Alone Among the Dunes

The Canadian Sahara can be reached by floatplane, but it's way more fun getting there by boat

Saskatchewan's Fond du Lac River     Photo: Robin Karpan

Access & Resources: Lake Athabasca

To reach the park by canoe, paddle one of two major rivers that flow into Lake Athabasca: the William or the MacFarlane, or charter a floatplane. But be sure to have a contingency plan worked out with your pilot in case of bad weather. Churchill Canoe River Outfitters can arrange canoes, guides, and other services (877-511-2726; www.churchillrivercanoe.com). For more park information, call 306-439-2062; www.serm.gov.sk.ca/sask parks/IE.

THE SECOND TIME I RUN into Jean Graham, she still thinks I'm crazy. After five hours in a van dodging semi trucks freshly loaded with radioactive yellowcake from the uranium mine at the end of northern Saskatchewan's Highway 905, I am once again at her dilapidated oasis of gas and essentials where river meets road. The last time I was here, three years ago, I had arrived by canoe. Five college-bound teenagers and I had just muscled 50 miles up the Johnson River, and Jean, the 53-year-old owner of the Johnson River Lodge, was amazed—she had never, ever heard of anyone ascending the waterfall-riddled Johnson. I explained we had 300 more miles to paddle, and that a ride 20 miles north to the Wollaston Lake bridge would help tremendously. She was shocked, but handed me the keys to her pickup truck, telling me to just leave it at the river; construction workers would drive it back. This is northern Canada: Dishonest people neither live nor travel here.

The second time around, she's less surprised. Our shuttle driver needs gas. "You're doing what?" Jean asks as we fuel up and John Stoddard, my paddling partner, wanders about the ramshackle compound of cabins, old cars, and odd hunks of metal. "We're headed to Lake Athabasca..." I begin. "By canoe? This time of year?" she interrupts, rolling her eyes. "You really are nuts."

It's early September and the leaves have already turned orange, but we're planning to canoe nearly 330 miles in less than a month. We'll start at Hidden Bay, paddle across Wollaston Lake, run the Class I-III rapids of the 170-mile Fond du Lac River, and then head west into Lake Athabasca. There, stretching 60 miles along the southern shore, lies our goal: the surreal desertscape of Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park, one of the most northerly sets of major dunes in the world. No roads lead to them, and the handful of park visitors reach them by chartering a floatplane. I've been paddling canoes with John, a full-time NOLS instructor and part-time carpenter, since we were kids growing up in Wisconsin; between us we've logged more than 250 days on remote Canadian waters. The route is straightforward, and with 150 pounds of food, seven pounds of French-press coffee, a slew of books, and several bottles of scotch, we are well provisioned.

We don't expect to start drinking and reading so early on, but the morning of day two, four-foot waves on 100-mile-long Wollaston Lake force us to crash-land on a tiny speck of reindeer moss and granite. Twenty-four hours later, the weather breaks, and we safely reach the headwaters of the Fond du Lac River. Flowing in and out of shallow lakes, the river follows a fault line between hard granite and soft sandstone formations through roadless, boreal-forested crown land.

Only a handful of people have ever paddled this river. Revered canoeing author Sig Olsen wrote of his 1963 trip, "If this place, I thought, should ever become a national park, the scene might become world famous." Fortunately, it hasn't. Except for evidence of the Chipewyan and other tribes who have lived here for centuries—a few well-used campsites and the odd trapper's cabin—the river is almost exactly as it was in 1796 when Canadian explorer David Thompson and two Déné guides ran it for the first time. They almost perished lining up what is now called Thompson Rapids.

Our experience at Thompson is not so dramatic. We portage the first four-foot drop, then decide to take our chances with the rest of the Class III rapids. Despite my frantic draws, we plow into a series of standing waves that knock my paddle out of my hands. I manage to recover it, and just downstream we reach Manitou Falls, where we sign the unofficial registry—a notebook in a rusted-out coffee can lodged in a rock cairn with a handful of entries dating back to the 1970s.

We paddle on. Days blend together and we settle into familiar patterns. Then, as is the case with many expeditions, variables beyond our control take over. Northwesterly winds and an annoying mishap (I fall and fracture a tooth while scouting a rapid) delay us. To ensure our safe and timely arrival at the dunes, we leapfrog a short section of Lake Athabasca by floatplane, which we find at Stony Rapids, a Fond du Lac settlement and one of the only towns for hundreds of miles.

By any measure, Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park is a strange place. Imagine a small Sahara Desert on a desolate Caribbean coastline. Now remove the palm trees and add a conifer-forested, subarctic environment inhabited by moose, bears, and wolves. Finally, plop it all down on the shore of a massive lake. Local legend has it that a presumed-dead beaver, tossed there by a giant, formed the dunes by kicking up sand. In reality, the 8,000-year-old dunes are the result of retreating glaciers, northerly winds, wave action, and forest fires. They ripple snakelike across the landscape, towering hundreds of feet above the William River, one of two major waterways that flow into Lake Athabasca.

We begin battling with the lake on the western edge of the park. To reach our floatplane pickup on the MacFarlane River in 12 days, we will have to paddle 60 miles along the southern shoreline, camping on the beach as we go. Paddling on Lake Athabasca is a bumpy, touch-and-go affair. Its massive size (3,120 square miles—roughly as large as Rhode Island and Delaware combined) and lack of sheltered bays or islands allow Arctic-born storms to pummel the shallow, exposed southern shore.

Our drill is to wake early, check the weather, and decide if we should carve through the surf and get soaked or remain on the beach and stay dry. Often the decision is easy and we lie low, exploring the dunes by foot. Because the park is only ten years old and hard to reach, traces of humans are rare. Broad expanses of desert pavement, a delicate carpet of pebbles on which a footprint will remain for decades, often detour us.

As we poke our way down the coast, winter begins to arrive and snow flurries become more frequent. We jury-rig our tarp and sail for an afternoon, celebrating John's 28th birthday with the last of the scotch and a perfectly baked devil's food cake. We arrive at our pickup a few days early with barely enough food. But we don't want to leave. The simplicity of life on the trail has finally overtaken us and we are just learning how to enjoy the big lake. Midafternoon on our last day, a pack of wolves rambles by only a hundred yards away. They howl, then pause for a long look at us before disappearing. We understand. We are in their backyard, and it is time to move on.

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