The Charter Community of Délįne, a tiny community along Canada's Great Bear Lake, doesn't get a lot of visitors.
The place, centered on the town of Délįne, isn't an easy destination to reach. Most people fly there. In winter, you can drive along an ice road — nearly 200 miles of anxious motoring. But in recent years, there's been a flurry of visitors, some from as far away as Paris.
What's the reason for the sudden interest in a land that's as austere and cold as it is remote?
In 2014, the region began its journey to becoming a UNESCO biosphere. And not just any biosphere — there are 664 in the world — but one that would become the largest in North America at just over 36,000 square miles.
The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve would cover the vast pristine lake as well as nearby Délįne Lake and the surrounding region.
A unique relationship with the Earth
But it wasn't just the grand scale of the project that caught Stan Boychuk's attention when he first contacted the people who live there in 2013.
At the time, Boychuk was the Canadian chair for UNESCO's biosphere program. Part of his mission was to help the Délįne community with the nomination process, but it didn't take long for him to get caught up in the wonder of the place, particularly the unique relationship the Délįne have with their surroundings.
"As we talked, it became very clear to me that even though there's a small population who live around Bear Lake, that their whole relationship with the lake, with the land with how they live as a people, is inherently tied up with the environment in which they live," he said in an interview with Mother Nature Network.
"They really see their role very much as stewards of the lake and as stewards of the land around."
The lake, covering some 12,000 square miles, is so clean that residents drink directly from it. More than that, however, Great Bear Lake occupies a sacred place in the hearts of the Délįne.
"There are prophecies, and relationships with the lake that go back thousands and thousands of years," Boychuk says. "And there is, in fact, a prophecy that talks about Great Bear Lake being one of the last remaining bodies of freshwater on this planet."
Boychuk's visits and consultations with the community culminated last year, when the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve — the first biosphere to be entirely controlled by indigenous people — was made official. Suddenly, a self-governing and mostly self-contained community joined a global network.
"It's really an international acknowledgement that this place — the relationship of the people to this place and the way in which they manage themselves — has been recognized by an international body as being appropriate for designation," Boychuk says.
But for their part, the Délįne people have always seen their isolation as more physical than spiritual. This is, after all, the same community that sent a delegation to Japan to apologize for its reluctant role in mining the uranium that was ultimately used in the first atomic bomb.
Now, the way the people of Great Bear Lake manage their natural surroundings will be under a global spotlight.
The Délįne way of life
An official from the Délįne community accepts the UNESCO recognition certificate. The Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve will be the first biosphere to be entirely controlled by indigenous people. (Photo: Stan Boychuk)
"It's really the mantra of the biosphere reserve program — to act locally but to think globally," Boychuk says.
But even more importantly, the UNESCO designation ensures the Délįne way of life will always be protected.
Boychuk thinks it will help Great Bear Lake resist efforts by outsiders to exploit the land.
"We see those problems when multi-national corporations come into areas and are able to establish mining provisions over and above local, provincial, territorial and in some cases even national agendas," he says.
"That's harder to do in a world-recognized biosphere reserve."
And that alone is reason to celebrate. But then again, there's often celebration in these parts. When Boychuk last visited the Délįne in 2016, he was invited to attend a traditional revelry called a round dance.
"It was so incredible," he says. "We had this whole day of being in the community and travelling around on the lake and then the huge community feast. And then there was drumming and dancing and singing."
At one point, people formed a massive circle. The Délįne leader led the dance, at first alone, and then joined by children.
"Then some elders come out," Boychuk recalls. "And then, just about every teenager in the community is out and dancing. It was just this incredible feeling — you don't ever see that kind of thing. You don't see young teenagers dancing with elders and young kids and getting other people up and dancing."
But then again, until recently, we haven't seen a lot of this community.
That's about to change. And the more we see of this people, the better we will be for it as a planet.