The Slave River ambles slowly northward from Alberta’s Lake Athabasca, milk-chocolate brown with silt picked up as it crosses the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The river proceeds at a leisurely pace toward Great Slave Lake until reaching Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, where the waters accelerate as they spill off the Canadian Shield.
River-running legend has immortalized the stretch of river between Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, as the most treacherous series of rapids and portages in western Canada. The river drops 109 feet in 16 miles.
Native Cree, Slave, Chipewyan, and Beaver people traveled the portages that were followed by white men in the 18th century. Trappers and traders paddled and portaged the rapids in canoes, and were the first to record the nature of the rapids. Cuthbert Grant was one of those traders, and his story is legend.
In 1786, Grant and his company were headed for Great Slave Lake via the Slave River when they were faced with a daunting horizon line. Grant told his men that he and a few other brave souls would run the rapid first. If they found it navigable, they would fire a rifle shot to signal safe passage. Although Grant made it through unscathed, he knew that his men would perish if they tried to follow. As he began his return to the top of the rapids to assist in portaging, a shot rang out. One of his men had fired at a duck. Needless to say, the waiting men mistook the shot for their go-ahead signal and ran the rapids. Five drowned, and ever since, that section of the Slave has been known as Rapids of the Drowned.
I had read ol’ Cuthbert’s story, and the melodrama played over and over in my head as I paddled the Slave. Rapids of the Drowned. Huge water. Death. Not very comforting images. I had seen videos of pros throwing massive aerials, running gut-wrenching lines, and frequently getting swallowed and spanked in huge hydraulics. Little voices inside my head kept muttering, “What the hell are you doing?” As each week went by and D-day approached, I told myself I’d be fine. On the appointed day, I swallowed my doubts and headed north.
Getting to the Slave is an adventure in itself. I’d read and heard firsthand accounts of marathon drives, rutted roads, and big-game roadblocks. Fortunately, I was flying. From 1,000 feet, the Slave revealed little. No jagged peaks loomed ominously on the horizon, no dark-walled canyons penetrated to unknown depths. There was just a huge open sky above a flat forested landscape through which a big muddy river flowed. I knew there were huge rapids down there somewhere, so I kept looking for white exclamation points while reading the long brown river.
Keith Morrison, local whitewater guru and sole proprietor of the Slave Kayak Lodge (866-588-3278), was waiting at the Fort Smith terminal. “Welcome to Fort Smith! You ready for the big stuff?” he asked. For the next hour, Keith played tour guide, eventually driving to a bluff overlooking the Slave. Even then, the river’s immensity eluded me.
By that afternoon, it was time to paddle. Keith showed up in his canary-yellow shuttle truck and we headed down to the Playground, the closest thing to park-and-play to be found on the Slave. The Playground is situated at the end of the Mountain Portage series of rapids. Basically, it’s a football-field-sized area that is chock-full of waves and holes. The expanse and turbulence of the water were menacing, but Keith and Rico, the third boater in our group, were already ripping it up. “These are some of the best play spots in the world!” Keith hollered from an eddy. I had no choice but to drop in and see what would happen next. I dialed in my newest tricks-the side surf and the window shade-and slowly became less and less intimidated. Everything was going to be okay.
Then I met Molly. A run down Mountain Portage was on the agenda for day two, and that meant initiation with Molly’s Nipple. We ferried out across the river, passing above ominous-looking lines, rhythmically stroking to warm up. Eventually, we reached a rock escarpment above Molly’s and got out to take a look. Intimidation set in as I gazed at a smooth 20-foot sloping ramp of water that fed into a maw of white. Keith gave us time to soak it up, then filled us in on the game plan. “You can’t pick out the line from your boat, so I’ll stand on this rock right above the drop and signal which way you need to go to hit the line.”
Rico went first and lined it up perfectly, accelerating down the ramp and riding through the tongue unscathed. I walked down to my boat, took a few deep breaths, said a little prayer, and shoved off. Paddling out to the middle of the channel, I felt the water gather speed beneath my boat. I looked up at Keith, who was giving me the “get right” signal. After a few more strokes I noticed that Keith’s motions were more emphatic. Moments later his arms were pinwheeling. I began matching my heart rate with paddle strokes, but quickly realized that it was too late to correct my position. The only option was to continue paddling like hell. I reached the top of the ramp and stared Molly in the face. She was pretty ugly. I rocketed down the ramp into the river-left hole. Surprisingly, there was no violent spin cycle. Five seconds later I surfaced upright, grinning from ear to ear. Rico paddled over and shouted a question above the roar: “What were you doing up there? Lilly dippin’?”
The next five days were filled with one amazing spectacle after another. I felt numb just looking at them. Spots like Pelican, a gauntlet of 25-foot diagonal waves exploding and collapsing on one another. Land of a Thousand Holes, a minefield of keepers stretching from bank to bank. Every day on the Slave presents a wide variety of options, limited only by one’s imagination-park-and-play, big-water river-running, creeking, you name it. Every kind of river feature is formed by the massive amount of water squeezed between granite islands and outcroppings, Class I to Class VI. Sometimes I felt like a Yugo driver in the Grand Prix. But even without a Lamborghini, I made it through without a scratch, and it was a blast.
Doug Weber is an advertising representative for Canoe & Kayak.
This article first appeared in the 2004 issue of Whitewater Paddling. To order a copy, call (800) MY-CANOE, ext. 114.