Facing The Fire
The 16-foot aluminum Lund skips across the water towards the south shore of Reid Lake. The sun looks like it’s about to set, yet it doesn’t ever really get dark this time of year. The lake is surrounded by the boreal forest and Canadian Shield that make up the landscape just north of Great Slave Lake. To get to my family’s cabin, the boat must navigate two narrows, pass two islands and one set of shallows.
We made this trip almost every Friday of every summer when I was a child. I used to dread the 15-minute boat ride, which came right after an hour-long drive down the Ingraham Trail, connecting Yellowknife to a number of territorial campgrounds. I would argue with my parents as they loaded the cooler full of hot dogs and burgers—and the signature cabin dinner of steak, potatoes and corn—into our Chevy Silverado. I wanted to stay in town and hang out with my friends.
But as I got older, I began to realize how lucky I was to be part of a family that owned a cabin. After finishing high school, I would be disappointed when I wasn’t able to make it out to the lake for the weekend. And as I prepared to leave home for the first time, I understood that these visits would become less frequent.
My father bought the cabin in 1980, many years before I was born. As our family grew in size, so did our second home. My dad built a back deck and added a large bedroom to accommodate friends, girlfriends and visiting relatives whenever a weekend getaway was needed. Over the years, we accumulated toys—canoes, kayaks, jetskis—that let us access new parts of the lake and explore the innumerable trails around it.
Then the summer of smoke happened. Hundreds of forest fires burned across three million hectares of land in the Northwest Territories in 2014. The fires spared Reid Lake, but its campground and boat launch—the access point for cabin owners—was used as a base camp for fire crews. The lake was closed to the public. It was the first summer in years that I didn’t visit the cabin.
The next two fire seasons weren’t as bad in the NWT, but fires did encroach on Reid Lake in early July 2016, threatening properties there and in the surrounding area. The fire the government called ZF-028 would ravage more than 7,000 hectares, including the northern shores of Reid Lake. We were feeling the heat.
As the fire approached the cabin, my father was given a day’s notice to make a trip out to gather all the valuable possessions around the property. Crews were fighting the fire as best they could, but the government could not guarantee they would be able to save the property. We already had most of our valuables in town with us but just to make sure, he got in the truck and drove 60 kilometres down the Ingraham Trail, hopped in the 16-foot Lund and made his way through the two narrows, past the two islands and one set of shallows to board up the windows and prepare for the worst.
The fire came within 600 metres of the cabin. Our secret fishing spot, where I’ve only been skunked once in 23 years, can now only be reached by trudging through a hundred feet of burn, and our favourite hiking trails are covered in black deadfall and nearly impossible to get through. A dollar-figure on the damage has still not been calculated, but the official report says ZF-028 claimed two properties. Fortunately for us, our family cabin wasn’t one of them.
I’ve only been back to Reid Lake once since. I drove out for the weekend with my father and my dog. We didn’t say much on the way there. We were just thankful we could still make the trip.