Back in a day’s fur trade was a huge thing. With increasing demand in fur in Europe the export demand kept growing – Northern Canada being a great source of it. To pass fur from the North people had to cross the Slave River. In winter despite its size it all freezes making solid winter road. In spring it had to be done with the boats. One of the days, there was a crew trying to get to Slave lake with a load of supplies from the south. River was already known for its big and dangerous rapids. In order to check the safe road – small boat was sent ahead to find a path and make sure it will be safe for big cargo. Gun shot was supposed to be signal if he road was safe. As the story goes – one of the pioneers that were paddling on it – forgot about that, shooting a duck. To his horror he realized too late what he had done. All cargo got lost and the rapid was named the “Rapids of the Drowned”.
I had been paddling in “Big Water” places – spending almost 10 winters in Uganda and paddling on Zambezi. In Love it Live it we are specialised in it. Big water, fun, coaching. I loved those places and love the drag of big volume, the experience that it gives you, the size of it, power of nature, feeling of conquering the rapids and really trying to push yourself through those beautiful but fiercely waves. First thing that Leif told me – it is not as small as the Nile. You can get lost in there. Imagine for those of you that been there or heard the stories – it is not easy to believe or get a perspective on something being even bigger. The Slave river was a legendary spot that we wanted to visit for couple of years. After few friends reach out to us to organize a trip there, after checking all the options we decided to make the dream happen and run the trip to the North!
Rapids of the Drowned is one of four main sets of rapids. To people horror but joy of kayakers – it is probably the smallest set of all four. Another names are Mountain, Cassette and Pelican rapids. All of it being massive, huge and I wish I knew more words to describe my feelings when entering some of them. “Some people experience fear, solitude, loneliness” as our great guide – Leif Anderson said before dropping down to Fury, one of the largest on the river. You simply must know the lines there. You can either follow your guide or explore the rapids – usually from the bottom on your own.
For the first couple of days, I had the feeling that the map was slowly growing in my head – then I was discovering new and new paths. In 2 weeks we managed to cover maybe a quarter of all the rapids.
Each of it is just amazing, they all have waves and holes – some small perfect for practicing the technique, learning first moves and enjoying the surfs – and some powerful and big for big aerial tricks. There are also others – the ones that you won’t to simply dodge. That is why it is important to know where you are going – you can simply get lost in there.
Difficulty of the Slave and why it is such an expedition is that it is quite far North. You can either fly to Edmonton or Yellowknife or obviously take a ride through Canada. We flew to Edmonton where we got our pick up monster truck, loaded it with boats and gear and then drove 13 hours north – first to Alexandra Falls as a sightseeing point and quick break for breath-taking views, then to Hay River for dinner and final bit to Fort Smith – going directly through Buffalo National Park. Just the drive there is an adventure. On the journey over 1000km you take maybe 5 turns while all the time driving through beautiful changing landscape where at every moment you can get a wildlife experience. During our trip we saw 7 bears, including 2 cubs, a couple of foxes, a lot of wild birds and finally in Buffalo park we drove through middle of Buffalo pack having a lifetime experience getting a close sight at those marvellous, strong and proud animals.
After the drive we were greeted by our hosts – Leif and Natalie Anderson Who are living there over the summer and were kind to have us there for duration of our trip. Arriving early evening we get to see the place for the first time and my heart shrinks. Camping place, outdoor shower, common area on the patio with place for preparing the food and store some gear, house to hang out in. Everything feels very familiar… Straight away I understand why – it is closest to the Hairy Lemon that I had been since Isimba flooding. Then we played Catan for the evenings, ate and laughed ready to go kayaking next days. It felt like home – and adventure was just starting.
First day we go to Mountain rapids. Everybody in the crew been to Big Water, paddled the Nile, Zambezi or Slave before. They know what it is like to see volume of the river. However we couldn’t get more amazed by first day. We go out to put in which is 5 minutes of drive away. Car stays at the top of the hill and we run down excited. After short warm up we had to the first hole – getting rust of after a long drive and getting some moves in a small and friendly but super fun feature. Just behind it there is a small wave good for surfs and small tricks. Feels like paradise – Yet we have not really left the eddy yet! We play there for a while for the warmup watching the scale of the river that goes around the horizon. Time to head farther in to see Chico wave. There is an important point made – there are nests of protected Pelicans that are very important for community. As kayakers we make sure we keep our distance from them not to disturb their nesting period. We start off knowing it will be a big ferry. It takes us good 10 minutes to get to the other side of the current. It was just one channel; we have no idea yet how many more are there but after few eddy hops we are next to our first middle size wave – Chico. It starts with a small ferry through friendly hole and ends up on a nice steep wave in the middle. It was just a half day of playing – we are back for quick lunch and then come back to the same put in, this time moving a little bit deeper into the archipelago. Afternoon is blowing our minds off. We put in at one narrow side of the archipelago, we spend all afternoon paddling to the other side of the river and running rapids there and finally ferry back to the same take out that we used in the morning… 5 minute walk and we are at our car. Despite paddling for half day, covering only few of the rapids – We haven’t moved much. We barely crossed the river there and back! Yet the highlight of the day is lapping the Molly’s. Huge ramp – wide and high. First Leif checks if anybody is nervous but everybody seems to be okay. Then we go down before watching it, ramp opens up and big drop is revealed. It was an amazing run and everybody is super stoked so we hike back up to have a look on what we had just run. We split into teams. Then we go in, set on the line and hold tight when you see horizon being cut off and then going on a big ramp down into series of crushing green waves. Screams, big eyes and quick strokes on the start are followed by feeling of conquer, happiness and desire for more. Once we ran it – the confidence gets boosted a lot – it is just like a big rollercoaster with water. Everybody wants more! After a couple of runs, we start heading back – we cross Zambuqa, Avalanche and go through Land of Giants. On each of the rapids, there is selection based on how you are feeling – hard, medium or easy line can be selected. Pretty much it is like that on all the rapids that we are running at the Slave. On the way you experience big waves, some green some breaking, few whirlpools, holes and plenty of going up and down while you are slowly heading towards the bank. In the evening we get groceries at local shop and cook together to collect power for following dates. That was an insane opening!
