I've done my fair share of fishing over the past 50 years. Some might even say more than my fair share. Travelling in search of fish has taken me to some of the most "exotic" places throughout North America and beyond, but none perhaps more "exotic" than Great Bear Lake.
So what and where is Great Bear Lake or Sahtu?
Although it's North America's fourth largest fresh water lake, and the eighth largest in the world, if you ask people about Great Bear, more often than not you will get a blank stare. I know of some amateur geographers who have placed it in Texas, Prince Edward Island and many points in between.
Great Bear Lake is located in our Northwest Territories, and is intersected by the Arctic Circle at its northern extreme. But for the tiny village of Deline, it is virtually uninhabited. Summers while intense, are very short in this land of the midnight sun, and therefore the lake is ice free for little more than six to eight weeks, although it is rarely completely ice free. The water - all 12,000 square miles of it - is clear, pure and sweet to the taste.
Wildlife such as Musk-oxen, Caribou, Barren Ground Grizzly Bears, Bald and Golden Eagles, Gyrfalcons and water birds too numerous to mention abound throughout the area.
It is also the greatest Lake Trout and Arctic Grayling fishery on earth - bar none.
Not a great deal has been written about the lake and surrounding area. Notations in the journals of various explorers and adventurers such as Sir John Franklin, George Back, John Hornby, George Douglas and Charles Camsell dating from the early to mid 1800s, represent the bulk of the written record. Their journals focused primarily on their scientific observations and the hardships they personally encountered, rarely did they comment on the land or its people. Most of them were just passing through on their way to somewhere else.
That said, the Sahtu Dene, the people of Great Bear Lake, have wandered over this vast expanse since the beginning of time as perhaps we would understand it, and therefore have a rich history, much of it handed down over the centuries, through stories told by tribe elders to each successive generation.
When I first started to write this story, my intention was to give the reader an overview of my various fishing experiences on Great Bear Lake, but once I started to write, I found myself going in a very different direction.
Using my thirty plus trips to Great Bear as a lens, it has given me the opportunity to look back on missed opportunities, and to see and understand the importance of not hurrying through life's experiences. It has also given me a much better understanding of the connection, and passion that we as Canadians have for the land, our lakes and our rivers.
The Sahtu Dene believe that if you are not focused, don't take note of your surroundings and are not willing to learn, or take an interest in learning you make mistakes - miss things - it's like breaking twigs and scaring the game away.
The night before embarking on my first trip, I was reminded of what it felt like to be a five year old on Christmas Eve and just as it was back then, sleep was impossible. Monster trout, twenty-four hours of daylight, who needed to eat or sleep if I could fish 24/7.
When the time came to leave, given the week I had just put him through, my guide made a point of personally ensuring I didn't miss the southbound plane. Unfortunately when reflecting back on the experience, it was all something of a blur.
I returned to Great Bear year after year for one purpose only - to catch more and bigger fish. My pictures and videos captured little more than what was on the end of my rod, or resting in the net.
Together with Great Bear Lake and its watershed, I have dropped a line in the Pacific Ocean and Aegean Sea, and fished throughout Ontario, Nunavut and Alaska. While I literally caught thousands of fish, including some world records, during those trips, as it was on Great Bear, all that really mattered, was building my angling resume.
If you listen closely you can hear the twigs breaking.
I believe that it was during the fifth trip, that my perspective and focus slowly began to change. The stories and images I recorded concentrated more on the long boat rides when travelling to new places, the great shore lunches, the people I met and the unique Arctic landscape and wildlife.
Why the change?
To this day I'm not entirely sure. What I do know is that when I began to broaden my focus, the trip took on an entirely new dimension, and there were fewer memory gaps once I had time to reflect.
Reminiscences about the Barren Ground Grizzly that tried to push her nose into my tent, being charged by a large bull Musk Ox, or watching in stunned silence as a cow Moose protected her calf by fending off repeated attacks from an Arctic Wolf, became just as popular, if not more so, than my endless "fish" stories.
I began to study the topographic maps I had amassed over the years with a renewed focus on landmarks and place names, with the result that those maps were now taking me on a journey I never would have imagined.
This area is very rich in native history and culture, which led me to engage in some comprehensive research regarding the historical, cultural and religious significance of Great Bear Lake and the surrounding lands, as it relates to the Sahtu Dene. As a result, places like Edacho - the Scented Grass Hills and Sahyoue - Grizzly Bear Mountain were no longer just names on a map. I have since stood in the shadow of the Scented Grass Hills, and the power and serenity of the place was overwhelming.
I came across a book in the late 1980's written by Fredrick Watt entitled Great Bear - a Journey Remembered. This book outlines his experiences on Great Bear as a prospector's assistant during the Great Depression. Using the book as my guide, I was able to find virtually all the places he visited, walk the same ground and see much of what he saw. I now had something specific to relate to - a touchstone or sorts.
Each successive journey from that point on became more about a sense of place and belonging. I was no longer just another person passing through on my way to somewhere else, and more importantly; was breaking fewer twigs.
There is usually some ice on Great Bear throughout the year. It can be Safire blue or emerald green in colour, and sound very much like thousands of wind chimes playing in unison when the wind gently stirs the flows. In past years the ice was nothing more than an inconvenience, and something to be avoided. I now take advantage of every opportunity to fish the edges of the flows - looking and listening.
While continuing to enjoy the extraordinary fishing the lake has to offer, the opportunity to walk the shoreline looking for wildlife and markers left by past travellers or watching, and in some instances, being caught out in, the magnificent storms that hit the lake from time to time have all become experiences to be savoured - and remembered.
Great Bear Lake and the land, lakes and rivers that surround it are national treasures - a land frozen in time that has provided me with a unique opportunity to see and experience the world as it was, many thousands of years ago.
Whether you are in the vast expanse of the Arctic, or on a lake or river very close to home, try not to spend all of your time hurrying from one place to the next. Slow down, reflect and take note of your surroundings.
I can assure you that you will see and remember so much more, be richer for the experience, and for what it's worth, no longer hear the sound of breaking twigs.
I will leave you with a comment from a Dog-Rib Indian that was made to Father John Paul Beaulieu in 1864 on the subject of "white man's" heaven. Unlike anything I have ever read, he articulates the message that I have being trying to convey much better than I could ever hope to.
"Tell me father is it like the land of the little trees when the ice has left the lakes?
Are the great musk oxen there?
Are the hills covered with flowers?
There will I see caribou everywhere I look?
Are the lakes blue with the sky of summer?
Is every net full of great, fat whitefish?
Is there room for me in this land, like our land, the Barrens?
Can I camp anywhere and not find that someone else has camped?
Can I feel the wind and be like the wind?
Father if your heaven is not all of these, leave me alone in my land, the land of the little sticks."
I doubt that this gentleman was in the habit of breaking very many twigs.