Two kingdoms of water. Liquid infinities. Quenching a primal thirst.
From them, everything flows: Food. Weather. Journeys. Stories.
Great Bear is the largest lake in Canada, and the eighth largest on Earth. It has a surface area of 31,153 square kilometres – bigger than Belgium. It contains enough water to fill more than one billion Olympic-sized swimming pools. And its shoreline stretches 2,719 kilometres. That’s the distance from Montreal to Miami, meaning there's plenty of pretty waterfront on which to pitch your tent.
The bottom of Great Bear is 1,463 feet down – deeper than Lake Superior. But it’s just a puddle compared to its abyssal brother, Great Slave. Not far offshore from the town of Łutselk’e, an underwater canyon in Great Slave’s Christie Bay plunges two-thirds of a kilometre below the surface. That’s deep enough to submerge the CN Tower. No one quite knows what carved the canyon (glacial action? a continental rift?), nor exactly how far down it goes. The official figure is 2,014 feet, but recent bathymetric studies suggest certain pockets descend many dozens of feet deeper.
Here be monsters. Great Slave is crawling with huge trout and pike, but if you want to be in the record books, push further north to Great Bear. That’s where, in 1991, Lloyd Bull reeled in the world’s biggest sport-caught laker: a 72-pound behemoth. Even larger Great Bear trout are out there. In 2009, a local subsistence fisherman netted a confirmed 84-pounder, and stories abound of fish as long as a man.
The Northwest Territories is the best place on Earth to watch the Northern Lights. And the best Northern Lights of all are viewed from out on Great Slave Lake. Sign up for an Aurora tour by boat in fall or by dogsled or snowmobile in winter. Your guides will take you onto the big lake, far from the bright glare of town, where you’ll have a front row seat at nature's own lightshow, shimmying from horizon to horizon.
Scenic waterside towns dot the shores of Great Slave. In Hay River, the North’s commercial fishing and barge fleets ply the sandy waterfront. In Lutselk’e, Chipewyan hunters, anglers and fishing guides draw sustenance from the deep. In Fort Resolution, historic buildings overlook the lake, harkening back to the days when the town was the North’s trading epicentre. In Yellowknife, modern skyscrapers loom above the waves. And up on Great Bear, there’s just one town – deeply traditional Délįne, where locals see it as their sacred duty to protect these pristine waters.
Meaning “Land of the Ancestors,” Thaidene Nëné is a park-in-waiting, slated for federal and territorial protection in the next few years. The park will guard the glorious East Arm of Great Slave Lake – 27,000 square kilometres of spectacular and pristine waterways, forests and Canadian Shield.
Great Slave and Great Bear are a paddling paradise. On Great Slave, the North Arm beckons with aquamarine waters and a million islands, while the East Arm is legendary among kayakers for its dramatic cliffs, big fish and beautiful bays. Paddlers are more rare on Great Bear, but remarkable journeys are available – for example, from Délįne to mountains of Saoyú-ʔehdacho National Historic Site.
The water ain’t warm, but the glittering beaches of Great Bear and Great Slave are still soothing to the soul. The easiest beach to access is the big one in front of Hay River. Indeed, the Hay River Territorial Park campground is right on the shore, offering endless hours of sandy fun – and maybe a brisk dip if you dare.
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. Up on Great Bear, caribou are equally common. Muskoxen, too, can sometimes be seen on the lakeshores, along with moose, black bears and grizzlies.
If you’re a sailor or pleasure boater, you’ll be in good company on Great Slave Lake. Sailboats ride the breezes of Yellowknife Bay nearly every evening of summer. Intrepid sailors and boaters often head farther afield: to the glorious cliff-flanked East Arm, eastward to the ivory sands of Whitebeach Point, or even out into the big blue “basin,” far beyond sight of shore. Boat rental opportunities abound.
The frozen surface of Great Bear Lake is the place where hockey was born. The earliest-ever reference to the game was made in the journals of Sir John Franklin, who wintered in Délįne in the mid-1820s. Writing home to Britain, Franklin noted that his men were playing “hockey on the ice” to keep their spirits up. Nowadays, winter visitors can recreate that original game of shinny: The lake is frozen at least eight months a year.
Would you believe that four festivals happen on Great Slave Lake? Not on the lakeshore – right on the surface of the lake itself. The SnowKing Winter Festival, the Long John Jamboree, the Dog Island Floating Film Festival and, at the mouth of the Hay River, the Polar Pond Hockey Tournament. Between them all, you’ll never want to return to dry land.