A Weekend to Remember, Part II

June 30, 2005
Filed under Travel

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The morning drive from Fort Smith to the floatplane base on the outskirts of Northwest Territories’ Wood Buffalo National Park was not a long one — but it seemed to take forever. I had passed the base the day before on my return from Pine Lake, where I had explored its pristine waters by sea kayak. It had been a fun Saturday, one filled with natural beauty, good company and a little exercise. What it lacked, however, was the adventure I had expected to find when I signed on to a Northwest Territories trip. It is a land of vast open spaces, very few people and far fewer roads. Intrepid long-ago adventurers had explored this territory by canoes and snowshoes, utilizing exertion and nerve.

Yet, unlike so much of the mapped and navigated, the dissected and despoiled, the land this far north still serves up plenty of adventures for those willing to pursue them. Which is why my Saturday night had been practically sleepless and my Sunday-morning drive seemed endless — adventure would soon be mine. Shiny floatplanes sat tied to the Reliance Airways dock, their pontoons hinting at distant landings. The planes looked very small compared to those most of us fly on commercially, and I realized that the day’s trip was definitely not for everyone. Pilot Tom Greenwood extended his hand when I entered the building. He is an outdoors professional who acts as pilot and guide, when the occasion demands, and his confidence and experience come in handy — particularly when clients may lack both.

I glanced around the office at the numerous and varied pelts lying on couches and hanging on hooks, then thumbed through the photo albums that convey how extensive Reliance Airways’ operation is. Travelers can sign on for simple, inexpensive sightseeing tours of Wood Buffalo National Park, of the small town of Fort Smith and of the impressive rapids of the Slave River. Visitors can also sample any of numerous hunting, fishing or canoeing trips, creating custom itineraries that allow them to target whichever waters, species and vistas interest them. If clients want a guide to accompany them, great; if they want to be checked on occasionally, fine; if they want to be left alone, even better.

Tom informed me that we’d be flying south to a lake in Alberta called South Leland, then he sold me an Alberta fishing license. As we waited for a group of fishermen who had traveled with Reliance the year before and would extend the trip this year, I chatted with Olaf Obsommer, a German documentary filmmaker making a movie about kayaking, including the huge world-famous rapids of the Slave River. When the group arrived, we loaded their gear onto the Cessna. Tom would drop the gear and anglers at a remote camp on North Leland, then fly Olaf and me to South Leland. To climb aboard the gear-laden plane, we had to walk across a plank set between the pontoons, steady ourselves by grabbing the stationary prop, then wriggle into our seats.

After we’d fastened our seat belts and slipped on our headphones — which sported small mics so we could communicate over the engine noise — Tom fired the beauty up and began to fiddle with dials, look at gauges and file his flight plan with Fort Smith. As we taxied across the lily-pad-choked pond, I wanted to seem like an outdoors professional, a guy who took such adventures in stride. Instead, I smiled like a blithering idiot as the plane skimmed across the water, gathered speed and lifted off. Within minutes, all signs of human habitation disappeared. The overcast gray sky didn’t allow for
spectacular photos of the greenery interspersed with connected bodies of dark-blue water. But what cameras couldn’t appreciate, we certainly did.

I scanned the edge of a lake below and saw a giant bull moose standing belly-deep in the water. He turned his head to watch as we flew fly by. Tom touched down in the wind-chopped waters of North Leland, then floated to the small pier. A family that was staying in the rustic cabins hurried to meet us, and the two young boys gleefully held up the five- and seven-pound lake trout they’d caught. After the gear and anglers had been off-loaded, the pontoons slap, slap, slapped against the lake’s waves as we took off. Within a few minutes, Tom set us down on South Leland. A small pier, a simple camp and a few aluminum boats were the only signs that humans had ever been anywhere near the large, beautiful lake.

After Tom had set Olaf and me up with fishing gear, he asked if I knew how to run an outboard engine. I said yes, so he headed toward the plane and said he’d be back later. As the plane disappeared, I looked at Olaf and wondered if he felt any trepidation. We were about 30 miles from the nearest road. No boats were on the lake, and no people were nearby or expected. Our cell phones did not work there. We had only a handful of snacks for sustenance, and our windbreakers for warmth. If Tom experienced trouble with the plane and didn’t make it back, we were on our own.

Of course, I didn’t mention a word of this. Instead, I fired up the engine and guided the boat across all that blue. The only sounds were the ripples of the water entering the lake. The experience of being so isolated — so out of contact with the outside world and our everyday pace — was both peaceful and exciting. We lorded around the placid water as if we
owned it. In effect, of course, we did. Eventually, we owned a few fish, too, landing some pike and walleye with plenty of fight in ‘em. I had found my adventure — and lived to write about it.

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