It’s more than just a lake. For eons, Great Slave has been at the heart of history, culture and recreation in the Northwest Territories. Here are just some of the reasons why Great Slave Lake is so great.
This freshwater lake, located in the southern half of the Northwest Territories, is the 11th largest in the world and, after Great Bear (also in the NWT), the biggest entirely within Canada. It measures in at 28,568 square kilometres, roughly the same size as Belgium. Great Slave is also North America’s deepest lake, reaching a maximum depth of more than 615 metres – deep enough to drown the CN Tower.
Great Slave’s seemingly bottomless depths are swarming with Northern pike, Arctic grayling and trophy-sized trout, luring anglers from around the world. Every year some 5,000 trophy fishers come North, many bound for the Great Slave’s North Arm and East Arm. Because the lake is clean and cold, fish keep near the surface in summer – and the 24-hour daylight means an angler can stay as late as they like. Plus the lake is massive, meaning they can go for days or weeks without seeing another person.
Today, the Great Slave Lake shoreline is home to more than half the Northwest Territories’ population, living in five communities. These including the capital city, Yellowknife; the commercial fishing and transport centre, Hay River; the placid and historic Métis town of Fort Resolution; traditional Łutsel K’e on the scenic East Arm; and fast-growing Behchokǫ̀ on the North Arm.
Yellowknife Bay shelters a fleet of more than two-dozen houseboats, all brightly painted and lovingly adorned. Residents run their floating homes on some combination of solar power, batteries and generators, and haul out all their waste. This pretty, nautical neighbourhood even hosts its own version of a drive-in film festival, albeit with canoes and kayaks.
The fabled East Arm is perhaps the most popular region of Great Slake Lake, and for good reason. It features abundant islands, narrow channels with tall, stark red cliffs, and world-class fishing. While lesser-known than its eastern brother, the North Arm features sandy beaches, a stunning variety of birds, and tons of pike.
For decades, hundreds of people have departed on an annual pilgrimage from Lustsel K’e and other Northern communities to historic Fort Reliance to see the “old lady of the falls,” or Ts’akui Theda. Located near the mouth of the Lockhart River, the figure of a seated woman at the top of the waterfall signifies a protective, motherly force in Dene lore.
When the waters are calm, Great Slave is a perfect kayaking, canoeing and even paddleboarding spot. The East Arm features countless islands, towering cliffs and deep, clear waters. The lake also provides a picturesque vantage point to photograph communities like Yellowknife and Fort Resolution.
Great Slave Lake is a pit stop and breeding ground for countless shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl. Varying water depths, climate, ecology and plant life in and around the lake attract a diverse range of birds, such as bald eagles, gulls, arctic terns, ducks, tundra swans, geese and others. The numerous channels and bays of the West Mirage Islands, just outside Yellowknife Bay, are important habitat for breeding birds, while the North Arm’s abundant marshes and small islands each spring attract more than 100,000 northbound migrating waterbirds. The largest gull colony on the lake is near the Slave River Delta, on Egg Island. The East Arm, with its craggy cliffs and rocky islands, supports bald eagles, terns and gulls.
Prospector Johnny Baker discovered shimmering gold around the lake’s north shore in the mid-1930s. Baker stumbled on a visibly gold-packed vein on Yellowknife Bay – the discovery that spawned the Yellowknife gold rush. Mines started popping up, and a city was quickly born. Today, remnants of the area’s mining history are still apparent around Yellowknife.
For the past few decades the federal government considered Great Slave’s East Arm as the site of a new national park. In 1970, Parks Canada “withdrew” 7,000 square kilometres of crown land on the arm to protect it from industrial development. In October 2002, Parks put the East Arm on a list of 10 new national parks it vowed to create over the next several years. Thaidene Nene officially became a park in August, 2019.
While the sailing season may be shorter than on lakes to the south of the NWT, long days keep boats out on the water at almost all hours. The Yellowknife Sailing Club hosts races and expeditions throughout the summer, and it’s not hard to find a boat to crew on.
Big beasts abound here. The hardy Bathurst caribou herd winters north, east and sometimes south of Great Slave Lake, before departing for the Barrenlands in spring. And along the lake’s western shores, the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary protects the world’s largest wood bison herd. Recently there have been sightings of muskox - be sure to keep a lookout for this shaggy beast.
Before European explorers “discovered” the big lake, two Indigenous individuals named Matonabbee and Idotlyazee drew the first known map of Great Slave, without the aid of any instruments. Their 1767 drawing showed a reasonably accurate outline of the lake as well as its tributaries. History names Hudson’s Bay Company trader Samuel Hearne as the first European to visit the lake, in 1771 – with considerable help from Matonabbee, who was Hearne's guide and friend. After Hearne, other Europeans followed, including Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie, who opened a trading post at Old Fort Providence, and John Franklin, who used the Providence post as his base during an expedition to the Arctic coast.
Some of the oldest rocks in the world have been found in the Northwest Territories. Great Slave Lake’s north shore is home to rocks as old as 2.7-billion years. The East Arm contains rocks that are approximately 2 billion years old. The southern shore’s rocks are much younger, at about 390-million years old.
In the summer Great Slave Lake is a hive of aircraft activity, with planes landing and taking off regularly. And in winter when the ice is thick enough, skis replace pontoons and a makeshift runway is carved into the snow. Residents living near the lakeshore quickly get used to the near-constant drone of planes zipping back and forth.
Great Slave is a vast reservoir that feeds a complex network of rivers and streams, including Canada’s longest river: the Mackenzie. It receives about 77 percent of its inflow from the 434-kilometre long Slave River. Sitting at the western edge of the Canadian Shield, Great Slave spans a transition zone where the forested boreal shield to the east meets the sparse taiga biome of the Mackenzie Valley. The northeastern shoreline around McLeod Bay and Christie Bay is rocky, while the south and west shores are full of bays and marshes, interspersed with wooded islands. The North Arm is scored with numerous marshes and bays, as well as some wooded islands. The East Arm is like a mini-archipelago, with hundreds of rocky outcrops and a shore lined with towering, copper cliffs.