Returning to the Great Slave Lake: Part One, Thaidene Nene, ‘Land of the Ancestors’

Just how did I end up in Lutsel K’e not once, but twice?  Well it’s a long story that begins with the last time I skated on long blades.  After the 2010 Olympics, my adventurer husband Peter and I decided to do something out of the ordinary.  As a leg athlete, a trip on water seemed outrageous.  We decided on a journey into a land we learned of through a friend who makes maps in Calgary.  A place known to few southerners and home to many in the north.


The destination?  The East Arm of the Great Slave Lake.  With a few months to budget there was plenty of time to take our time.  Only problem for me was, I’d never paddled a boat before.


The trip lasted all of six weeks.  Six long weeks of paddling, camping, crossing wide gaps of land filled with massive amounts of water.  Paddling one of the greatest bodies of water on earth.


And then, finally, the paddling brought us to the one village on the trip.  Lutsel K’e.  A town reached by ice, water or plane; a typical remote village like many of the aboriginal settlements in Canada.  Removed but not far away from the modern world with TV, internet and, yes, still, the radio.


We landed in Lutsel K’e three weeks into that trip and I was a little worse for wear.  Day one left me in agony.  I was so terrified crossing Yellowknife Bay that a death grip on the paddle left me with damaged nerves in my arm.  I’d slept little for those first weeks.  Being horizontal meant the circulation stopped in my arm, leaving swelling, intense pain and numbness.  It reminded me of the pain I endured while speed skating at my best.  LIke someone was pulling my fingernails out of my hands one by one.  Yes, like torture.


So Lutsel K’e, that small village, was a sort of oasis for me.  Reaching there meant a few days reprive from the paddling and hopefully less pain.  Unfortunately the latter did not come to fruition.  The result of our stay was worth every ounce of the pain getting there.  We made friends with the people of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation and learned about the ongoing process of getting National Park Status for the East Arm of the Great Slave Lake.  The territorial land of our new friends.


It’s funny because the whole reason we decided on the trip was our map friend telling us ‘you better get up there and paddle before they make it a park and limit what you will be able to do’.  Ironic because I left after experiencing this special land and water environ determined to give voice to the efforts being made by many to make it just that.  Educated, as well, and understanding that Nationals Park status would not have prevented our trip.  There is something to be said to protecting land and waterways.  Such a pristine place on earth I do hope remains that way.


And so, with a small contribution to the cause in form of a video segment sharing the experience Peter and I while paddling, I finally came true to my promise of getting more involved after ‘I quit sport’.  This was the deal, when my last Olympic race was done, this time on the bike in London 2012.  I’m not one to shy away from a promise.


Now I find my way on a two-day, 5-flight journey north to Lutsel K’e.  I can hardly wait to see my friends again.  See how the community garden is faring (although it’s winter and I doubt there is anything there), maybe get invited in for a sweat lodge again (the closest thing to the suffering and satisfaction I’ve felt while training and racing for the Olympics).  Most importantly, to share why I agree the time is right for the people of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation.


Thaidene Nene  or  ‘Land of the Ancestors’ will be a park not only the people from the land can be proud of, it will be a place that all Canadians can take pride in.  What a place on earth to come and visit.  To experience in the most beautiful of wild and rustic ways.


In the words of the Lusel K’e Dene First Nation:

“Thaidene Nene is heart of the homeland and sacred place of the Lutsel K’e Denesoline. It is where the ancestors of the Lutsel K’e Denesoline laid down the sacred, ethical, and practical foundations of the Denesoline way of life.”

“Carrying these traditions into the future, the Lutsel K’e Denesoline have the right to promote their culture, practice their relationship with the land and water, and protect the territory upon which this culture and relationship depend. Protection of Thaidene Nene means preserving the environmental and cultural integrity of a homeland fundamental to a material well-being and cultural identity.”

“As the keepers of Thaidene Nene, the Lutsel K’e Denesoline have the responsibility to act as stewards of the land and as host to visitors.”


I’m lucky to be a part of all this.  For the week up north, I look forward to sharing the experiences Peter and I had kayaking this water and living on the land, the many camps we had on the rocky points, the eagles soaring, the one lonely bear we saw and most importantly, the human experience we will never forget.


As for kayaking Thaidene Nene?  Well, I would recommend a smaller trip to begin with.  On the other hand, if I could do this, so can anyone.

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