With water levels we are quite lucky – They are unique for this time of the year. Given big rainstorms on south water has raised, Leif wakes up excited saying that rollercoaster will be in. We pack up and hit the road – this time driving the longest distance, around 20 minutes to Cassette rapids. We start off by playing at party hole – Ultimate hole in the middle of the river, slow and flat, great for all kinds of moves. Given it is the middle of the river – you can come back to it only from behind the foam pile. It is possible but staying there very long is a bit exhausting. After a while of play, we head off to new channels going down Carb Cleaner and getting to a small wave hole which is there to work on our surfing position and rotations and then we get to Dubya and Cheney. Those become our favourite to introduce new tips & tricks on the wave. Easy to surf, forgiving, small and slow but high enough and with shoulder each to throw the tricks. After getting an idea on flat water and flat ground we kept coming here to try new tricks. After dialling in the idea – We were moving downstream through famous Rock’Em Sock’Em that led us to Rollercoaster. Rollercoaster turned out to be a pretty wave with easy eddy service, something like Nile on the low water levels with beautiful green face. What was even better – it was getting very steep at the times, making it super fun to throw big tricks! Perfect place to try the tricks after learning them at Dubya. We spent a couple of days running different channels to get to Rollercoaster as it was around prime levels each day the route was different going through TSN, Can of Beans, Poop Chute, Alarm CLock which made it so amazing and introduce us more and more to the area and ending daily on Rollercoaster which was getting better and better. When we were ready for change of scenery, we took a day off from freestyle doing a bit more of river running runs through Heart attack and land of 1000 holes. On the rest day that came after, we enjoyed the walk-through town of Fort Smith, visited Northern life museum and cultural centre. In the evening we took some time watching videos, analysing the tricks and breaking them down during our flat ground freestyle sessions.
After the rest day we came back for Rollercoaster to throw tricks we had been thinking about on rest day and have surfs with full energy again. That was one of the best days surfing we had! Days we had taken playing with Freestyle on all sizes of the waves gave us enough skill for bigger challenges. It was time to explore other rapids and run some of legendary lines. We came back to Mountain rapids this time starting from the top – Running Furies, English Channel, Turnpike, Maelstrom, Forgotten, Avalanche and ending at the Chico. Some of the rapids we run following the lines only, then look on them. Otherwise, we would probably be too hesitant given the size and power of them! Paddling at Mountain is followed by Pelican next day – we start easy, from the bottom with Pelican bottom ferry. Waves are huge, the ferry itself takes a lot of power and confidence because of the size of green waves that like to crash. You can either enter high and move through whirlpools or simply go a bit lower joining the current at the easier spot. With this size of the rapid – it does not make much of the difference, despite the line you choose – you will end up at the same place! We take a while to run some far rapids like Prat Fall, Staircase bottom, snow catcher and come back through Pelican bottom ferry. The group takes a while looking at the Pelican trying to grasp its size and scale while me, Leif and Pierce wander off to run it. Ferry in through 3 big breaking hole waves will set you on the line. Once you are there you go down. Molly was very small comparing to that. It feels like Hair of the Dog from the Nile – Just on huge steroids. Size wisely – biggest thing I ever run! I simply get to the top, first wave does not break on me… it simply opens at the over vertical point, and I fall into the void of water – Feels like few meters down and then get covered by water all around, soft and smooth, no whitewater dragging. Simply opening in the peak, easy roll and I face the next huge wave – That is how Pelican felt from my perspective. We finish off by running a slide next to Pelican and come back home moved by size and power of the river. Getting one more day on the water after having a look at the rapids of the drowned when driving by and thinking about history and importance of that river. We spent last day surfing and enjoying the great Slave River..
The thing with Slave is that it delivers on all the levels and it delivers different things. Levels are likely to rise or drop changing playground that you already know into a different environment reshaping the waves and holes, flooding some treasures and revealing other ones.
I couldn’t believe how Ottawa is so popular while Slave is not! If you were to Nile, Zambezi or Ottawa – you will LOVE the Slave – It is really worth a drive… ! We are going back next Summer, join us on the trip to Slave!
Submitted by Bartosz Czauderna
Photos: Leif Anderson