Solitary Summer

Canoeing on Alberta's Lake Athabasca
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In Fort Chipewyan—Alberta's oldest community, on the northwest shore of Lake Athabasca—there is a delightful museum chock-full of references to Canada's fur trading history: York boats and buffalo coats, muzzle loaders and beaver pelts. It's also got a curious new addition: a Plexiglass case protects the hard diamond-shape shell of a Ridley's Pacific turtle, found in the lake in 1995. A note on a cardboard suggestion box asks visitors to postulate their own theories about how this stranger wound up here, thousands of miles from its ocean home.

In two summers on the lake I haven't seen a single sea turtle, but I have seen some wondrous things. Up here, sky-spanning northern lights dance all night as early as July, and I lie on my back to take in the whole spectacle. One morning I wake up to scrabbling noises and grunts and, worried about bears, I cautiously peer outside: To my delight, a family of pine martens is having a glorious time, sledding otter-style down a tarpaulin-covered mound of gear. On a memorable July day I watch an osprey, a fish clutched in its talons, with an eagle hot on his heels. The osprey flies low overhead, and I can see its eyes as it risks a quick glance back to check on its pursuer while its mate wheels nearby, screaming. The osprey is in no danger, of course, easily outstripping the eagle. On other occasions I watch groups of terns harassing much larger bald eagles, and winning. And, each morning, almost without fail, there is a glorious sunrise.

In the course of an entire summer I see few strangers—there is a sense of having this beautiful place almost to myself.

If it sounds wild and lonely, it is. For two hundred years this area was the heart of the western fur trade; later it was mined for gold and uranium and other precious minerals. When the traders arrived the Dene were the only people here, and now that it's all but over that's still pretty much the case. But now and then the bright sleek hull of a canoe can be seen slicing through the dark waves.

Some canoeists come for a couple of weeks to "get away from it all." Some take the more challenging routes, to test themselves in the back of beyond, renting their gear and getting picked up by an outfitter or the local airline. The more intrepid buy their canoes and take many weeks—if not months—journeying as far as Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, or even Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea. Many are German or Swiss, tracing the old fur trading routes from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The lake covers 3,064 square miles (7,936 square kilometers), straddling Alberta and Saskatchewan just shy of the Northwest Territories border. At the west end of the lake is one of the largest inland deltas in the world, fed by the Peace and Athabasca Rivers; the Athabasca starts thousands of miles away in the Rockies, and it's where the truly adventurous canoeists—with plenty of time on their hands—start their journey to the lake.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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