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I Need the Wilderness a Great Slave Lake Expedition

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!


Let me be taken care of in the simple ways a wild place offers: a few fish, or crabs, snails, clams, limpets, rabbits, berries, and greens. Let me take lightly from a place that still has abundance. Give me the moods of the wind, the rain. Let me sleep in the sun. Let me use my body and I am ecstatic. It never fails. The wilderness offers me these gifts. Every man, woman, and child has a hunter-gatherer, a nomad, a Nature lover somewhere in their genes.
I returned to using crutches 2 winters ago. The hip I broke in 1967 was causing me trouble and the surgeon wanted to replace it. I felt reticent. I hesitated. I found myself unwilling. I packed my truck instead. I took my crutches, loaded our new Coho kayak and a GoldenEye-13 for our daughter whom I would meet later. I drove 1,590 miles to Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories. I drove east through the Rocky Mountains and out onto the northern plains, headed up onto the vast continental shield of the subarctic.
The northern shore of Great Slave Lake laps against the 4 billion year old rock of the Slave geological province. A mere 8,000 years ago, the last glaciers flowed out of the Arctic to scour off all vegetation and soil right down to bedrock. Ice three miles thick poured off the edge of the granite shield and plowed down into the much softer sedimentary rock of the interior plains scooping out an enormous trough 2000 feet deep to create Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America. This glacial nose dive created Great Slave Lake, the 5th largest lake in North America, Great Bear Lake (the 4th largest) and Lake Athabaska (the 10th).
Great Slave stretches 290 miles from the end of the East Arm to the half mile wide outflow of the Mackenzie River in its southwest corner. This fresh water sea bears the name of the "Slavee" tribe of Natives who peopled her southern shore (no slavery practiced). Yellowknife, on its northern shore lies at the end of the highway. Beyond lies a vast roadless expanse reaching to the Arctic Ocean from the Yukon to Hudson Bay.
Ice usually covers the lake until June (sometimes even late June). Summer temperatures often rise into the 70’s (F) and even 80’s. Once the ice melts off, the long 20 hour days of sunlight heat up the water and earth fast. In early June water temperatures in the 30's begin to steadily rise. By July, water can be in the 60’s along the shallow, island strewn coastline. With an annual average rainfall of only 8", rain is rare. Mild winds and sunny days characterize this Northern summer, with occasional locally formed thunder storms.

On July 17, 1997 I left my Coho and gear at a park in downtown Yellowknife. I drove out to the airport where I could securely leave my truck, then took a taxi back to my put-in. A heavy fog descended as I set off. By afternoon, the stormiest weather of my trip washed over my decks. I had packed for all contingencies. My fully loaded boat felt stable.
This was the Coho’s first extended trip. I planned to be out for four weeks or more and paddle down the North Arm, turn the corner and head up the long East Arm. I wasn’t sure of my destination. I could stop at two house boats moored in Lady Jane Bay sixty miles away. Just 75 miles off at Francois Bay I could radio for a plane pickup at an old fish boat that sold fuel to sport fishermen. Planes landed at Taltheilei Narrows resort, and at the Native villages of Snowdrift and Reliance--approximately 150, 175 and 250 paddle miles distant. Other than these spots, no other points of habitation or reliable contact existed.
I possessed the great luxury of time. I packed the kayak with enough food for five weeks. I stuffed an enormous amount of gear in the sleek, streamlined Coho. I took a 4-person dome tent, a double sleeping bag, an extra large Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, a large nylon tarp, three telescoping fishing rods, two reels, a tackle box, a small gas camp stove with three bottles of gas, a set of aluminum pans, and a 10" cast iron frying pan. I carried rain gear, warm clothes, a mosquito suit, eight bottles of bug juice. I packed Lipton rice dinners, a three pound bag of rice, dried milk, dried curry lentil soup, dehydrated black bean soup, cocoa, Kaluha, and cooking oil. I left town with an aluminum lawn chair, a 20" steel grill and a bag of fresh food--ham, lettuce, a bunch of celery, apples, tomatoes, onions, avocados and flour tortillas--all tied to the rear deck!

