You step onto the floatplane, strap into your seat and the engines fire up. You lift off the water and take one last look at civilization outside your window. The town of Fort Smith disappears and it’s the last time in two weeks you see anyone who’s not already on the plane with you.
For 12 days, you will paddle your canoe through transitional landscapes, where the boreal forest turns to tundra. You will navigate traditional Dene routes and drink from the very waters that carry you. You will pass muskoxen grazing just off riverbanks or, if you're lucky, wolves rearing pups around their dens. You will walk barefoot on white sand beaches near old-growth spruce. You will crest hills and feel as if you can see to the ends of the earth. This and more awaits on a life-affirming, 100-kilometre journey with Jackpine Paddle into Canada's newest national park, Thaidene Nëné - Chipewyan for "Land of our Ancestors".
It all begins when the plane lands near Sled Creek, almost two hours northeast by air from Fort Smith. Jackpine Paddle's expert guides, including company founder Dan Wong who has led the journey several times, will help organize the gear and canoes. After crossing a series of small lakes and a couple manageable rapids on Sled Creek, you arrive at Eileen Lake, a beautiful water body blessed with an abundance of beaches and deep bays. Here, you can hike the hilly terrain and soak up an endless horizon of Canadian Shield, tundra and water, unblemished by any traces of manmade structures.
This is, after all, the largest wilderness area left in North America. "The water in these lakes are as pure as any water on Earth," said Alex Hall, the pioneering Barrenlands paddle guide who was a mentor to Wong and made the trip for decades. "this hardly goes without saying since there's nothing within hundreds of miles to pollute it"
Your days will begin at 9 a.m. and end around 4 p.m., with an hour built in for lunch. That means you'll have time to go for a swim, or read a book on the beach, or capture everything that you've experienced in your journal. The overall 12-day itinerary was designed to be flexible for each and every trip, so the group can choose to explore different areas of interest anxiety-free. There's no lingering, nagging inner voice prodding you to keep moving. If you find a prime fishing spot - where the Northern Pike are feisty, the Lake Trout are hungry, or the Arctic Grayling are biting - then settle in for a day of world-class angling and an unforgettably succulent shore lunch. Examine thousand-year-old spearheads or stone knives left by Indigenous hunters who followed the caribou to the Barrenlands centuries before any Viking ship ever landed on this continent. Or take a 20-kilometre, round-trip detour to the northern arm of Eileen Lake, for unparalleled hiking and great wildlife viewing.
And there's plenty of wildlife. In fact, you are entering muskox country. Some years, groups have come across the giant, shaggy mammals in herds as large as 20. You will be crossing their paths during their breeding period, so you'll want to give the bulls some distance on land. However, you'll have no trouble spotting them on shore and getting a close-up photo from the water. You may even hear the muskoxen before you see them.
This land is also home to grizzlies, black bears, wolverine, moose and wolves - white in colour and easy to spy on the land that's beginning to explode in fall colours. With berries blooming, the tundra near the end of the trip is a wonder, with crimsons and oranges and mustard yellows creating a vibrant mosaic as far as the eye can see. Best of all? At the end of summer, there are few biting insects around.
You'll celebrate the end of each day with a communal meal around a fire. You will share stories about what you saw earlier, and you will share stories about yourself with people who are starting to feel like family.
And then this place surprises you with one last treat before bed. With darkness returning to night near the middle of August and early September, the ghostly form of the dancing Aurora becomes visible in the dark blue sky and then shines and shimmers brightly as the night goes black.
After a two-week-long commune with nature, the buzz of the floatplane will sound unnatural and foreign. You might not even recognize it at first. When you return to Fort Smith and civilization it will feel peculiar for a while. You'll find yourself longing for your next trip to idyllic Thaidene Nëné, your new personal paradise.