By Aaron Wasylyk
Five lines into our national anthem you’ll find the familiar refrain “The True North strong and free!”. Now, while I have no way of knowing if poet Robert Stanley Weir, who first penned those patriotic lyrics way back in 1908, was directly inspired by a visit to the Northwest Territories, but even if he never made it to this remote and remarkable corner of Canada, I can confirm that the pioneering spirit wrapped up in those words is alive and well within the second largest community, within the second largest territory within the second largest country in the world.
If you just shouted out “Wait a minute, that would be Hay River, Northwest Territories!”, well, you’d be correct, and you definitely know your Canadian geography. And if you knew that, then you also know that Canada’s land mass checks in at over 9.9 million km2 (6.1 million miles2), with a population of just over 36 million people, of which 90 percent live within 160 kms (100 miles) of the United States border.
So, why the Geography 101 lesson? Well, because it helps to put things in perspective when you find yourself over 1,700 kms (1,000 miles) north of the U.S. border on the shores of Great Slave Lake (the deepest lake in North America and the tenth largest lake in the world, for all you geography buffs out there), and you suddenly realize what we, as Canadians, have been singing about all these years. The roughly 3,600 brave and hearty souls — or approximately 0.0001 percent of the Canadian population — that call Hay River home, absolutely personify “The True North strong and free!”.
PowerBoat Television producer and host Steve Bull and I have traveled to Hay River to team up with Spencer Pike of “2 Seasons Adventures” for what he’s promised will be a visit filled with epic boating, fishing, and filming. Spencer and his family are the resident experts offering guided tours on Great Slave Lake as well as the neighbouring Hay River that also shares its name with the local town. As one of the main tributaries of Great Slave Lake, Hay River, which totals 702 kms (436 miles) in overall length, flows and meanders throughout the eponymously named community before eventually discharging into the lake on the outskirts of town.
It’s a late July morning smack in the midst of the lazy dog days of summer when Spencer, Steve and I tow Spencer’s jet boat to the river’s edge. Spencer has been running jet boats on the Hay River for the better part of a decade, which is comforting considering the swiftly flowing water in front of us contains such an abundance of sand and silt, it has taken on the appearance of weakly brewed coffee. And while it isn’t so much the murky water that is cause for concern, but rather what lurks beneath the surface that can prove treacherous. This section of the Hay River winds and twists its way through the northern wilderness, flanked on either side by jagged rocky cliffs that over time have donated equally jagged boulders to the river below. It’s those boulders that Spencer has developed a skill for deftly avoiding over many years of running his jet boat tours up and down the river.
With Steve riding shotgun, me running camera and Spencer at the helm of his 2013 aluminum Bratt Jet boat, he grabs some throttle and turns the 6-litre, fuel injected Chevy loose on the turbulent water. The Hamilton 212 jet pump leaps into action and within seconds we’re up on plane and rocketing along at nearly 50 km/h (30 mph). As the rocks and trees race past on either side of us, it’s difficult to discern who is more at home on the Hay River, Spencer or his jet boat?
Darting and dodging through rapids like a Formula One driver negotiating the chicanes of Monaco, I decide that the answer is probably both. These jet boats are specifically designed for exactly these kinds of river runs, and in the hands of a skilled driver like Spencer, they really get a chance to strut their stuff. With the ability to turn on a dime and skim across water only a few inches deep, this sleek aluminum bullet delivers the goods.
While I get busy capturing the immeasurable beauty that surrounds us, Spencer reveals to Steve that this jet boat tour is the most popular of all the tours offered by “2 Seasons Adventures”. I can definitely see why. Anything that safely infuses an adrenaline rush with pristine wilderness is guaranteed to be a hit with the outdoor adventure-seeking crowd. It’s about a forty-five-minute run upriver to the spectacular Louise Falls. A fine mist and a roar fills the air as Spencer expertly positions us for an up close and personal introduction to this multi-faceted waterfall measuring over 34 metres (114 feet) high. It sends forth a torrent of frothy white water that surrounds us and charges downstream. There is one overarching mantra that Steve and I adhere to on all of our shoots and it is to simply “go with the flow”, and this time we wholeheartedly and quite literally, embrace it once again as we turn around and race back down river, basking in the warm steady glow of the late summer sunshine.
Because Hay River is located so far north, the sun disappears below the horizon for only a few short hours per day at this time of year and it never really gets completely dark. If you visit in late July, you’ll notice that the days almost seamlessly blend into one another without interruption. Which is quite the opposite of the long periods of darkness that the inhabitants endure during the winter months.
The sun is still high in the sky as we cap things off with an evening fish fry on the shores of Great Slave Lake at “2 Seasons Adventures” campground. Spencer’s dad, Frazer Pike serves up deliciously prepared Great Slave Lake Whitefish, just one of the many species that inhabit these pure northern waters and are highly sought after by both commercial and sport fisherman alike.
