After 20 years of exhausting my legs for winter and summer Olympic sport, I decided to give my arms a try. It was after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games that I first sat in a kayak. Along with my husband, Peter Guzman, we set out on a summer of paddling the East Arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. From Yellowknife to Lutsel K’e and beyond, the experience was one that stayed with me. I returned in late spring for the annual carnival and realized the adventure doesn’t end when the water freezes. Here’s why I keep going back.
Locals dip their cups into Great Slave Lake and drink au natural; many claim it to be the purest water on Earth. (Great Slave is the deepest lake in North America, at over 609 metres.) After a month of paddling the eastern part of its expanse, and with no scientific backing, I have to agree. The water not only hydrates the body; its calming presence hydrates the spirit as well.
Rod and reel, ice fishing, net fishing – it’s almost not fair to fish Great Slave Lake. Just thinking of snagging a fish for dinner seemed to lead to a fish jumping nearby, as if to say “I’m here when you want me!” Northern Pike, lake trout, grayling, to name a few, delight the palate. All you need is the stomach to clean them.
By motor, paddle or sail, the East Arm of the Great Slave Lake is idyllic. A first-time paddler like myself will be challenged, and survive with stories to tell. An experienced one will delight in the rolling depths of water, which moved violently at times with the gale-force winds and was then glassy calm at daybreak. Countless islands and rocky points allow for escapes from the lake when it gets too rough for speed boats, let alone kayaks.
Eagles soar, flocks of loons and countless other species of waterfowl will delight the birder. While we only saw one bear in more than a month of paddling, signs of moose, bear and small animals were abundant. We did, however, eat moose – provided by a local hunter on two occasions. Caribou don’t come as far south as Lutsel K’e any more, but cougars and muskoxen have become common. During a winter visit, we spotted a lynx as it galloped across Snowdrift River away from the roar of our snowmobile.
The Dene culture
Hand games, drum dances, going out on the water, going into the bush, stories galore – the Dene cultural experience is a treat to the present-day traveller. The experience of a lifetime is waiting in this Northern community that is still connected deeply to traditional ways. Elders share with those who are patient and open. I sat around a campfire listening to a woman who grew up in a nomadic hunting family talk about what life was like more than 80 years ago, while she turned out bannock faster than any bread-making machine. It was like listening to a living legend. Better yet, offer to help in the labor-intensive process of scraping off a moose hide and you’ll always be welcomed back!
It’s hard to believe such a massive lake can freeze. Lutsel K’e was formerly known as Snowdrift because of the massive drifts that historically covered the lake in winter. With less wind in recent years, those drifts are mainly a memory and that means smoother ice with plenty of real estate for kite skiing, easy snowmobile travel and (for aerobic animals like me) jogging. You’re sure to have a visit from a local even as you’re jogging on the ice. Someone will check on you, thinking your snowmobile broke down. Pack a sense of adventure and you could try kite skiing back to Yellowknife from Lutsel K’e. It’s faster than you think, depending on wind direction, of course.
Lutsel K’e’s spring festivities mark the end of a long winter, and include a $5,000 ice-fishing derby – followed by tasty fish chowder (though the competition is reserved for locals, the resulting soup is for everyone). There’s a jigging competition, hockey tournaments, drum dance, live music and just plain community fun. Schedules are set but everything runs on its own time, often ending late because nobody wants the fun to be over.
A quality undervalued in our busy age, the winds, waves, loons, terns, eagles are all you will hear in a kayak. In a boat, turn off the motor and float. You will be delighted by what you hear: nothing. The feeling never leaves you and will calm even the most tightly wound city nerves.
Knowing how to beat the bugs
Being from Winnipeg, I thought I knew bugs. Manitoba’s mosquitoes are nothing compared to the plethora of bugs in the North. We escaped attack in two ways: camping on rocky points where the constant breeze hindered their blood-sucking strategies, and getting into the tent before the setting of the sun. The latter rule we broke once, on our first night out, and never broke again.
The park: Thaidene Nene
Translated as “land of the ancestors” from the local Denesuline language, this proposed 30,000-square-kilometre national park reserve spans the abrupt transition from boreal forest to tundra around the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. Dramatic cliffs and islands, canyons in the Lockhart River and Tyrrell Falls are just some of the rugged and scenic wilderness within the proposed boundaries. But Thaidene Nene is about more than just the land. It is the Lutsel K’e Dene homeland, where ancestors laid down the foundations of the Denesuline way of life – and it continues to provide local livelihoods and strong cultural traditions. It is a sacred place that, once you have visited, never leaves you.