Snare River Diary July 10 – July 22, 1977 – by Tim Kotcheff

We landed in rain and falling temperatures, unloaded, and paddled down to the chosen campsite just above first set of rapids. We explored the beautiful surrounding landscape which is considered to be semi barren lands.

The fishing was superb. Peter Stollery brought in 3 grayling which he cleaned and prepared for breakfast. Lots of antlers around – also bear tracks. Suppered on steaks, green peppers, tomatoes, onions and peaches for dessert.

Day 2

Following morning – cold, wet and drizzling.

Fort Enterprise – Winter Lake

Set out to explore monument to Franklin on hill opposite camp site. A large cross marks the spot where wooden huts were constructed as winter quarters in the fall of 1820 (on his trip down the Coppermine River). The encampment, which Franklin named Fort Enterprise is where he and his men spent an uncomfortable winter on short rations. He lost many of his crew to starvation. I doubt if we would suffer the same fate. Our larder was stacked to the gunnels. But time to head downstream.

We ran a number of tricky rapids on this our first day without mishap but we only covered about 11-12 kilometres – not good.

We camped in the very late afternoon about half way down Round Rock lake. Breakfast in cold, strong wind and more rain. Bannock was excellent but dropped the bacon on the ground. Not a good move. We set out with easterly winds at our back so we set sails on our canoes and covered lots of ground – sometimes tying the canoes together. We set up camp late on Snare Lake. This day we covered an amazing 23 miles. Happy time consisted of another Craig concoction of hot tang and rum.

Day 3

We are heading for what looks like a fishing camp of sorts but heavy cross winds delayed our crossing which took about an hour. We learned this was Snare Lake Village used by the Dog Rib Indians as a seasonal base to kill and clean caribou – some 100-150 families live in buildings on the site.

Snare Lake Village

The game keeper, Roy Jacobson was on hand to greet us. He formed the advance party for the annual hunt. A few Indians live in the village all year round. We met Johnny Simpson – long time resident – and some members of his family. Warden had some assistants including young Indian lad. The previous night, the local store had been raided by a large grizzly who really tore up the place ripping open bags of dog food, flour with his claws and even tearing open canned goods with his teeth. He gained entry by smashing windows. He eluded locals and most of the cabins had been broken into. Roy Jacobson was in Vietnam for about 7 years and part of a special force. Also a biologist and now a naturalized Canadian. He invited us to tea. Quite an interesting man.

Says caribou population was depleted and down to 140,000 from 160,000. Much of the caribou meat used to feed dogs that provide the most important means of travel in North. Mike and Jean express interest in making a dog sleigh run between Yellowknife, Fort Rae and this village. Roy says he can make arrangements.

We picked up some provisions at the store (bear had shit on the floor) and bid farewell. A tricky part of lake must be crossed but high winds forces us to stop at an island and wait for a break before making a run. Fished for half hour and we caught a nice 3-4 lake trout which we cooked up along with veggies and mashed potatoes. Fish was excellent.

Small falls

A set of rapids had to be negotiated that connected Snare Lake with Snare River and our intended camp site. Further down river the water became extremely shallow and rocky. We were forced to wade through and lift the canoes over rocks and after considerable difficulty, reached open water – wet but happy. We push on through scenic waters. It’s late and sunset is splendid. We see our first Arctic loons. Water calm and paddling a joy.

Craig developed a cold and laryngitis. Can’t talk. We finally reach camp site and at the beginning of a long portage. Bugs are bad. Up until 1:00 am as we sip hot chocolate before hitting the sack.

Day 4

Wake to sunshine. Yea. Ahead – a number of small lakes and portages required to bypass the Snare River Gorge. There are some 5-6 lakes in the route around the gorge. With no marked portage routes, getting through the woods and over the lakes can be extremely tricky. On the second portage, Ian and Mike are temporarily lost after moving ahead of the group. The trails are not clear and easy to end up going around in circles. This is what happened to Mike and Ian. They hear our shouting and whistling which provided a direction for their return. This incident had a positive effect. We resolved to stick together henceforth and blaze our trails to avoid a repetition.