Setting out onto Great Slave Lake bright and early the next day Spencer has charted a course to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and a secluded spot called Wrigley Harbour where he has guaranteed there will be fish. True to his word, we haul in monster after monster. In fact, within the first hour, Steve and Spencer have caught so many Northern Pike, or “Jackfish” as the locals call them, that I’ve got all the footage I need and now I have a chance to trade my camera for a fishing rod and get in on the action.
Having spent most of my life catching smaller sized pan fish, I can tell you that it’s a real thrill catching something that you have to use both arms to hoist up. Steve lands his personal best at the time, an 18 pounder, which Spencer promptly tops with a 21 pounder of his own. That’s usually the way it goes though, there’s always a bigger fish. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bigger fishing adventure than the one you can have on Great Slave Lake.
But lucky for Steve and me, our Northwest Territories adventure doesn’t end in Hay River as we hop on a plane and skip across Great Slave Lake to the capital city of Yellowknife. Located on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife contains a population of approximately 20,000 people, easily making it the largest community in the territory. Originally established in 1934, today it exists as an amalgam of old and new. As we tour historic Old Town Yellowknife we wander the crooked paths and winding streets boasting colourful names such as “Ragged Ass Road”, absorbing the eclectic vibe that still resonates from timeworn shacks and weathered log buildings originally built by gold miners hoping to strike it rich back in the 1930’s.
Climbing the steps to the top of a popular lookout known as “The Rock” — quite literally a large rock around which Old Town is built, offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the surrounding area. To the south lies the city centre, replete with the major structures and amenities you’d expect to find in a modern urban environment. Surrounding us is Yellowknife Bay. A bustling hub of commercial and recreational boating activity, as well as the take-off and landing surface for the many float planes that are so integral to the day to day activities in this part of the world.
In fact, on top of “The Rock” exists the “Pilot’s Monument” which recognizes the enduring contribution of the many bush pilots that frequent the skies on a daily basis. Atop the monument is a light that notifies those in the area and on the water, that there is floatplane activity on the bay, something to be mindful of as Steve and I meet up and head out onto the water with members of the Great Slave Yacht Club.
We meet up with Evan Walsz, a past commodore of the club and Hak Mujcin a local businessman and owner of the largest private boat on the lake, a Carver 450 Pilothouse. With a slight chop on the bay, I’m grateful for the stability and extra real estate such a large vessel provides as I film the surrounding scenery. During our tour around Yellowknife Bay, Evan shares with Steve what life is like boating on one of the largest lakes in the world. Having explored Great Slave Lake by boat for many years, Evan reveals that the Great Slave Yacht Club is one of only three marinas on the entire lake. It’s been in existence for over 30 years and has around 60 boats with approximately 100 members.
Steve and I are both surprised to learn from Evan that despite being located a mere 400 kms (250 miles) from the Arctic Circle, the boating season in Yellowknife almost exactly mirrors that of our boating season in Southern Ontario. Most boaters in this region typically boat from the Victoria Day weekend in May, until Canadian Thanksgiving in October. However, as Evan happily points out, the major benefit of being so far north is that with almost 24 hours of sunlight during the summer months, the boating season actually feels significantly longer.
I will admit that it can be difficult to pace yourself when the sun is always up and encouraging you to come out and play, which is probably why we’ve now heard (more than once on our trip) someone jokingly say that you can sleep during the winter. That being said, Steve and I bid a fond farewell to the wonderful folks at the Great Slave Yacht Club and rest up for the next day’s fishing adventure where we’ll be heading out with local fishing expert and guide Greg Robertson from Bluefish Services.
While the sun may still be putting in overtime hours this time of year, the morning air has a noticeable crispness to it as Greg, Steve and I make our way out of Yellowknife Bay aboard Greg’s fishing boat, past the iconic and colourful collection of houseboats nestled up against Joliffe Island. Continuing beyond the First Nations community of Dettah, with a population of approximately 210 inhabitants who, come the winter months, are uniquely connected to the city of Yellowknife by a 6.5 km (4 mile) ice road, Greg knows exactly where to take us on this part of Great Slave Lake.
Once again Northern Pike are on our hit list, but since Greg has offered to prepare for us his famous shore lunch, they’re also on our menu. With decades of guiding experience under his belt, Greg brings us to the perfect spot about 24 kms (15 miles) out into the lake, which yields some nice sized three- to four-pound pike, the ideal size for filleting. Soon enough the three of us are camped on one of the many rocky islands that populate this part of Great Slave Lake, enjoying without a doubt the tastiest and freshest fish I’ve ever eaten. Don’t believe me? Well consider that Great Slave Lake is over 614 metres (2,014 feet) deep and home to some of the cleanest and purest water on the planet. Swim around in that your whole life and you’d be a pretty tasty fish too!
As our whirlwind adventure in the Northwest Territories draws to a close, Steve and I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do in this amazing northern land, and that doesn’t just apply to the Northwest Territories either. Here’s one last fact for you geography enthusiasts: Canada is home to over 2 million lakes, the most in any one country in the entire world. By my math, that adds up to a lot of boating adventures and a whole lot of fun. So get out there and explore this incredible country. And might I suggest the Northwest Territories as a starting point. “The True North strong and free” indeed!