The first three days I paddled 37 miles south to the mouth of Drybones Bay. I passed through a continuous archipelago of coastal islands which line the eastern shore of Yellowknife Bay and the North Arm. The hillsides wore a short, thin forest of White Spruce, Black Spruce, Jack Pine, Poplar, Willow and Birch. A rich mixture of mosses and 350 species of lichen carpeted the thin soils lying over the bedrock. Long fingers of smooth glacier-scoured rock sloped gently down into the lake. I quietly paddled through wetlands with seas of reeds swaying 2 feet above my head. Loons cried their mating warbles across the waters, especially early and late in the day. Arctic terns spun across the sky, swift and agile, paddling the air with their wings.
Northern Pike filled these relatively warm wetlands. I fished, feasted and explored islands. This leg of my journey provided an easy start with lots of protection. The weather proved mild with mostly clear skies. The sun shone from 4 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. I often read a book in my tent at twilight--1 a.m.
South of Jackfish Cove the coast opens out. The lake extends 110 miles across open water to Hay River out of sight on the southern shore. On day four I rose at 4:30 a.m. and paddled in the calm before the mid day thermal winds. As I passed the Burnt Islands in the early morning light, a dense offshore haze to the southeast solidified into a fussy, light grey mass. As I passed behind the Cabin Island group, the sky thickened into a dark bluish gray that covered the entire southeastern half of the sky. I sat still in my boat, feeling a low continuous rumbling, indistinct, almost inaudible. I continued along the indented coast and through scattered islands in light winds of three or four knots in bright sunlight.

By 7:00 a.m. I had traveled six miles. I stopped to pitch my tent in light winds. I used 150' feet of line to guide her down to trees and rocks in all directions. I snoozed. Within an hour, wind violently shook and flattened the tent almost to my face. Clouds poured a deluge, thunder boomed. Finally, I fell asleep--content to be dry and forethoughtful.
By noon I felt refreshed by my nap, the sun shone, and the air had warmed. I broke camp for the second time that morning and paddled another ten miles. I stroked down to the end of the North Arm and into Devil's Channel, just shy of Campbell Bay at the mouth of the East Arm.
The next days of paddling took me another 125 miles up the Hearne Channel, past Blanchet Island, through the enormous Simpson Island Group, down Hornby Channel, behind Keith Island and out into the 2000' deep Christie Bay for some world renown Lake Trout fishing. Three days before I left Yellowknife, some lucky angler caught an 83 lb. world record specimen near Christie Bay. Usually, one must drop big lures 60 to 180 feet down to catch Lake Trout. The surface water in the East Arm is so cold that the Lake Trout come right to the surface, even in shallows.
My first day in Christie Bay I started casting for Greyling with light spinning gear in the shallows. To my utter surprise, I caught 10 Lake Trout instead, in just 45 minutes. Every cast caught a darkly speckled forest green beauty, weighing 3 to 8 pounds. My line sang, as trout after trout ran and danced with my lure. I kept two fish and that evening, I gorged on the fatty flesh, fried to a crisp gold. Even better eating was to come. I found a good campsite and stayed 3 days to smoke and dry a batch of these superb fish, using the traditional Native method.
On August 12th, I paddled into Snowdrift, 176 miles from my put in. I still had 23 lbs. of food plus 9 lbs of smoked, dried lake trout in my boat! I had found incredible fishing, plenty of berries, lots of wild mushrooms. I ate well. I lost 15 pounds and 4" from my waistline. I felt great! In the 5 weeks, I had actively paddled 15 days and spent 17 days camping, fishing and gunk holing. The Coho performed perfectly in a wide variety of conditions. The hatches had not leaked one drop, even with waves washing over my decks. The Coho proved dry and stable in heavy seas. She carried everything but the kitchen sink while maintaining graceful handling and speed.

When I reached Snowdrift, I called my wife Freida at the Pygmy shop and made final arrangements to pick up our 9 year-old daughter at the Yellowknife airport. Freya flew in. We ordered musk ox at a local restaurant and then took off for 2 weeks. She and I paddled a chain of three lakes connected by small navigable streams. Freya used the GoldenEye-13'. With a 22" beam and 13 feet of length, the GE-13' fit her needs well. A light 26 pounds, easy to handle, Freya often paddled 4 miles in a day. When she tired, I towed her for a bit. When she was fresh, her strong little body paddled right beside me, stroke for stroke. Nothing thrilled me in my 2 months out as much as my daughter’s face glowing with health, hoisting a huge fish caught from her kayak.
Each evening, we fried our catch over the fire and drank dark chocolate. Toward the end of August we witnessed the slow dance of the northern lights almost every night. We enjoyed using our muscles to move over the water. We ate as nomads off the land. We received Nature's bounty. Such experiences on the wild earth are the best I have to give my child.--By John Lockwood







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