Exploring Yellowknife by Canoe

The vast waterways east of Yellowknife are the gateway into North America’s largest wilderness



It’s the sixth day of our 46-day canoe traverse of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The purpose of the expedition, at least at the planning stage, was to sate a driving compulsion to explore remote areas of the world. And this roadless zone is the granddaddy of them all—the only way through is by canoe.

My photographer, Taku Hokoyama, and I lash our cherry-red canoe to a birch sapling in the damp, reed-choked earth along the edge of Great Slave Lake. Dozens of single-story houses connected by dirt road are scattered along the peninsula we’ve landed on. We’re here to speak with the caretakers of this land to learn first-hand about the area we’ll be passing through.

Inside the local band office, we meet Steven Nitah, an intense and imposing man, powerfully built with linebacker shoulders that support a broad face topped by thick, jet-black hair swept above piercing hazel eyes.

At the time, he was chief of the Lutsel K’e Dene (pronounced Lut-sel-keh Deh-neh) First Nation, a modern village of 312 people located on the east arm of Great Slave Lake, 200 km east of Yellowknife. Since I’m a stranger here, he’s also my portal to this northern world.

His people oversee a traditional territory that covers an area larger than the size of England. Lutsel K’e is one of the easternmost communities in the Northwest Territories, and the last human enclave we encounter before Hokoyama and I paddle off into the largest wilderness area in North America. Our next resupply won’t be until Baker Lake, Nunavut—an Inuit town west of Hudson Bay on the far side of this vast, uninterrupted wilderness.

Inside the Lutsel K’e Dene Tribe

Unlike First Nations to the south, the Lutsel K’e Dene are still hunting and gathering. As a result, the former chief’s generation is linked strongly to its traditional ways and language, even though he’s only in his 40s.

I ask him, “What does the land mean to the people?”

His answer is simple and straightforward. “Everything.”

He goes on. “Lutsel K’e is a traditional Dene community that has been propelled into western society. What took western society 500 years is taking us less than 50.” Nitah is referring to the sudden integration of his people into the western world as we know it—phones, plastic, TV, Red Bull.

“I grew up in the bush—on the trap lines, in tents,” he says. “I never spoke a word of English until I was 10 years old.”

This migration started with the 1957 opening of the first church in Lutsel K’e, then a permanent school in 1960.

But Nitah is not about to concede a way of life. “The land has always sustained our people. It is our identity,” Nitah says. “If the modern world collapses, we can always go back to the land.”

A bird’s-eye view of the domain of the Lutsel K’e reveals tens of thousands of lakes linked by a matrix of vein-like rivers that bleed north and east, spilling eventually into the Arctic Ocean. It is a canoeist’s paradise.

Water Highways, Canoes for Cars

When I planned this trip, I initially pored over online maps, looking for a route that began in Yellowknife and ended at the sea. Even mighty Google Earth provides only a rough overview of this remote terrain, so I had to resort to government topographic maps for any serious detail.

Once revealed, it wasn’t a matter of how to get there but of which route to take. With the options so limitless, I let history be my guide.

The Lutsel K’e used the canoe as their main mode of transport on these liquid highways for millennia, and the craft eventually brought in outsiders as well. In 1715, William Stuart of the Hudson’s Bay Company was the first European to grab his paddle and penetrate the area east of Great Slave.

He broke trail for future explorers like J.W. Tyrell, who undertook a mapping survey for the federal government in 1900. Eric Morse led the first recreational canoeists to explore here, leading a trip down the Thelon River in 1962.

Taking their cue, I planned to paddle 2,000 km from Yellowknife to the town of Rankin Inlet on Nunavut’s Hudson Bay coast. My canoe of choice was a 17-foot Esquif Prospecteur outfitted with a spray deck. It’s the toughest, most versatile wilderness-tripping vessel I know.

On our way out from the village we meet Ray Griffith. Like Stuart and Tyrell, he is a white man who answered the call of the north. In 1972, he arrived in Lutsel K’e to teach at the local school, but quickly became a pupil of a life he never imagined.

He remained a full-time hunter and trapper for 15 years under the tutelage of a Dene family. The people were very nomadic back then, and in order to be accepted, it was very important for him to live the life in the bush that they knew.

That life is something Taku and I want to get a taste of as well.

