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The 22-foot Harbercraft pulls away from a boat launch in Dettah, NWT, on a windless evening in July and glides toward the maze of outcrops, inlets, islands, and coves through which the ancient bank of the North Slave gives way to Great Slave Lake. The gigantic sky is the bluest version of itself, and the craft cuts across the soft water like a knife through warm butter. To the north, the water licks at the moss-dusted rock of the Canadian Shield. To the southeast, the lake unfurls—incomprehensibly vast and deep—toward a hazy horizon. If you squint your eyes, the seam between water and sky disappears. Nature doesn’t move over, bow down, or make space for you here—it swallows you up. And you’re only 10 minutes out from town.  

“It’s a huuuuge lake man,” says Jonas Sangris, your captain, the Virgil to your Dante, and a former chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Nearly all his life, Sangris has lived with the lake in his sightline. “When it gets rough you don’t go out there. But some people do.”

Born on these rocky shores, the third of seven children, Sangris tells you how three families built houses about six kilometres out from Dettah, a Yellowknives Dene community half an hour’s drive from Yellowknife. It was quiet then, he says. Peaceful. The families netted fish, set snares—“good life.” That was until residential school in Fort Smith. When Sangris returned for good after eight years, everything was different. His parents had moved to Dettah. There were roads and electricity. The Sangris family still went out on the lake, though. In the winter, he says, they’d look for “fish, caribou, stuff like that.” In the spring it was muskrat and beaver—“little animals.” People travelled by snowshoe, dog team, canoe, snowmachine. The elders told Sangris that on the water, “You’ll never starve. You don’t have to pay for nothing. You’re cold, you get wood. You’re thirsty, there’s a big lake. If you’re hungry, there’s all kinds of animals. 

“That’s the lifestyle they used to live, eh? Now, everything changes.” 

To the southerner and the settler, Great Slave Lake is giant yet unassuming, overshadowed by Canadian sisters Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Its greatness is also dwarfed by the vast natural landscape surrounding it. Over the decades and centuries, Great Slave Lake has been plundered for fish, polluted by mines, and had its inflow disrupted by southern damming for hydroelectric power. But, as Sangris will relate, Great Slave Lake is and always has been bountiful, nourishing, resilient.  

“Many moons ago,” Sangris’ father told him to build a cabin out on the lake so he wouldn’t have to haul gear back and forth from Dettah. So that’s what he did. Sangris put up a “little shack” on a pocket-sized island at Moose Bay, about halfway down the shore to the opening of the Hearne Channel on the lake’s East Arm. It’s where this Harbercraft is headed. 

“Moose Bay has a lot of fish all over, and also there’s moose all over, muskrat—see, there’s my little shack there,” says Sangris. “My little cabin.” 

It’s one of several scattered throughout these parts, nestled among jackpine, black spruce and willow, atop rocks as old as 2.7 billion years. You wouldn’t notice these cabins if you didn’t already know they were there. Sangris likes to bring his grandchildren out here. “So beautiful,” he says. “Quiet.”

Sangris, out on the water.
Jonas Sangris, out on the water. Photo by Sidney Cohen

About 13,000 years ago, a vast swath of the Northwest Territories caved under the weight of a glacier and filled with meltwater from the Laurentide Ice Sheet. A massive glacial lake, Lake McConnell, spread for over 1,000 kilometres across what is now Great Bear Lake, Great Slave Lake and Lake Athabasca. About 3,500 years later, Great Slave Lake pulled away from Lake McConnell. “The terrain uplifted,” reads a report by S.A. Wolfe and S.V. Kokelj on permafrost and environmental change in the Yellowknife area. The land continued its “post-glacial uplift” to where it is today, about 157 metres above sea level.

“The elders call this, ‘Big lake,’ Tinde’e,” says Sangris. “[People] call it Great Slave Lake now.” 

