Lake of Two Skies: a Trip Through Great Slave Lake

“Two skies, Dave, two skies. That’s what my Dad used to tell me, on days like today.”

Henry Basil, our local guide, rests his paddle on the coaming of our tandem kayak as he scans the ethereal waters of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. Henry grew up in Lutsel K’e (temporarily known as Snowdrift on Canadian maps) on Great Slave’s East Arm, and he has seen many mornings like this one, where the waters of the lake appear as a mercurial spill on a giant table, sky and lake blending on the horizon.

The wakes of our four boats are the only ripples on the lower sky twin that Henry’s father described so perfectly—the cloudless azure above mirrored perfectly in the still waters of the Arm.

“Yeaah—hway!” exclaims Henry in his local Chipewyan language, his arms raised in thanks to the sky, “Thanks to the creator for this day!”

The rugged and remote East Arm of Deh Cho—Big Lake, as Great Slave is known to local Dene—has drawn visitors from the south for almost 200 years. The lake sits at the northern limit of Canada’s dwindling boreal forest. Not far north, the forest gives way to tundra. The terminus of the East Arm provides the most direct access to the waterways that flow to the Arctic Ocean, and European explorers used these waters as a gateway to overland exploration of our vast Arctic. Names like George Back, John Rae and the infamous Sir John Franklin all based expeditions from Fort Reliance, of which the ruins can still be seen at the tip of the Arm.

The East Arm’s endless peninsulas and countless islands are made of some of the oldest stones on the planet—the tortured plutonic mass known as the Canadian Shield, scarred by repeated glaciations and heaved into their present formations by the incalculable forces of geology and time.

The ancient rock is rife with the treasures that have lured southerners north for a century. The Northwest Territories suffered its first mineral rush, for gold, in the early 1900s. Vast tracts of forest cover were burnt off to ease the difficulties of prospecting in the boreal forest. Hunters decimated populations of muskox, moose and caribou to feed the hungry hordes of prospectors and miners flooding north to seek their fortunes.

Today, with the gold seams played out, a second wave of prospectors and transient mine workers are migrating north to work the “diamond rush.” One mine, called Ekati, produces a staggering six percent of the entire world supply. Major players like Ekati and Diavik try hard, at least on paper, to work with local First Nations and northern interests. However, many northerners are tired of watching resources and riches disappear from their traditional lands. 

Our group includes a ski bum from Canmore, two Minnesotan insurance brokers, a retired engineer from Nashville, an eight-year-old with a passion for lengthy swims in frigid water, and three guides—Jane Whitney, Henry, and myself. We are drawn here not for the lustre of gold or the sparkle of diamonds, but to search for a differ- ent kind of treasure. And we are heavily armed, not with the shovels and dynamite of a geological exploration crew, but with the cameras, sketchbooks, and nature guidebooks of seasoned connoisseurs of wild spaces.

We met up with Henry in a quiet backwater of Wildbread Bay: us arriving in a Twin Otter floatplane; Henry in Lutsel K’e chief Archie Catholic’s power boat.

As we stuffed his gear in the bow of our double Klepper, Henry told me that he had never kayaked, although he had made several large canoe journeys along the shores of the lake.

“Can you swim?” I asked him as we paddled toward our camp for the night.

“Yeah, sure!” he replied gleefully, “Like a rock!”

As our journey unfolded, and the hours of paddling together sculpted our discussions, I learned that I was paddling with someone who was not only an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but an exceptional human in all regards. I came to think of Henry as a man like a favourite old book—worn and weather-scarred on the outside, but its pages filled with understated tales of wonder, inspiration, and sadness. He grew up in the 1950s “on the land,” as he puts it, following his father on hunting and fishing trips. One winter day, government agents working for the Indian Affairs Department actually followed Henry’s family by tracking them in the winter snows, and he and his siblings were forcefully removed to residential school in Resolution. Of the nine children abducted with Henry, only three survive today.

“I needed to do something to survive after the horrors of residential school,” explains Henry, “so I started running. It ́s three miles from my house to the end of the airstrip in Lutsel K’e—the only road in town. People would wonder what I was doing, running like that every morning!”

Henry’s legs carried him first to the Edmonton Marathon, then to Montreal. His times at these races and an Arctic College sponsorship sped him all the way to the New York Marathon in 1989, where, despite tearing blisters caused by new running shoes, he turned in a respectable three hours, forty-five minutes at the age of 42. Not bad for a man from a community with only three miles of road, and six months of winter.

