Slowing down while sailing on Great Slave Lake
July/August 2011 by J.S. Fullerton
One of the surprising characteristics of Yellowknife is just how fast-paced life is in a community of roughly 20,000 people. There are many more things to do than time to do them. Life sure is busy!
Sailing on Great Slave Lake offers a quiet counterpoint to the bustle of city life. The lake — especially its East Arm — is a beautiful, unspoiled sailing destination that takes years to fully explore.
You don’t have to go far before there’s no cell service and no Internet. If you go farther still, there’s no Coast Guard radio coverage either. For emergencies and weather forecasts, smart sailors keep a SAT phone on board.
This is part of the beauty of sailing “the big lake” (one of the world’s largest): you have to slow down. You’re disconnected from the high-speed, instant-response demands of text messages, cell phones and email. You pay attention to the world around you. And what a lovely world it is!
It is also a great opportunity to engage with kids on a different level. Once you strip away the electronics and Internet and packed activity schedule, you’re left with only each other for entertainment.
Our boat — a 35-foot Fantasia known as Sea Bear — is family-friendly. With its various amenities, we call it our “floating cottage.” We stock it with craft supplies and Archie comics and games and cards, as well as more food than we think we’ll need because there is only one place in the East Arm where you can buy provisions.
The small community of Lutsel K’e is a blessing for sailors. It can take five to seven days or more to get from Yellowknife to Lutsel K’e under sail. In this picturesque community of about 300, you can buy goods in the small store or arrange to have things like food or spare parts shipped from Yellowknife.
On one trip, we brought along my husband’s daughter, Abigale, and her friend, Danielle, both age 11. We had no idea what to expect from growing appetites on a sailboat for 17 days. Food was stuffed in every available nook and cranny. We had an overflowing box of craft supplies so the girls could make scrapbooks of their trip; it held photo paper, albums, decorations, glue and more, plus unrelated miscellany such as craft clay and drawing supplies. We had cameras, a laptop, and a portable printer. The selection of electronics was something my husband and I spent some time discussing before the trip as we tried to figure out the right balance: both girls had never been on an extended sailing trip and we weren’t sure how they’d adjust to the slower pace.
Each morning, we’d have breakfast — perhaps blueberry pancakes or fruit salad and cereal, at least until the fresh fruit ran out. We’d then clean up and carefully stow everything away – an absolute must on a sailboat.
After making the boat shipshape, we’d hoist the anchor and set off for our next destination. While under way, our crew would read, do crafts, work on scrapbooks, work on the boat (sanding and varnishing), fish, take pictures, etc. Naps were also a popular pastime, especially on days characterized by warm sun and gentle waves.
Sometimes we’d find adventure along the way, stopping at a beach or island or other place that caught our attention or that we’d heard had something interesting to offer. Other days we’d head for our evening anchorage, then go on-shore excursions. These trips were partly for exploring and partly for the dog, who chose from the beginning to never relieve herself on board Sea Bear.
The end of the day brought supper followed by evening activities. These often involved card games like Canasta, Cheat and Spoons (a violent sailboat game if ever one existed). Occasionally we included fellow sailors and had a party. Danielle celebrated her 12th birthday on board, complete with decorations, a birthday cake (made from a mix that day), games, company, and more.
On nights when all were weary, we’d watch a movie on the laptop instead (usually with fresh popcorn). Our days would end with another trip to shore with the dog, usually with a million-mosquito escort, then back to the boat at our dinghy’s top speed to leave the mosquitoes behind. We’d climb inside and stuff towels in any crevices that were known mosquito access points. The nights were the only time we were bothered by mosquitoes. It wasn’t every night, but they’re crafty devils and even with our best efforts, we were sometimes wakened by the persistent and perturbing whine of one that literally got through our net. Mosquito-zapping rackets are an amazing invention.
That trip was our longest trip with young people, but we have done a number of shorter trips with various combinations of Dwayne’s children — who are really young adults — and their friends. Sometimes we go out for a day, visit an island or inlet and are home that evening. Other trips, we go for several days to a place like Moose Bay or Drybones Bay and use that as a base point for hiking and exploring. The younger and more intrepid crew members even go swimming in Great Slave Lake’s frigid waters — much to the dog’s dismay, as she believes there is something fundamentally wrong with the kids jumping overboard. I can’t fault her instincts.
