Cruising: Name That Bay

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Cruising: Name That Bay

Playing pioneer on Canada's Great Slave Lake
By Carolyn Rice

If you're a sailor who secretly wishes you could have been there first--to slap your name on every bay, island, and headland in sight--you'll be happy to know that you weren't born too late. Just head north to Great Slave Lake, a vast body of water 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories, where thousands of islands and passages are yet unnamed. Poke around the lake's nooks and crannies, mark an X or two on the chart, and register your cartographic finds with Randy Freeman at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center back in the Territories' bustling capital, Yellowknife. Voilà: a slice of immortality.

But that's not the only reason to explore Great Slave Lake. This is a wilderness boating experience that's hard to match in North America. You won't find marinas, crowded harbors, or clam bars. You will, however, float on clear water clean enough to drink (and cold enough to chill your wine in minutes) and navigate through passageways lined with cliffs carved from Precambrian rock. Your companions will be Franklin's gulls, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and arctic terns, whose calls are the only sounds that break the overpowering silence.

Summertime cruising conditions are as good as it gets. The lake is ice-free from the summer solstice until late September. Midsummer temperatures reach the eighties. A dominant high pressure system keeps rain away, and the blackflies and mosquitoes that plague much of the north country steer clear as well. The lake is large enough to create its own winds, which blow at an ideal ten to 15 knots onshore in the morning and offshore in the afternoon, with an hour or so of calm at midday for lunch. The winds die again about 2 A.M. for undisturbed sleep. Limitless daylight makes evening navigation a breeze.

Great Slave Lake's safest waters and most spectacular scenery are in its East Arm, a region designated as one of Canada's next national parks. Its twisting channels lead past pine forests, waterfalls, occasional green meadows and marshlands, and a few fishing camps and communities of Dene Indians. Chances are you'll have every anchorage to yourself.

A weeklong trip starts in Yellowknife, where you'll board your charter. Some 50 nautical miles away, in Devil's Channel, you'll pass bald eagle and loon nesting areas en route to Goulet Bay, where you can troll for trout, pike, and grayling, and then grill your catch on the beach. Out in Hearne Channel, you'll skirt Blanchet Island's 600-foot cliffs on the way to Nipin Bay, which has a great swimming beach (the water warms up to a still-shocking 60-degrees). On the fourth day, head for mirrorlike Wildbread Bay, with its spectacular cliffs rising on all sides. Here you can scramble up rocks to limestone caves. Your final harbor is Lutsel'ke, a Dene village of 270, connected to the rest of the world only by the occasional boat and plane. From there you can fly back to Yellowknife on Air Tindi (403-920-4177) or Ptarmigan Airways (403-873-4461) for about $70 U.S. per person.

Sail North (403-873-8019) offers crewed charters on the Gandalf IV, a 42-foot sloop that takes up to five passengers (five-night cruises, $715 per person; seven nights, $1,000, including all meals, sailing instruction, and flight back to Yellowknife). If you'd prefer to head out on your own, charter a 26-foot cabin cruiser for a week ($1,180, not including fuel). Sail North will provision the boat for $25 per person per day, or you can shop at one of several supermarkets in Yellowknife. Another option is a seven-day cruise out of Yellowknife aboard the 20-passenger Norweta ($1,370-$1,525; 403-873-2489). Air Canada (800-776-3000) has frequent daily flights to Yellowknife via Edmonton from a number of U.S. cities; round-trip fares range from $412 (Los Angeles) to $723 (New York). Or you can drive there via the partially graveled McKenzie Highway from Alberta. For more information, call Northwest Territories Tourism, 800-661-0788.

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