If the “slave” in Great Slave Lake gives you pause, it should. Its origins are imprecise and prickly. “Great Slave Lake is actually a very terrible name, unless you’re a proponent of slavery,” says Dëneze Nakehk’o, a Northwest Territories educator and founding member of Dene Nahjo. The name is said to be derived from the English translation of the Cree word for slave. When fur traders arrived in the area of what is now Slave Lake, Alberta, says Nakehk’o, they asked their Cree guides, “Who are these people?” to which the guides responded that these are people they sometimes take as slaves. The traders then ascribed the name “Slavey” to the Dene people of the region. According to archived documents from the Wek’éezhìi Renewable Resources Board, an American fur trader named Peter Pond, who visited the lake in the late 1770s or early 1780s, is believed to be the “first European” to call it Great Slave Lake. The Cree and the Dene have long since made peace, says Nakehk’o, but the name “Slave,” with its violent and colonial connotations, remains.

“[It’s] a horrible name for one of the most majestic and beautiful places on the planet,” says Nakehk’o. His father’s family are Dehcho Dene. They call the lake ‘Tucho,’ meaning “big water.” The Łutsël K’é Denesoline on the East Arm call it ‘Tu Nedhé.’ All better options than what’s inscribed on most maps. “Having the lake called Great Slave is a great disservice to the people and the history and the lake itself.” 

Close to the area of Belgium, Great Slave Lake is the second largest lake wholly within Canada’s borders, and the 10th largest lake in the world. It’s the middle child in a family of massive lakes (the biggest being Great Bear Lake and the smallest, though still quite large, being Lake Athabasca) that are part of the Mackenzie River Basin. The gigantic drainage basin covers about a fifth of Canada’s landmass. Within it, three “ecozones”—the Boreal Plains, Taiga Plains, and Taiga Shield—converge at Great Slave Lake; an enormous pool surrounded by smaller lakes, forests, peat bogs, fens, and marshes. “The lake has everything,” says Sangris, as flocks of birds soar and swoop overhead. “Everything you need is out here.”

This is fish water, as Sangris puts it. There used to be more commercial fishing in this area. Relics from that time poke through the lake’s surface like splinters. Sangris points to a sun-bleached, wind-beaten fishing vessel half-sunk off the marshy shore near his cabin. Commercial fishing came to Great Slave around 1947, when Edmonton company McInnis Products Corporation set up at Gros Cap—the point of the ‘V’ from which the lake’s North and East Arms reach outward. Fish were filleted or dressed and shipped up the Slave River, eventually reaching Waterways, Alberta (now Fort McMurray). Through the 1950s and ’60s, between 750,000 and 2 million kilograms of fish were harvested from Great Slave Lake each year. A mix of forces—changes to federal subsidies, the closure of receiving stations, aging boats, and market competition, among them—led to the industry’s decline here. In 2009-10, production bottomed out at 258,000 kilograms. “It used to be a really big industry on the lake. Now it’s a bit in trouble,” says Fran Hurcomb, a writer and photographer who used to race sled dogs and, for a decade, lived on a houseboat off Yellowknife’s shores. “It’s a hard way to make a living. I think there’s just so many, many easier ways to make a living now.” 

Later, Sangris will steer you by an old fish plant, paint peeling, partially submerged in this season’s unusually high waters. Right now, though, he pulls further from the craggy bank and into the ambling, liquid expanse. Sangris powers down his boat’s engine, stands up, walks to the back of the craft and grabs two fishing rods—one for himself and one for you. 

At its deepest point, on the East Arm, Great Slave Lake plummets 614 metres—deep enough to submerge the CN Tower. The depth gives you two things, says Dan Wong, a Yellowknifer and owner of wilderness adventure company, Jackpine Paddle. “It gives you clear water and it also gives you cold water, and in part, that’s why the trout are so accessible.” Cold water means fish swim near the surface. Before COVID-19 caused the territory to close its borders to tourists, NWT Tourism, the territory’s destination marketing organization, says around 5,000 sports fishers took to Great Slave Lake’s fish-rich waters each year. They angled for pike, Arctic grayling, and lake trout heavier than a human toddler. On Jackpine’s East Arm tours, guests feast on fried fish nearly every day, says Wong. “The fishing is kind of great everywhere here,” he says of the NWT, “but the East Arm is a different story.” 

