73-Day Family Canoe Trip in the Northwest Territories

In the summer of 2019, Dwane Roberg and Sarah Carty, along with their two young children and two dogs, embarked on a wilderness canoe trip that would total 73 days.

family canoe trip, northwest territories

Here’s their story:

By Sarah Carty

A loon cry breaks the silence as we paddle across a small bay on Whitefish Lake in the Northwest Territories.

My husband Dwane, paddling with our five-year old son and thirteen-year old dog, calls back to me and our seven-year old daughter to stop talking and listen to the loon. 

My daughter laughs. 

It had been her who made the loon call, and she’s thrilled to have finally tricked her dad into thinking it was a real loon! She’s good at it. She often calls and gets a reply. 

Then we talk about if the loon is lonely. In a land so vast, how do they find a mate? We are always happy when we see two together.

Fall is coming and we wonder how long the loons will stay. Every day we see more and more Canada Geese flying south. Many groups are flying low, gathering up more geese along the way. Others come from further north, flying in huge groups far above us. Maybe from as far north as the Arctic Ocean. 

family canoe trip, picking berries

Each time a group flies overhead we pause and watch the ribbons of geese flying together, honking loudly. They are calling for other geese to join them but they also seem to be calling to us. 

Each time it makes us wonder—are the geese telling us we should be going? It may soon be time for us to head south, too. The summer is short up north.

Three seasons passed during our 73-day trip. We paddled south, away from the city of Yellowknife, NWT on June 25th with our family's biggest adventure yet ahead of us. 

We headed down the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, the tenth largest lake in the world, and the deepest lake in North America.

After celebrating Chuck turning 5-and-a-half with chocolate cake and candies, we turned east up Hearne Channel to McLeod Bay and the furthest reaches of the East Arm. Then up Pikes Portage, north on Artillery Lake, through the Trout Creek Portage to Sandy Lake, Whitefish Lake.

We finally made our way down to Lynx Lake where we ended our trip on September 5th.

canoe campsite, northwest territories

Dwane used to guide at Whitefish Lake 20 years ago. And since we met 16 years ago, he’s been telling me stories about the country out there. 

It’s been our goal to go back one day. After all these years we finally made it out there, with two kids, two dogs—and self-propelled the whole way. 

73 days, 32 portages, 700 km paddled. 44 days was our longest stretch without seeing another traveller.

As part of the Canadian Shield, Great Slave Lake is full of beautiful campsites. Every night we'd find another perfect camp, usually with great fishing nearby. The kids learned quickly how to cast, hook and reel in their own fish. We caught lake trout and arctic grayling, which both make excellent dinners.

We never tried to cover too much distance every day. Lots of long breaks on shore are key to keeping kids happy and having fun!

fishing, canoe trip

Canoe trips are great for families going on a big adventure—you can pile everything into one canoe. We reasoned the portages to come would be fun. I even caught myself telling someone before the trip that they’re the hiking part of the trip. And we like hiking, so not to worry. 

I had to remind myself of this comment several times while returning four or five times to pick up another load with barely a trail to follow!

After 25 days paddling Great Slave Lake, we were excited to arrive at the start of Pikes Portage. The excitement wore off the next day as the first of the 8 portages that make up Pikes is 4.5 km with over 600 feet of elevation gain.

The portage took five trips. The kids carried their day packs and paddles for the first couple of trips. After that, having them walk the portage with us was enough for them.

10 days after starting Pikes Portage we reached Artillery Lake. Our rest on Artillery Lake was short-lived, though. We had a lot more portaging in front of us: up the Trout Creek drainage to reach Sandy Lake. 

reading in the canoe

As soon as we started up Trout Creek we were very excited, as it looked to be used very little. At one portage we found a cairn containing an old tin with notes of those who'd passed before us. In the 10 years since the cairn was built we were just the fourth group to sign our names!

On Sandy Lake we got our one and only food drop of the trip on day 47. After communicating with the Olesens to see if they could send out more dog food, they also added more treats to our package for us. 

The morning after Dave showed up with our food drop, we ate a breakfast of eggs, bologna, oranges and fresh-baked bread. It was by far the best breakfast we'd ever had. 

We stayed awhile on Sandy Lake for a little "vacation" from all the travelling. Short days of paddling, lots of exploring, eating well and playing on the beaches.

swimming, northwest territories

Arriving at Whitefish Lake was really exciting for us. It was the end of the portages and the start of the big tundra lakes where Dwane used to work as a wilderness guide.

Our first paddle along the north shore we were treated to a rare sighting of a large Barrenland Grizzly. As fall was closing in on us, we made our way down to Lynx Lake.

We explored more eskers along the way, enjoyed the incredible fall colours, and savoured our remaining time in one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. 

The end of a canoe trip is always bittersweet. You look forward to a comfortable bed and food you haven't eaten in a while. You miss home. Yet there’s a real sadness in leaving a place where you feel such peace and freedom.

We'll be back!

canoe trip family and dogs
Dwane, Sarah and their family

All photos courtesy of Dwane Roberge. Learn more about their adventures at Campfires and Kids. Dwane's professional photography website: Dwane Roberg Photography.

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