Mike Sainsbury heading into the portage

It was gruelling work moving canoes and equipment through dense wooded areas and a multitude of small lakes. I was at the point of exhaustion by the time we reached the last portage. We are hot and sweaty and the bugs were fierce. Right ankle and leg sore. Blisters on both feet and body racked with pain – the consequences of poor fitness and heavy going. I vowed to get into shape at the fitness centre when this trip ends. We estimate the back and forth trips – about 8 kilometres carrying bags and canoes.

We finally reached our planned destination – a beautiful campsite on a small bluff overlooking a wide expanse of the Snare. To our right – the falls. To our left a stand of pines and some birch. Straight ahead – open water. The sunset – fabulous. We planned for a one day lay-over to get our strength back. The portage and lake hopping took about 10 hours.

Day 5

Tim preparing breakfast bannock

No hurry this morning. It’s a day off. Clothes hung to dry. Bags and gear sorted out then a chilly bath and shampoo. No bugs either. Try fishing but no bites. Suns stays our for a full day which for us is a record after days of cloud, drizzle and winds. After dinner it was talk time. These fireside chats have become regular features of the trip – topics ranging broadly on all subjects, history, sociology, society and of course politics. Good camaraderie. No topic goes ignored in a setting that defies description. This is the unique part of the trip and something to treasure for years to come.

Day 6

A beautiful day for paddling. We’re now in Lake Indin. Signs of barren lands still with us but landscape dotted with black spruce and birch struggling for survival on Canadian shield hard rock. A nice camp. Good beach with cleared woods for our tents. We supper on more fish and then to bed.

Craig and Mike still suffering from some malaise characterized by hoarseness and coughing – slight fever for Mike but so far no need for antibiotics but we keep on eye on condition. We are now ahead of schedule so our days ahead will be a little more leisurely.

Day 7

Last night Jean and Peter scouted out the Snare River channel opening and we headed there directly. Terrain more rocky now as shores begin to narrow and water converges.

Mike, Ian and Craig – Portage Break

We reach a difficult span of rapids and fast water. We decide to portage but Mike and Ian opt to partially run the first part and then line the lower section. While lining their canoe, the stiff current catches the stern and the ropes slipped free sending the canoe helplessly down the rapids complete with bags, wanigan and other gear. Meanwhile the rest of us were midway thru the portage and hustled to retrieve the canoe and equipment.

Unfortunately the lost canoe dropped thru another set of rapids and disappeared from sight. We manage to retrieve the packs and wanigan in downstream eddies. The canoe was spotted further downstream and was pulled to safety but sustained considerable damage in several spots including the centre keel which developed a leak. It was still canoeable but pretty well a write off. The casualty list included one paddle, some water damaged food and some wet clothing. Mike’s camera lens was damages. In future we will need to ensure food and equipment are completely waterproofed.

In the flurry of activity, my own camera accidentally dropped on rocks and it was basically out of commission for the rest of the trip. A big disappointment for me.

We camped on a high bluff overlooking another set of rapids and suppered on spaghetti and dried peas. Prolonged exposure to the sun and elements brought on extreme nausea for some reason.

Day 8

Tim and Craig – Swamp Song

Late start today. Decide to move on to another camp site. However Craig and I thought we would run the rapids immediately below the camp site – a double chute with an ‘S’ turn. Heavy wave action at bottom of each driven by a powerful current. We got through the first chute but take on heavy water. We hit the final chute and at the bottom, the nose of the canoe caught in an eddy and it was game over.

Fortunately, in anticipation of a spill, Mike and Ian were appointed safety canoe and began operation to bail us out. There was some danger of being swept into the next set of rapids. Craig swam free and reached shore safely. I stayed with canoe until Mike and Ian could take control. Exhausted and slightly chilled, I swam to shore.

Our canoe was safely retrieved down stream with no damage except to our reputations. Peter captured the event on film for posterity. This diversion took about 1 hour so it wasn’t until early afternoon before we set out to complete the rest of the rapids. We were all a little tired and edgy and things didn’t improve with some hard portages for sections of river rapids that were too tough to run. We were forced to set up camp short of that’s day’s destination – a pretty location next to a small water fall. But tomorrow – some expected hard paddling.

