishing supplies.

And the Dene Nation gave some funding so that Marlowe could run a one-day fish camp in June for youth in Lutsel K’e.

“We taught people how to make dry fish, how to hang them and smoke them.”

While Marlowe appreciated the opportunity to do the fish camp, it was just a one-time event, and the months of no bookings and no income for Rivers East drag on. He has yet to receive any bookings for ice fishing trips in the winter.

“I know there’s a lot of interest,” he said. “My clients (are mostly) from the NWT and some people don’t want to spend thousands of dollars just to come here for a couple hours or a couple of days. It’s pretty expensive. (The flight) is like $600 return. Plus $2 per pound (of cargo) on Air Tindi. It adds up. My main concern is the high cost of getting people here.”

But he hasn’t been spending his time moping around. He has “revamped” his adventure packages to include cabin rentals, and cultural activities like setting fish nets under the ice, snaring rabbits and aurora viewing.

Sonny Marlowe checks a fishnet on in the winter. James Marlowe photo

“And maybe just going for trips right out on the land to check out the views, maybe see muskox or moose or bears. In regards to the staycation plan I’m (still) trying to get people from the NWT to come here.”

Being very aware of the cost concerns, he wants to encourage large groups and non-government organizations to sign up for his trips so they can split the travel expenses.

He’s also wants to accommodate groups seeking to do couselling or healing camps on the land.

“We can organize stuff like that,” he said.

Looking ahead to the summer of 2021, Marlowe is confident some degree of normalcy returns to the NWT.

“Hopefully, there’s going to be an influx of people ready to go because they’re all cooped up right now. Just go out on the land. Take advantage of all these opportunities that are existing.”

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