How to Paddle Great Slave Lake (or Rivers in a Jar)

By Carsten Iwers

Returning in 2015 from the Coppermine, flying from Yellowknife back to Edmonton, I was  intrigued by the size of Great Slave Lake. Knowing that so many have navigated this ocean-like expanse of water, I wondered what it would be like to paddle along its shores. Half in jest, half in earnest, a year later, when I decided to paddle a good part of Great Slave, the email I wrote to people I know in Yellowknife, informing them of my plans, was headed:  How to paddle Great Slave. 

What a stupid question! 

Lug sail on Artillery lake

Searching for the terms “canoe sailing” yielded about 60 results. “Wind bound” in contrast got more than 250 hits. I am not a professional sailor, but from my humble experience, a sail can dramatically change a paddler’s situation for the better. I dare say that  some of these wind-bound days could be turned into days with a good number of miles covered. Take quartering tailwinds for instance. They can prove to be exceedingly annoying, especially going solo. Whereas such winds become a blessing if you have a sail. Upon  returning from my (sailing) trip from Yellowknife to the height of land north of Aylmer Lake, I think in retrospect that this particular trip would not have been nearly as enjoyable and would not have ended in such a timely manner without my sail. It crossed my mind that a sail is like a “river in a jar.” With favourable winds, you unscrew this jar by setting sail and enjoy all the things that are usually to be had only on rivers: free miles and thrills, hair-raising moments and close calls included. I had to pinch myself more than once as I effortlessly sailed along the shoreline. On a lake that felt very strange. My rate of cruising just didn’t feel right while looking at the expanse of motionless water all around me. 

Did I mention the sail?

So what is possible when a 15.5-foot folding canoe is rigged with a 25-square-foot lug-sail? Now, the slightest tailwind, just gently stirring up the surface, can get you going at 3-4 kmh already. A bit of a drag, but such calm conditions can be enhanced by assistive paddling. The most pleasant cruising speed is about 5-6 kmh. Which translates into no worries, no real work and yet a noteworthy pace. Actually, a pace I cannot match with my paddle in hand. Upon reaching 7-8 kmh things are starting to get different, challenging to say the least. You are  constantly working on the main sheet and rudder. But it is still reasonably safe, pleasant and: fast. When reaching the 9-10 kmh mark you are approaching hull speed and things are starting to become worrisome. First whitecaps are forming around you and with a sufficiently long wind fetch the waves are starting to swell. More and more often you will find yourself surfing down into deep wave troughs, trying to maintain a proper direction, trying hard not to screw up. Despite the exhilarating speed, this is somewhat nerve-wracking and if this condition is about to persist, it is probably wise to seek a safe spot ashore. Kevin Patterson, in his book The Water In Between: A Journey at Sea, gave good advice: “The point when a lot of wind becomes too much wind is a difficult but very important moment to identify.” Or, to quote  Max Finkelstein: “Better to be on shore wishing you were out there in the storm, than out there in the storm wishing you were on shore.” 

Batwing sail on Liverpool Bay

With a proper sail sheet (sporting a camber), with a lee board in place and everything nicely rigged, you can even sail into the wind. Maybe 20 degrees on either side – to make an amateurish guess. This course is way more demanding, exerting and dangerous! Even when sailing into the wind at a mere 5 kilometres per hour you may already wish you were ashore. For a paddler, moving forward with the wind in his face is a baffling experience. I just wish I could be a better sailor for that. 

So, if I were now being asked “How to paddle Great Slave” I’d say: bring a sail and know how to use it. And even if the odds are unfavourable and the wind just doesn’t cooperate at all, the mental support of having a sail on hand, just in case, while plodding along mile after mile to the song of the paddle is, to me, worth the extra effort in terms of added bulk and weight. Mounting a lightweight sail rig to a collapsible canoe has a few peculiarities. It took some time to figure it all out. For those who are interested in the details, there are a few pictures online at

2 thoughts on “How to Paddle Great Slave Lake (or Rivers in a Jar)”

  1. I forgot to mention that this set up works good but is likely far from being perfect. Would love to receive comments and suggestion for improvements from others! E.g. the boom and other parts are made of Ally standard rods. For use as spare parts also. With regards to the boom this is not enough. I frequently bent the boom. Will have a fitting sleeve rod (also for repairs) over the boom to make him stiffer. Again: any input welcome. If any interest is shown, there might be a part 2. With my “how to” for a lee board or how the mast is being used for my cook tent when on land.

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