The Snare River by Ian Urquhart
Unlike the Nahanni, the Coppermine, and the Thelon/Hanbury, the Snare is not one of the famous canoeing rivers in the Northwest Territories. But it has its own unique history, and it certainly proved to be challenging enough for our party back in 1977.
There were six of us, an eclectic group that included four journalists (Craig Oliver of CTV, Tim Kotcheff of CBC, Jean Pelletier of La Presse, and myself with Maclean’s magazine), a politician (Peter Stollery, a Liberal MP), and a businessman (Michael Sainsbury). We shared a love of canoeing and the wild.
Our trip began on a float plane from Yellowknife to Winter Lake, about 250 kilometres to the northeast. From there, the Snare river curves in a wide arc for about 330 kilometres before emptying into Great Slave Lake.
Winter Lake is right on the edge of the barren lands, and the scenery could best be described as bleak. That bleakness was compounded on the day of our arrival by the weather (cold and wet) and the history of the place.
It was here in 1820-21 that British explorer John Franklin and his men spent a miserable winter before setting out on the Coppermine toward the Arctic Ocean. Their winter abode was grandly named “Fort Enterprise,” but it consisted of just three huts; remnants of their foundations lay scattered before us. The weather was brutally cold and food supplies were limited. But the men made it through the winter and reached the Arctic Ocean via the Coppermine the following summer. The journey back to Fort Enterprise was difficult, however, and when the men returned they found none of the expected provisions. They survived by eating animal skins and their own footwear. (Franklin forever after was known as “the man who ate his boots.”) There were subsequent rumours of cannibalism. Of the 17 voyageurs (“Canadians”) hired by Franklin, eight died of starvation. And one of Franklin’s officers was reportedly murdered by a voyageur. This tragic tale is all memorably recounted in the diaries of Franklin and others reproduced in Farley Mowat’s book, “Tundra.”
We camped just across the lake from Fort Enterprise and visited the site the next morning. We could actually see the outlines of Franklin’s huts etched in the ground, a century-and-a-half later.
The next day we set out on the river, which emerged as a spectacular series of canyons, falls, rapids and lakes. The fishing was very good, with bites (grayling, trout and pike) on just about every cast. We would not suffer Franklin’s fate. However, the Snare had other surprises in store for us.
On day three, we arrived at Snare Lake Village, a hunting-and-fishing camp used by the local Dog Rib Indians. As it was off season, there were only a few inhabitants around. They showed us their storehouse, which had been invaded the night before by a grizzly bear. The bear had torn up the place and left behind deep claw marks, ripped bags of food, food cans penetrated by his teeth, and a large deposit of his own excrement in the middle of the floor.
On day four, we somehow navigated our way around the Snare River Gorge, which was impassable, via a series of five or six lakes connected by unmarked portages.
Sainsbury and I got lost on the second portage by going in a complete circle, but we heard the shouting of the rest of the group and managed to link up. It was an unsettling experience for all of us, and we resolved to stick closer together.
On day seven, the terrain became more rocky and we encountered a series of rapids that proved difficult to run. So we resigned ourselves to portaging. But after lunch, Sainsbury and I grew tired of that. While the others continued to portage, we decided to run the first part of a rapid and line the rest. Bad mistake. I lost control of the bow rope and the canoe flew off on its own down the raging river. We finally caught up with it two rapids later. The equipment was soaking wet but mostly salvageable (except for Sainsbury’s camera), and the canoe was miraculously still navigable, albeit badly dented. Otherwise we would have been in real trouble.
The following day began with a difficult rapid featuring heavy wave action. Oliver and Kotcheff spilled, but we managed to rescue them and their canoe before they were sucked down the next rapid. Damage was done only to their egos.
The Oliver-Kotcheff Swamp
On day eleven, we were nearing the designated end of our journey, Big Spruce Lake, which was, in fact, big (bigger than Lake Muskoka). There we encountered a power boat carrying two workers from the nearby power dam who were on a short fishing trip. They offered us some cold beer, which we gratefully accepted.
The next day we paddled toward the dam, which had a telephone we could use to call our plane to come pick us up. As we paddled, the lake was covered in a smoky haze–a sign of a nearby forest fire. But the weather was fine, and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset as we spent our last night on the Snare before returning home the next day.
We had not just spent two glorious weeks in the wilderness. We had also discovered something about ourselves: that life is full of adversity, to be overcome. Ian Urquhart