The History and Sites of Great Slave Lake: A Visitor's Guide

Great Slave Lake
Great Slave Lake mattcatpurple / photo modified

Covered by ice for eight months of the year, Great Slave Lake is the fifth largest lake in North America. The body of water is part of the Mackenzie River System, and reaches more than 600 meters deep in places, a length of 480 kilometers east to west, and up to 110 kilometers across. The lake gets its name from the Slavey First Nations people who have long lived on its shores.

Samuel Hearne discovered the lake in 1771. He was followed by Alexander Mackenzie heading for the mouth of the Mackenzie River - later named after him, and then by John Franklin. Gold prospectors who passed here on the way to the Klondike in 1896-99 reported on the region's beauty, but nobody wanted to come here. It was not until 1930, when pitchblende was discovered on the lakeshore, that people became interested in the area. The discovery of gold on Yellowknife Bay four years later led to a boom in Yellowknife, the main community on the lake along with Hay River, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence, and Behchoko.

Great Slave Lake is famous amongst anglers for its excellent trout and pike, with its tributaries known for plenty of Arctic grayling. Spectacular sailing races are held on the lake, which also has some sandy beaches.

Fort Providence

Bison Alan Sim / photo modified

The little town of Fort Providence lies on the Mackenzie River, where it flows into the southwestern corner of Great Slave Lake. The town is known for the wide selection of First Nations arts and crafts, handmade anoraks, and parkas. Boats can be rented at the filling stations in the town. The famous American Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) chose Fort Providence as the starting point for his journeys of discovery to the Barren Grounds in 1819-22. At the western end of town stands a memorial to the American explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who stopped off in Fort Providence in 1789 in the course of his putative trek to the Pacific Ocean, which he hoped would take him to the Arctic Ocean.

The Mackenzie Bison sanctuary lies north of Fort Providence on Highway 3 in the direction of Behchoko. In 1963, the Canadian Government transferred nineteen wood buffalo here, a species threatened with extinction. Anyone driving along Highway 3 in the early morning or evening is almost certain to see one or two wood buffalo at the roadside. Mostly, though, they stay near the shores of the Great Slave Lake.

Fort Resolution

Fort Resolution
Fort Resolution Leslie Philipp / photo modified

Fort Resolution was built by the Hudson's Bay Company on Moose Deer Island in 1819, and transferred to its present site around 1822. It was an important center, with light freighters bringing goods from Fort McMurray up the Slave River. The trading post lies southwest of the main estuary of Slave River.

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