Jackpine is based, at the moment, inside of the Sundog Adventures log cabin on the shores of Latham Island in Yellowknife. On this day, it’s a-hum with activity. Young, tanned guides are preparing to take a group of teenagers from the Northwest Territories’ Dehcho region and Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region on a 12-day, skills-building canoe trip starting at Tibbitt Lake. Away from the buzz in his office, Wong waxes effusive about the East Arm, with cliffs that rise up to 180 metres from the water’s surface. NWT Tourism says this stretch of lake is like a “mini archipelago.” It’s a wild place that not a lot of people outside the territory know about, Wong says. The only way to get there in summer is by boat or floatplane. “Everything is more raw, and has an air of being untouched, even though it’s far from that.” 

In 2019, Cheetah Resources Pty Ltd. agreed to invest $5 million in Avalon Advanced Materials Inc.’s Nechalacho rare earth elements property near the NWT community of Łutsël K’é. The project at Thor Lake, about five kilometres north of the East Arm’s Hearne Channel, includes plans to extract about 600,000 tonnes of rock this year “from a single open cut,” according to documents submitted to environmental regulatory authorities. 

Great Slave Lake’s mineral-rich shores have been explored, cored, blasted, and roasted. Con Mine, Pine Point, Giant Mine, and others have had their way with the rock at the lake’s precambrian edges, extracting lead, zinc, and gold. In its early years, the roaster at Giant Mine in Yellowknife coughed 7,400 kilograms of poisonous arsenic trioxide dust into the air each day, which settled on the surrounding land and water. From the late 1940s until sometime in the 1980s when a water treatment plant was built, untreated mine water was discharged directly into Baker Creek, which feeds into Great Slave Lake. “You could smell the mine,” Sangris recalls. “They used to say around a 20-mile radius, you don’t pick berries.”

When Royal Oak, the company that owned Giant Mine, went into receivership in 1999, the federal government took over responsibility for the massively contaminated site that was left behind. Even though Giant Mine is no longer pouring gold, mine water continues to be released into Baker Creek. “We discharge water yearly, usually from July to the beginning of September,” says Natalie Plato, deputy director of the Giant Mine Remediation Project. “So that is happening right now, and that will continue to happen indefinitely.” Plato’s team still uses that same water treatment plant from the ’80s. There are plans to build a new one, she says, which will bring discharged water within acceptable arsenic levels for drinking water. As for the time being, Plato stresses that the quality of the water in Great Slave Lake’s Back Bay is “good now,” and that “the remediation project will just, you know, improve things.” 

An aerial shot of Great Slave Lake. Photo by Pat Kane
An aerial shot of Great Slave Lake. Photo by Pat Kane

“It’s a huge lake and many people want to take chances,” says Sangris of Great Slave Lake’s dangers. “A lot of people took chances and they don’t survive on a big lake like that.” Sangris has fallen through the ice twice. One of those times, he and a friend were snowmobiling to Rocher River, a town at the pit of the East Arm, which no longer exists. It was spring. The men parked their machines on the hard ice and were towing a canoe to the open water near the shore when “whoof,” the ice gave way and Sangris plummeted through, neck-deep in the frigid waters. “Holy man, it was cold,” he says. Luckily, he was holding onto the canoe with one arm and his friend was able to drag him onto the ice. “I thought I was a goner,” says Sangris. “Bad feeling when your feet don’t touch the ground.” The pair made it to shore, where Sangris stripped down, wrapped himself in a blanket, and dried his clothes by a large campfire. “The elders used to say, you don’t breathe twice with water,” he says. “If you go under, you don’t breathe twice.” 