On our trips, we have seen a variety of plants, animals, and places. We’ve named many of the places too. The bay where we celebrated the twelfth anniversary of Danielle’s arrival on this earth became “Birthday Bay”; a largerthan- usual bluff we climbed in Wildbread Bay is now “Mount Danbie” to us — a hybrid of Danielle and Abbie’s names.
One of the best things about Great Slave Lake is that you can feel like explorers in a relatively uncharted world. While we were by no means the first to visit any place on Great Slave Lake, much of the lake is relatively undocumented. We had nautical charts and two cruising guides that have been compiled by sailors over the years, but the lake still holds many secrets and surprises.
One year we set out to reach Utsingi Point, but a strong and persistent east wind discouraged us from achieving this goal. We got as far east as Waterfall Bay on the south side of Blanchett Island, then gave up the fight and let the wind carry us west past the Caribou Islands. There were three sailboats travelling together — a Fraser 42, Sea Bear and a 24-foot Shark. The waves weren’t ferociously high. Neither were they insignificant — running two and a half to three feet. If we had been mosquito access points. The nights were the only time we were bothered by mosquitoes. It wasn’t every night, but they’re crafty devils and even with our best efforts, we were sometimes wakened by the persistent and perturbing whine of one that literally got through our net. Mosquito-zapping rackets are an amazing invention. That trip was our longest trip with young people, but we have done a number of shorter trips with various combinations of Dwayne’s children — who are really young adults — and their friends. Sometimes we go perpendicular to the waves, this would have caused the boat to rock forward and back — a state of affairs that usually isn’t too hard on the stomach. However, the waves were hitting us at an angle from behind while the wind shoved us enthusiastically along, causing an erratic pitch and roll that left one feeling decidedly queasy.
There were no children along that time, but our fifty-pound dog was on board and she didn’t care for Sea Bear’s unpredictable motion. We had her bed on the cockpit floor by the helm — the space is just the right size and it keeps her from being tossed about below deck. She has a lifejacket, but we knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to rescue her in those conditions if she fell overboard. Every time the boat had a particularly violent lurch, Jasmine would scramble to her feet. The poor creature was immediately told to lie down! If needed, one of us would push her back down on her bed to ensure her safety. This went on for hours until we finally rounded the point of Wilson Island, where the island itself provided shelter from the relentless wind and waves.
It was along the final upwind sail to our Wilson Island anchorage that the lake held a secret — and reinforced the need to share information among sailors. We knew there was a rock awash somewhere nearby. A rock awash is a rock that lies almost even with the surface of the water so waves wash over it. In calm water, it can be very difficult to spot. Fortunately, with any waves at all, the splash of the breaking waves can act as a beacon announcing its presence.
I went forward to provide a bow watch while Dwayne manned the helm. I knew roughly where the rock should be, but couldn’t see any sign of it. As a sailor, you don’t worry as much about the dangers you can see as the ones you can’t — the ones that are lurking somewhere below the surface, sometimes unknown and unsuspected.
As we neared the mouth of the small bay, I finally saw it — much farther out than I expected and well clear of our path. I looked behind at our fellow sailors and saw that the smallest of our fleet, The Grail, was on a line that could put her in danger. We radioed her captain, who scanned the horizon until he confirmed the rock’s location, and the rest of the trip was without incident. This type of teamwork between boats — even those not travelling together — has helped avoid many issues, but most frequent sailors on the lake have had at least one unwelcome encounter with a hidden rock or reef.
Most of my sailing experiences have been in the North. I enjoy sailing elsewhere too, but I love the feel of adventure here. I love the rocky shores. I love watching for — and seeing — moose and bears as we cruise along and I love the small, wild orchids that surprise me with their beauty and delicacy in this rugged land. I love being miles and miles from civilization and going days without seeing anyone but my travel companions. I love feeling like I’m at the end of the earth. I love slowing down.
How lucky we are here on Great Slave Lake!