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It changes you: Why the Northwest Territories keeps me coming back

A man and his son pose for a selfie after catching a fish in the NWT

It changes you: Why the Northwest Territories keeps us coming back

There’s a magic to this place.
It’s the way strangers become lifelong friends at light-speed after sharing intimate moments and exhilarating adventure in remote lands. It’s how the days stretch on for eternity under a sun that never dips below the horizon.
In the Northwest Territories, life does not take place at some future time. It happens right now, right in front of you. Here, you will find yourself trying things you’d never dare anywhere else. You will come to realize that the farther you go from home, the closer you get to who you are. You will discover that the Northwest Territories changed you.

Jamie Rousseau meets Buffalo Joe, and begins his flying passion.

For Francois Roussel, the adventure starts before even arriving in the Northwest Territories. At dawn, he and his son Jamie drive through the sprawling city of Ottawa to the airport. Soon, they’re saying goodbye to the urban landscape as they soar up into the clouds. A connection in Calgary takes them due north for Yellowknife, and below them a land of forests and rivers and lakes stretches out on the curved horizon, as most signs of human influence disappear.

When they land in Yellowknife, the people are noticeably more relaxed. It’s late June and the sun is high in the sky. A short tour through the laidback NWT capital brings them down to an Old Town float base. Nearby, families are putting their boats in the water and couples bask in the heat on a patio. Francois and Jamie jump into a de Havilland Beaver. It lifts off from the water, destined for Blachford Lake Lodge.

Now it’s but trees and rocks and water around them. When the bush plane’s floats kiss the namesake lake outside the wilderness lodge less than an hour later, Francois is greeted like an old friend. And that’s exactly what he is—the father and son have made the trip four times in the last six years.

It’s a trip Francois lives for. Six months out, he’s already getting antsy. “I have my fishing stuff all set up,” he says. “I have my clothing picked out.”
Francois is serious about fishing and despite the long travel day, he wants to get right out in the boat. He would never go to bed if he didn’t need sleep, as he tries to cram a year’s worth of fishing into seven days. It helps that the sun will barely leave the sky over the course of the next week.

Francois first visited the lodge as part of an RCMP security team that accompanied William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, up North in 2011. Although Blachford has world-class fishing at its doorstep, the lodge and spa isn’t typically frequented by guests who share Francois’s fervour. “I’m probably the most aggressive fisherman that they’ve ever seen there.” Really, what he likes most is being able to take a boat without a guide. “We’d always have these father and son talks,” he says. “If there’s a guide in the boat, it’s not the same thing, right?” Exploring this 17-kilometre-long lake gives them a sense of freedom. Alone on the lake, they feel like they’re looking at places people have never been before.

Over the years, he and Jamie have certainly found where the fish are. (Francois will not divulge his secrets.) And the fish keep getting bigger, culminating in a 48-pound lake trout they netted last June—a record for the lake. “On Great Slave it’s a common thing,” says Francois. “But for a lake like Blachford, catching that kind of fish, I’m sure that people that are experienced will say it’s very exceptional.”

Jamie sits in the cockpit on their way to Blachford Lake Lodge

The trips to the Northwest Territories are about more than just fishing, though. It’s getting up at 2 a.m. to look out the window to see the sun still in the sky. It’s the friendly people he meets who, after only knowing him five minutes, insist he come stay at their cabin instead of a Yellowknife hotel. It’s about how everyone has the time to stop and chat, to answer a question and take a genuine interest in you.

The Northwest Territories has had an outsized influence on his son’s life. His early, intimate exposure to bush flying—getting to be near the controls, sitting in the cockpit and watching the pilot at work—was formative in his decision to pursue a career in aviation. “That was the bug
for him,” says Francois. Over the years, Jamie has had the opportunity to meet Mikey McBryan and Buffalo Joe, who he first saw on the Ice Pilots NWT television show. And just this past June, Jamie sat up next to a young pilot in their small Beaver flight into the lodge. “I could hear them talking pilot school and techniques and stuff like that,” says Francois.

Jamie’s now attending university with the dream of becoming a pilot. All of this, Francois says, is what makes the biannual pilgrimage to the Northwest Territories so special. “I wish I could go every year, because I need that fix of friendship, of adventure, of having my son being with the plane,” says Francois. “It’s not just putting your rod in the water.” Who knows? Maybe one day Jamie will be the pilot flying dad up to fish.

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