In May of last year, three snowmobilers on Great Slave Lake went missing. It’s believed their machines plunged through the ice en route to Łutsël K’é. Only 64-year-old Samuel Boucher’s body was recovered. His 23-year-old daughter, Cammy, and 28-year-old Jake Gully, were never found. It’s unclear how many lives have been lost in Great Slave Lake since people started counting that sort of thing. The NWT’s coroner tracks drownings per year, but not by body of water. In 2018, the most recent year for which the count is available, there were six. “Tinde’e took many lives,” says Sangris. 

The Big Lake is actually shrinking—by about half a metre every century for the last 8,000 years. Eight millenia ago, the area where Yellowknife exists today was mostly underwater. Prosperous Lake, just off the city’s Ingraham Trail, was then the northern reach of Yellowknife Bay. 

Over the last half century, the lake has changed in other ways. Hurcomb, the writer and photographer, remembers seeing lights twinkling across the water. “There used to be people living out on the lake, like with cabins, and trapping and fishing, and when you went out on the lake, you always would see some Ski-Doos or you’d see a dog team or you’d see cabins, with smoke coming out or whatever, and now there’s nothing,” she says. People moved to town. Their kids go to school, and they don’t really live out in the bush anymore. Not all year-round, anyway. “The lake is very quiet now compared to how it used to be,” says Hurcomb. 

For a lake supposedly teeming with fish, your line has yet to receive even the gentlest tug. Sangris is reassuring. “One time my wife and I went out on Friday night... fished for two days, she never caught nothing,” he says. One of his sons, though, put a piece of chewing gum on the hook. “Not even five minutes he caught a fish,” Sangris says, chuckling. “Another five [minutes], he caught another one.” Sangris takes a pop from the cooler and offers you a diet coke. OK, OK, har, har, har. So where’s the gum kept on this boat, anyway? 

Sangris seems to see every bird, boat, structure, and fish that rises up or dips below the invisible skim between water and air. No bald eagle, cabin, or loon evades his notice. He also sees the white people who boat and fish on these ancient depths. “That’s their hobby, that’s what they do,” says Sangris. “As long as we don’t get in each other’s way, we’re OK.” Fishing lines outstretched, the Harbercraft on a gentle roll through the lake’s glassy waters, Sangris tells you about his kids and grandkids. He tells you about his involvement in Akaitcho Dene First Nations’ 20-year struggle for a land claim and self-government agreement with the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories. (“Getting close,” he says.) Sangris tells you about how non-Indigenous people have to get hunting and fishing licences, while Indigenous people with traditional harvesting rights in the territory can hunt and catch freely. “That’s what [the non-Indigenous people] want,” he says. “They want everybody to be equal.” A larger cabin is visible on one rocky outcrop, and there’s a sailboat docked out front. Sangris says he hasn’t seen that house before. “I hope they got leases,” he says. If they don’t, he might go talk to his First Nation’s land department. They’ll check it out. Sangris says the First Nation wants to keep this little area of shoreline south of Dettah for its own citizens. How does he know the cabin doesn’t belong to Yellowknives Dene people? “They don’t have sailboats.”

No bites and it’s getting late, though you wouldn’t know it from the summer sun, still flooding the sky with daylight and breaking on the water into a million flecks of light. It’s time to reel in—you do so clumsily, Sangris, expertly—and begin the journey back to Dettah and to Yellowknife, back to the concrete and asphalt and plastic and steel of the way life is now. Coasting back to land, Great Slave Lake fans out port side into blue oblivion. Wisps of clouds like baby’s hair graze the sky. 

“Big lake out there, man,” says Sangris. “The lake is not to fool around with, man.” 

Standing on the shores of the Big Lake. Photo by Pat Kane.
Standing on the shores of the Big Lake. Photo by Pat Kane.