Our First Muskoxen Sighting

It has been a few days since we left Lutsel K’e, working our way through a chain of lakes and portages that lead to the headwaters of the Thelon. The sun is out and the shadow of our canoe flies along the sandy bottom of Daisy Lake like some two-headed centaur in space.

A growl emanates from the spruce forest.

We rest our paddles on the gunwales to listen. There it is again.

Our momentum carries us past a small point where we surprise a group of four muskoxen cooling themselves in the shallows. Three of them bolt for the forest in a rolling thunder of hoof strikes. But one of the beasts remains.

The 700-pound bull has a soaring, massive hump rising behind a waterfall sweep of horns that frame its tree-stump face. Though a member of the same family as the common goat, it seems like a relic from prehistoric times—a woolly mammoth-triceratops hybrid that lives on in this ancient ecosystem. With another disdainful, guttural growl, it casually saunters out of the water, up a steep embankment and out of sight.

We are elated. It is our first muskox sighting. Coming into close contact with the sheer power and bulk of this free, majestic animal made me suddenly feel very small and humble.

Almost hunted to extinction for their fur in the early 1900s, the muskox made a comeback with the creation of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary, a 56,000-sq.-km. area located across what is now the territorial partition between the NWT and Nunavut.

With only a few hundred remaining when the sanctuary was created in 1927, there are now up to 20,000 muskoxen within the haven. The reserve also acts as a “bank,” with the protected population feeding a steady expansion of the species beyond the sanctuary’s boundaries.

Fly Fishing Has Never Been Easier

On the Eileen River, Taku flicks his fly rod, the looping line extending back in a round arc before it lays out smoothly in front of him on the crystalline waters. It is a calm evening; the mosquitoes are singing and the fish are jumping. This is Taku’s third cast.

The fly drifts around in the swirls below a light rapid and then bam—an arctic grayling hits. After an enjoyable tussle, he lands the plump, silver-grey torpedo and dinner is on. A quick cleaning and pan-fry makes for a succulent accompaniment to our usual freeze-dried fare.

The grayling here make you feel like a fly-fishing god. I am a hack fisherman back in British Columbia, but up here I feel like I’m the lead in the film *A River Runs Through It*. I try to overlook the fact these fish have never seen a fake fly before and will bite almost anything.

Anyone with a couple of days could drop in on the Eileen River system via an easy hour-long bush plane ride from Yellowknife. We’re definitely on the slow path. It’s taken us two weeks to paddle the 450 km from Yellowknife to get here. Either way, it would take a hundred lifetimes to fish all these waters.

We eat sitting with our backs against the overturned canoe, breathing in the cool northern dusk with every bite of delicate flesh. The sky is bright pink, even though it’s almost midnight. As the boreal forest gives way to tundra, the solid tree stands of Great Slave have morphed into the sparse clumps of stunted spruce outlined on the far shore.

We are looking at a landscape that has been explored extensively and yet remains unchanged since the last ice age.

Griffith said of his time here: “There was such a strong sense of history. It was like being in Europe in that we were walking on the same trails people had used for thousands of years and knew intimately. It felt really old and connected.”

Journey’s End

Forty days later, at the mouth of Hudson Bay, I lean over the stern with a cupped hand and bring some water up to my mouth. The sharp saltiness of the Arctic Ocean coats my tongue.

Our mission to cross the greatest wilderness on the continent is complete. As our canoe languidly bobs on the big blue of Hudson Bay, I reflect on Griffith’s words from 40 days ago.

With every paddle stroke and portage step, we were shadowed by the spirits of the Dene and Inuit who went before us, but didn’t leave a trace.

May this land remain free and wild forever.

Do It Yourself

How to Get Here

It takes about a week to paddle the 270 km across Great Slave Lake to Lutsel K’e, but you can get there in 45 minutes from Yellowknife with Air Tindi ($400 return).

Where to Eat

For unforgettable local fare, head to the Wildcat Café in Yellowknife for the Baron of Musk-ox Sandwich (867-873-4004).

Explore With a Canoe

Bathurst Arctic Services in Yellowknife drops you and a canoe onto any number of lakes around Lutsel K’e. Looking to explore a little deeper? Experience the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary by contacting Great Canadian Wilderness Adventures.

Fish With a Guide

For a day or a week of locally guided lake trout, northern pike, and arctic grayling fishing search out Lutsel K’e’s own Frontier Fishing Lodge.