On day two Henry calmly informs us that we will be catching fish as we paddle across the mouth of a channel known as The Gap, which joins Wildbread Bay to Christie Bay to the south. As if on command, the tip of his rod dips lakeward, and the heart-starting zzziiing of line playing out fills the paddling silence.

“Got somethin’ on the end of my line!” Henry grins as he hands the dancing rod over to wide-eyed Navarana, Jane’s eight-year-old daughter. We all laugh with her as she lands a lunker lake trout almost half as long as she is. 

For thousands of years the Chipewyan Dene and their ancestors have subsisted off the plentiful moose and cari- bou in the forest and on the tundra, and from the rich lake trout, whitefish and grayling fishery in this region of the lake. The people in Lutsel K’e, I learned from Henry, still follow traditional rites and subsist largely on the seasonal movements of caribou and on the still-abundant fish in the Arm, and evidence of modern hunting and fishing camps can be found on most beaches.

That afternoon, monster northern pike leave ripples like small torpedoes through the reeds as we near a small portage that connects Wildbread to McLeod Bay. We easily haul our gear across the 200-metre path in the recently burnt boreal forest, and paddle a few kilometres along the shore of a small bay before we heave our kayaks up onto a smooth granite ramp to make camp for the night.

In the evening the brilliant purple–pink orange of the sky and lake, cloven by the classic lines of a boreal black spruce and birch silhouette, creates a spectacular Great Slave sunset. We sit on a glacier-polished slab and watch the show as we slurp down fresh trout, grilled to perfection by Henry over a spruce fire.

We soon settle into the comfortable, carefree routine that only extended trips can bring. Henry, who wakes with first light every day, has a fire going and coffee ready by the time the rest of us finally unzip the bags and tents and pile out into the sunny morning. We munch down a hearty trip- ping breakfast, pack up camp into the boats, and paddle several hours before our bladders and bellies pull us to shore for a break. After a quick lunch, we paddle again until we find a suitable camp—one that has good sunset and sunrise exposure, and that provides good shelter in the event of nasty weather—a tall order that is seldom fulfilled.

Our routine on this early September trip surprisingly involves a daily (sometimes bi-daily!) swim. Daytime temperatures consis- tently reach into the twenties, and many of us pile straight into the water as soon as camp is set up—and we all watch from shore as little Navarana temerariously splashes around for hours, some- times right up until the sun begins to dip low on the horizon.

Ten days in the wilderness tends to fly by like a flock of geese heading south—by the time you hear them they are well on their way overhead, and soon are disappearing from view. Too soon we are at our last camp on the Utsingi Peninsula, awaiting our floatplane pick-up.

We hike a short way along the ridge of the angulated peninsula toward its point and the mouth of the East Arm. The timeless perfection of the rock is peppered with fossilized colonial algae known as stromatolites—the world’s oldest known fossils. These circular paleolithic patterns range from fist-sized to the circumfer- ence of a truck tire, and cover the ground so completely in some spots that it is impossible not to tread on them.

From the ridge, a vast Canadian Shield—cracks brimming with crowberry and yellow-leafed birch—slopes subtly into Christie Bay, toward Henry’s home—Lutsel K’e. The north rim ends abruptly, dropping several hundred dizzying metres in a continu- ous wall tens of kilometres long into the East Arm.

We look back over part the maze of islands and inlets of our route and are filled with the joy of an eagle-eye view of our accom- plishment. Finally our eyes scan west past Et-Then Island (caribou in Chipewyan) to the blue vastness of Deh Cho—the Big Lake—the worlds third largest.

The entire group listens intently as Henry tells frigid understated tales of winter travel by dog team and snow machine in the area. He points out a “snowmobile portage” that hunters use to bypass the thin ice around Utsingi Point, and tells harrowing and entertaining tales of winter hunts, long journeys and close calls.

As I watch this smiling man spin his yarns, I realize that not all treasures in the North are geological. Some, like Henry Basil, are humans who share the gold in their hearts and the sparkle of diamonds in their eyes.

Dave Quinn is a wandering wilderness guide, wildlife biologist, and outdoor educator who stores his stuff in a house in Kimberley, B.C. He and his partner, Kelly Comishin, run Treehouse Outdoor Education, specializing in adventure and wilderness therapy. 

akv4i1cover.jpgThis article first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.


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