Day 9

Tim and Ian at Falls

Up early today – light rain, more mosquitoes. Our destination – Kwejinne Lake. First portage about 92 metres downstream. After that a spectacular falls – 18 metre drop shooting spray all around. We snapped a few pictures. Got thoroughly drenched before moving on. This would be a tough and hot portage. Seems temperatures have been rising since our landing at Winter lake – nights and mornings feel considerably warmer. Beyond the falls – one more large rapid part of which is runnable. We encountered further rapids downstream but no problem negotiating – making for a very pleasant run.

By late afternoon we reached the opening to Lake Kwejinne but a wrong turn took us into a false bay. Our first and only mistake to date. But only a half mile out of our way. A late night chat because tomorrow was an official rest day – a day for leisure, fishing and whatever.

Day 10

Blues skies. Hot sun. Craig and Mike still bothered by coughing spells but feeling slightly better. A day for leisure – writing diaries, rearranging gear, fishing – and an opportunity to bathe and do a little laundering. Those who went fishing, came back empty handed – no lake trout for dinner. This led to speculation that the lake’s name ‘Kwejinne’ meant ‘no fish’. But hot weather and calm waters probably forced the trout to retreat into deeper water beyond the reach of our light tackle. The evening talk turned to European customs especially in Russia led by our chief raconteur Peter Stollery. It was early to bed. Tomorrow a work day.

Day 11

Tim – Campsite with a view

Blue skies and hot sun again. A long paddle ahead of us to wind our way to our final destination and pick up point on Big Spruce Lake. We trolled along the way but no luck. Around 1:00 we tied the canoes together for a floating lunch of cheese, crackers and peanut butter. It’s extremely hot and oppressive and despite placid waters, paddling seemed difficult. We press on and mid-afternoon encountered a power boat from the nearby power dam. Two men on a short fishing trip. They stop to chat and offer us a cold beer which we quickly snapped up – our first since Yellowknife.

In a short time we reach Big Spruce and find a comfortable camp site on a small island. There we await pick up by our Yellowknife charter. An earlier message was sent to the charter company from Snare River village

Nothing to do now but enjoy the scenery, read, fish and get ready for dinner. No fish tonight – stew with meatballs added.

We hatch a plan to send an advance canoe to the dam site where we know there is a telephone. The plan being to fly out a day earlier than scheduled (by majority vote). The extra day would be spent in Yellowknife or, if flight schedules were favourable, return home a day earlier. Mike and Ian volunteer to set out at the break of dawn on Friday hoping to contact Gateway Aviation from the dam site.

Red Sunset

We hope the power boat will return and give us a fast lift to the dam but no such luck. It will be a long paddle Friday. In the meantime a light blue smoky haze begins to drift our way and all over the lake – signs of a forest fire in the nearby vicinity – could have been ten miles away. You could smell the pungent odour. Someone suggested we post a night watch. We canoe over to a nearby lookout point for a better view of the situation but nothing is revealed. By eleven, the smoke subsides just as the sun sets – a fiery red glow globe in a fiery orange sky.

We talk for an hour or two and then retire for the evening. Earlier, in anticipation of a Friday departure – some last minute picture taking – some serious, some funny poses – pictures I’m sure we’ll cherish in later years. This has been a good trip. Excellent scenery and companionship. Some tough paddling and portaging but what an opportunity to taste, savour the raw beauty of our Northwest Territories.

Days later this will but a fond, pleasant memory as we head to our respective homes and jobs – Back to the routine that brought us here in the first place. But whatever the future, the experiences of this wilderness adventure will be long remembered – friendships too that will grow out of this shared experience. Stories that will be told in later years.

Day 12

Ian and Mike left very early – 7:00 am – to paddle the ten miles to the dam and arrange for a Friday pickup. They return around 11:00 to advise that a flight was possible but more likely Saturday morning as originally planned. Mike and Ian were apparently treated to breakfast at the dam by the site cook. Ian said he was a bit of a comic character. But hey…the breakfast was free.

Time for some reading a relaxation. Sadly our last day on the Snare River. At 9:00 am tomorrow – we depart.

Snare River Team – July 1977

Group Snare

L-R: Tim Kotcheff, Ian Urquhart, Mike Sainsbury, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, Jean Pelletier (seated) 

Snare River Team – July 1977

Group Snare

L-R: Tim Kotcheff, Ian Urquhart, Craig Oliver, Peter Stollery, Mike Sainsbury, Jean Pelletier (seated). 

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