Breaking Twigs

Harold Written by 

(4 votes)

I've done my fair share of fishing over the past 50 years or so -some might even say more than my fair share.

Travelling in search of fish has taken me to some very "exotic" places throughout North America and beyond, but none more "exotic" than Great Bear Lake.

So what and where is Great Bear Lake or Sahtu?

Although it's North America's fourth largest fresh water lake, and the eighth largest in the world, when discussing Great Bear, more often than not people respond with a blank stare, and it gets even more interesting if you ask them where it's located. I know amateur geographers who have placed it in Texas, Prince Edward Island, and many points in between.

For the record, Great Bear Lake is situated in Canada's Northwest Territories, and is bisected by the Arctic Circle at its northern extreme. Except for the tiny village of Deline, located in the south west corner of the lake at the bottom of one of it's five massive arms,it is virtually uninhabited.

Summers while intense, are very short in this land of the midnight sun, and therefore the lake is ice free for little more than six to eight weeks, although it is rarely completely ice free. The water - all 12,000 square miles of it - is clear, pure, and sweet to the taste.

Wildlife such as Musk-oxen, Caribou, Barren Ground Grizzly Bears, Bald and Golden Eagles, Gyrfalcons, Peregrine Falcons and water birds too numerous to mention abound throughout the area.

It is also the greatest Lake Trout and Arctic Grayling fishery on earth - bar none.

Not a great deal has been written about the lake or the vast area surrounding it. Notations in the journals of various explorers and adventurers such as Sir John Franklin, George Back, John Hornby, George Douglas and Charles Camsell, dating from the early to mid 1800s, represent the bulk of the written record.

Their field notes and journals focused primarily on their scientific observations and the hardships they personally encountered, but rarely did they comment on the land or its people.

Most of them were just passing through on their way to somewhere else.

That said, the Sahtu Dene, the people of Great Bear Lake, have lived and wandered over this vast expanse since the beginning of time as perhaps we would understand it, and have a rich history, much of it handed down over the centuries through stories told by tribe elders to each successive generation.

After listening to endless 'fish stories' over the years, a group of friends encouraged me to put them in writing with a view towards inflicting them on a broader audience, and while starting out with the intention of simply recounting my various fishing experiences, once I began writing, I found myself going in a very different direction.

The Sahtu Dene believe that if you don't stay focused, take note of your surroundings, and are not willing to learn, or take an interest in learning, you make mistakes - miss things - it's like breaking twigs and scaring the game away.

The night before embarking on my first trip, I was reminded of what it felt like to be a five year old on Christmas Eve, and just as it was back then, sleep was impossible. Monster trout, twenty- four hours of day light, who needed to eat or sleep when I could fish 24/7.

When the time came to leave, given the week he had just endured, my guide made a point of personally ensuring I didn't miss the southbound plane.

Unfortunately when reflecting back on the experience, it was all something of a blur.

I returned to Great Bear year after year for one purpose only - to catch more and bigger fish. My pictures and videos captured little more than what was on the end of my rod, or resting in the net.

Together with Great Bear Lake and much of its watershed, I have fished throughout Ontario, Nunavut, Alaska, the Pacific Ocean, New Brunswick, and even the Aegean Sea, but as it was on Great Bear all that really mattered was building my angling resume.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the unmistakable sound of breaking twigs.

I believe it was during the fifth trip that my perspective and focus slowly began to change. The stories and the images I recorded concentrated more on the spectacular landscapes, the great shore lunches, people I met, and the unique Arctic flora and fauna.

Why the change?

To this day I'm still not entirely sure. What I do know is that when I began to broaden my focus, each visit took on an entirely new dimension, and there were fewer "memory gaps" once I had the opportunity to reflect back on them.

Reminiscences about the Barren Ground Grizzly that tried to push her nose into my tent, being challenged by a large bull Musk Ox, or watching in stunned silence as a cow Moose protected her calf, by fending off repeated attacks from an Arctic Wolf, became just as popular, if not more so, than my endless "fish" stories.

I began studying the topographic maps I had amassed over the years with a renewed focus on landmarks and place names, with the result that those maps were now taking me on a journey I never would have imagined.

This area is very rich in native history and culture, which led me to engage in some comprehensive research regarding the historical, cultural and religious significance of Great Bear Lake and the surrounding lands as it relates to the Sahtu Dene.

As a result, places like Edacho - the Scented Grass Hills and Sahyoue - Grizzly Bear Mountain were no longer just names on a map, and having sat quietly in the shadow of the Scented Grass Hills, I can attest to the fact that the power and serenity of the place is nothing short of remarkable.

In the late 1980's I happened across a book written by Fredrick Watt entitled,GreatBear - a Journey Remembered, whichchronicles his experiences on the lake as a prospector's assistant during the Great Depression.

Using the book as a guide I was able to find virtually all the places he visited - walk the same ground - and see much of what he saw. I now had something specific to relate to - a touchstone or sorts.

Each successive journey from that point on became more about a sense of place and belonging. I was no longer just another person passing through on my way to somewhere else, and more importantly; I was breaking fewer twigs.

There is usually ice on Great Bear, and the colours can run anywhere from aquamarine, to Safire blue and emerald green, and when the wind gently stirs the flows, if you listen carefully, it sounds very much like thousands of wind chimes playing in unison.

In past years the ice was nothing more than an inconvenience, and something to be avoided. I now take advantage of every opportunity to fish the edges of the flows - looking and listening.

While continuing to enjoy the extraordinary fishing the lake has to offer, the opportunity to walk the shoreline looking for wildlife, markers left by past travellers, or watching, and in some instances, being caught out in the magnificent storms that hit the lake from time to time, have all become experiences to be savoured - and remembered.

Great Bear Lake and the land, lakes and rivers that surround it, are in my estimation national treasures, a land frozen in time that has provided me with a unique opportunity to see and experience the world as it was many thousands of years ago.

Whether you are in the vast expanse of the Arctic, or on a lake or river very close to home, don't spend all of your time hurrying from one place to the next.

Slow down, listen, and take note of your surroundings.

You will see and remember so much more, be richer for the experience, and for what it's worth - no longer hear the sound of breaking twigs.

Let me leave you with a comment from a Tłı̨chǫ elder that was made to Father John Paul Beaulieu in 1864, on the subject of "white man's" heaven.

In my view he articulates the message that I have being attempting to convey far better than I could ever hope to.


"Tell me father is it like the land of the little trees when the ice has left the lakes?

Breaking Twigs

Are the great musk oxen there?

Musk Oxen

Are the hills covered with flowers?


There will I see caribou everywhere I look?


Are the lakes blue with the sky of summer?

Blue Sky

Is every net full of great, fat whitefish?

Lake trout

Is there room for me in this land, like our land, the Barrens?


Can I camp anywhere and not find that someone else has camped?


Can I feel the wind and be like the wind?


Father if your heaven is not all of these, leave me alone in my land, the land of the little sticks."



Last modified onFriday, 02 October 2020 13:10
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