Three of us gobbled up the miles of dirt road in an aging blue van, slowing when we approached the grazing bison or saw a shadow in the trees that might become one. Our driver, Chris Esser, knows our route very well, and therefore knows that the best way to deal with the shaggy ruminants inhabiting Northwest Territories’ Wood Buffalo National Park is to give them space, let them glance at your vehicle and, with luck, find it uninteresting. Various NWT residents had regaled me with tales of charging bison, enraged 1,500-pound animals that took offense at the size, make or color of some unlucky driver’s vehicle and, thus, rammed it, occasionally flipping compacts and always scaring the occupants.
One guy told me that a bull didn’t like the looks of his truck one morning, so the beast charged his full-size pickup with horns a-blazing, forcing the startled driver to back down the road at high speed — since bison are much faster than they look. He escaped with an intact truck and quite a story. Never, he told me by way of parting, honk your horn at bison. Chris certainly did no honking that Saturday afternoon as she drove Andrew, a client of Slave Kayak Lodge, and me through the national park along Pine Lake Road to the namesake body of water. We were going sea kayaking — in a lake. Andrew and I helped Chris untie the three sea kayaks — sleek 16- and 17-foot crafts with storage hatches, padded seats and flip-down rudders controlled by foot pegs — from atop the van.
We set the boats in the dirt at the end of the road, not far from the rustic campground — the only one in that section of the park. As Chris secured pumps and floatation devices to the webbing affixed to our boats and lashed a spare paddle to hers, Andrew and I shimmied into our spray jackets. We had been told to dress warmly, in layers. The spray jackets, with their tight neoprene collars and sleeves, would keep the cold water off our layered bodies when we flipped the boats. The paperwork we had signed made it seem like flipping was not a matter of if — but when. Having taken sea kayaks out through large ocean swells many times before, I didn’t anticipate getting wet that day on a lake; Andrew, never having been in a kayak, didn’t seem to share my confidence. We all stepped through our spray skirts — the odd garments that fit snugly around the kayakers and even more snugly around the kayaks, keeping water out.
We pulled on our life jackets, then dragged the plastic boats behind us toward the lake, avoiding the buffalo patties on the trail. After adjusting the foot pegs and getting used to the feel of the knee braces that my sit-on-top kayak does not have, I followed Chris’ lead and took off my shoes, leaving them on the shore. Chris explained to Andrew that she feathers her paddle — meaning the blades on either end are offset — then pointed out the proper way to grip the paddle. This stuff was not new to me — though I’d never been in a proper kayak, one that sealed with a spray skirt, one that I’d have to get out of if I rolled, one that would in turn fill up and need to be pumped out if that eventuality befell me.
So as I gazed around the stunningly beautiful lake, surrounded by a thick green forest and almost entirely devoid of development, I reminded myself just how dry I intended to remain. We dragged the boats through the shallow, light-blue water. Chris showed Andrew how to brace himself with the paddle as he worked his way into the seat so he wouldn’t tip the boat. I yanked and tugged and stretched until the spray skirt sealed around the boat’s lip, then rocked my hips forward a few times, as if shoving off on a sled, until the water was deep enough for my paddles’ blades to do their thing.
Almost instantly, I felt the magical rush of being on the water. Almost instantly, Andrew felt the magical rush of very cold water. I didn’t see him roll, but I heard the splash and saw Chris paddle furiously in his direction. Andrew managed to exit his boat before Chris reached his side, and he stood next to his overturned craft, looking shocked but not hurt. Then he smiled. Chris jumped into the water and righted his boat, then Andrew pumped out the water. I paddled in circles, practicing my strokes — the forward stroke, the sweep, the draw — and sulked a little because I wasn’t on the nearby Slave River.
One of the great stretches of white water in the world runs past Fort Smith, the town Slave Kayak Lodge is based in. Four famous sections of rapids — one ominously called the Rapids of the Drowned — raged only miles from where we loaded the boats. I was absolutely certain that I did not possess the paddling skills to run the biggest of these rapids successfully, but I was equally certain that I’d like to give the smallest a try. I would definitely get wet — and might encounter far bigger troubles than shivering — but at least I’d have an adventure.
I was in the Northwest Territories, after all, the wide-open land of high risk, high reward. It’s a land of gold strikes, diamond mines and dangerous wild animals. And I was in a bathtub. Andrew eventually wriggled into his boat, then we all set out across the placid waters. The scenery was wonderful, with the cloud-dappled sky complementing theclear, spring-fed lake. The depth and the color of the water kept changing, since the lake is formed by five sinkholes. It was a fine way to spend an afternoon — especially for novice paddlers looking for some easy aquatic fun. I had managed to stay dry, but I wanted a bigger adventure. The next day, I’d get one. To be continued …