As a seasoned tour guide in the NWT, I often hear from our guests that the East Arm exceeds expectations. Not just for its breathtaking beauty, but for offering a true wilderness experience that can only be found in the North.
Simply referred to by locals as “the big lake,” Great Slave Lake extends into a bold eastern arm recognized the world over as a paddling and adventure destination that can deliver in a spectacular fashion.
But don’t just take my word for it. Come visit and take it all in for yourself.
Here you’ll find some of the most epic campsites you’ll ever experience. The East Arm is a fascinatingexhibition of ancient geology. Breathtaking cliffs built from rock as old as 2.7-billion years (the oldest in the world) tower over deep, cold waters. Bald eagles, falcons, terns and gulls soar over the rugged islands. This vast wilderness is home to black bears, moose, and a growing population of the shaggy, prehistoric-looking muskox.
You’ll want to bring a fishing rod, too, as the clear, blue waters are swarming with trophy-sized lake trout and the biggest Arctic grayling imaginable. Swimming is always a brief experience, as the extreme depths and short summer season keep the water extremely cold.
For adventure enthusiasts, there is much to be discovered. Rock climbers can scale the dramatic cliffs on the south shore of McLeod Bay, and other large islands offer unbridled potential for new routes and first ascents. Smooth granite slopes ramping across the 130 kilometre-long Pethei Peninsula are uniquely suited for mountain bikers or long-distance hikers in search of remote, wilderness routes. And, of course, there’s the paddling. Oh, what paddling!
McLeod Bay is over 100 kilometres in length alone. Its north shore is pocketed with beaches, river mouths, and small bays. At the far eastern end lies the sacred Charlton Bay area, home to the historic Fort Reliance and the start of the fabled Pike’s Portage.
For those with novice to intermediate skills, I recommend planning a trip to avoid exposed crossings and explore the towering cliffs on one of several large islands like Etthen, Blanchet, Red Cliff, or the Simpson Islands. A circumnavigation of one of these could easily fill a one-week trips. For those seeking to play it safe on sheltered waters, you could instead explore The Gap and Wildbread Bay — protected like a rocky amphitheatre by the steep hills above.
Whether you’re on a guided trip or exploring on your own, most paddlers start their trip in Yellowknife, accessible via major airlines to many southern hubs. From Yellowknife, you could paddle all the way to the East Arm, but it would take a week just to get there, one-way. With the lack of roads and vast distances, most opt to charter a boat or float plane. Fully guided trips can be easier for the novice adventurer as the operators will take care of the logistics of getting in and out of the East Arm’s remote paddling destinations.
But remember, the lake can be fierce; you need to respect it. You are far from help, with no cell service or VHF radio coverage. Any paddlers on the East Arm should have multi-day tripping experience in remote, wilderness areas.
Sudden winds can create dangerous conditions for all boaters, especially canoeists and kayakers. If in a canoe, a spray deck can be helpful to keep water out against large waves. You may want to consider a longer 17-foot or 18-foot canoe that will track straighter, have a flatwater hull design and offer enough freeboard for your payload.
The gigantic bays and exposed shorelines of the East Arm are best suited for kayaks. I recommend a proper “sit-in” sea kayak from 16 to 18 feet that has a cockpit that can be sealed with a spray-skirt. Kayakers should be versed in self-rescue and assisted-rescue techniques, or travel in a group with sufficient rescue skills.
But the greatest danger on the East Arm is the cold water. All paddlers should use a dry suit or a wetsuit. Above all, good judgement is key to a safe and successful trip. Paddlers should be able to anticipate local weather conditions and know when to get off the water (or stay on shore).
As for when you should go, you can take advantage of autumn Aurora season from early August to the end of September. The East Arm lies directly in the magnetic “Aurora Belt,” which means it’s one of the most reliable places on Earth to spot the northern lights. Personally, I enjoy paddling from early July to early August to soak in the peak of our short but spectacular summer season.
It would take several more pages to cover all the paddling possibilities. It’s best to take a trip and see for yourself what this area has to offer. Getting to a place this remote is costly, certainly, but ultimately worth it. With so much to explore, it’s possible to spend multiple summers in the East Arm and always discover somewhere new.
That may be the greatest reward of the East Arm: to go so far off the beaten track that there aren’t any tracks at all. To venture far beyond the ordinary where others can’t, or simply won’t dare to go.