If you are under the impression that the Slave river is for hardcore paddlers only, think again! Although the Slave has a BIG reputation, the river has a gentler, less intimidating side as well. When I traveled to the Northwest Territories to paddle the Slave this past August, I was pleasantly surprised by the remarkable experiences the area and the river have to offer!
Flying into Fort Smith from Edmonton, it’s hard to miss the rapids of the Slave river. We were desperately trying to prop ourselves up to better see the powerful river from our tiny plane windows. The surrounding landscape was flat and covered with large evergreen trees. When we walked out of the airport, the air felt a little dry, similar to the Colorado climate, but less harsh. The sun was shining and the temperature was very pleasant.
Fort Smith is a great little town that has lots of amenities, including two grocery stores, a community college, a rec centre, free internet at the library, ATM machines, a movie theatre, great convenience stores that sell ice cream, and a bar that is very popular with some of the paddlers. There is the occasional bear sighting in town, but the locals are well equipped to handle such situations.
Keith Morrison, owner of the Slave Kayak Lodge, was nice enough to let us crash in his house until we could find our own accommodations. When Tiffany Manchester and I ventured out to find accommodation, we met two awesome local women, Renee and Patti. Renee runs the rec centre and Patti teaches outdoor programs and runs a self-propelled sleding and snow-shoeing business in the winter. They were both very friendly and helpful. They introduced us to Beverly, a woman who rents a great little house right at the put-in to Roller Coaster in the town of Fort Fitzgerald. Fitz, as the locals like to call the town, is part of the Smith Landing Indian Reserve, about 20 minutes outside of Fort Smith. It’s a very beautiful and peaceful place.
The first few days we paddled down to Roller Coaster wave. This section starts on flatwater then heads into class 3 rapids. The river is immense! You can see forever because the river is so wide and the land around the river so flat. There are lots of little islands and channels. You really need a guide for this river. Otherwise you would get lost the first time out. It’s probably about 8 times wider than the Ottawa! There are big eddy lines and some boils, but the rapids are very manageable. There are so many channels that there is always an alternate route to the harder rapids. You could stop and surf Sock ’em Dog, a big, fast wave that requires a ferry through a munchy hole, or you could head down a nice class 3 channel to Roller Coaster. You get to pick.
Roller Coaster is a really fun wave with a big pool behind it and a big eddy beside it. The wave is a nice size, big enough to do aerial moves, but not so big as to be really intimidating. The girls were going off on this wave throwing big aerial blunts, helixes and back blunts! There is also a nice rock outcropping so you can sit and watch. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a bug net every time you get out of your boat! It’s quite pleasant to hang out on the rocks on the river.
Over the course of the week we did go to the bigger spots like The Edge and Pelican. Again, the great thing about the Slave is that you don’t have to paddle any of the big stuff if you don’t want to. You can walk everything or take class 3 alternative routes. We did test ourselves by running Molly’s Nipple, a blind drop with a big tongue that flows into some big standing waves. Everyone styled their lines. I also tested myself by surfing the Edge as well. It was the scariest wave I have ever surfed! In case you are wondering, the spot gets its name because it’s a wave on the edge of a gigantic hole! I think I surfed it a total of 3 times. The 2nd time the corner crashed on me and sent me into the middle of the foam where I got a good trashing before rolling up. I didn’t want to end on that note, so I went back up and surfed it again. After a successful surf, I decided that was enough for me and headed to Playground.
Playground is a really fun hole below the Edge. It’s a nice hole that has big eddy service and has a nice rock outcropping to hang out. You can do spins, cartwheels and loops. It’s a great playspot that’s not intimidating at all! And, you don’t have to paddle the Edge to get there. In fact, you can park and play at Playground if you want.
I must admit that the most memorable and intense experience happened off the water. We were privileged enough to be invited to a native Sweat Lodge. A Sweat Lodge is a native purification and prayer tradition. Steam is poured over heated rocks that are placed in a pit in the middle of a small dome-shaped structure. The idea is to purify your body by sweating and to purify your spirit by praying. There are four sessions to the sweat, each one growing in length and heat. After the Sweat there is a big potluck feast.
The women filed into the sweat first and the men second. We sat on the floor around the edges of the structure. The rocks that had been heated in a fire were brought in and placed in a pit. When all the rocks were in place, the entrances were sealed from the outside so that everything was pitch black. Participating in a Sweat really tests how well you can let go of your fear of the unknown. The water was poured and the steam filled the air. It was hot and dark. The Leader told us to pray and then led the locals in traditional chanting. It was very intense and inspiring. We went through four rounds. We went through 4 rounds, with a break in between each one. During the breaks the entrances were open to let cool air in. After it was over, I felt cleansed and revived. The meal that followed was a great way for us to get to know the locals.
The locals know a lot about the history of the Slave river and the people who inhabit the area. Part of what made the trip such a great experience was my interaction with the locals. There is lots to do and see around the Slave river. You don’t need to be a hardcore boater to enjoy a trip to Fort Smith. Combining some great paddling with some sightseeing and some local traditions makes for a unique and inspiring adventure.