Lutselk'e to Whitefish

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesGreat Slave
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
chris giard
Trip Date : 
July 2023
Additional Route Information
189 km
13 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
16000 m
Longest Portage: 
4000 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Not applicable
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 
Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Lutselk'e to Whitefish

Via traditional overland route/Snowdrift River

189 km over 13 days

Akilineq Expedition 2023



We started out from Lutselk'e around lunchtime, after paddling for 6 ½ days from Yellowknife, across Great Slave Lake. A short upstream wade brings you into Stark Lake, in the Snowdrift river system. Rather than head up the Snowdrift further we opted to take a traditional portage route, which avoids major rapids and elevation gain on the Snowdrift above Stark lake. We paddled across Stark lake in about 1 ½ days, sleeping odd hours in an attempt to avoid a strong headwind that plagued us on this lake. At the east end of Stark lake there is a short portage (750 meters) into a nameless lake. (Hereafter known by us as “Thank god it's not Stark Lake lake”). Instead of portaging at the end of the day we opted to wade up a willow choked creek into “Thank god it's not Stark Lake lake” where we camped for the night. The next morning we paddled to a northeast bay on “Thank god it's not Stark Lake lake”, which was entirely overgrown with weeds, and no visible surface water. A 500m portage leads to a long skinny lake about a kilometer long, with a 250m portage at its end, leading into Lausen lake. Paddling across to the east end of Lausen lake there are two 500m portages with a small lake in between. We then paddled across this small unnamed lake to a 250m portage that led us into Tochatwi Lake. The portages of this day were all relatively straightforward. Though no real evidence of trails or markings, all were though fairly open forests, and route finding was decently easy. Paddling about 10km to its eastern end we arrived late in the day, and planned to scout the portage from Tochatwi into Mid lake. This portage was found easily, with evidence of winter use, and discarded tin cans and bits of komitiks. However about 100m from shore the trail forks and the more obvious/well used trail continues to the right, while the left fork disappears. We spent a fair bit of time scouting the right fork, only to find it is some winter trail that doesn't lead to Mid lake. The left fork though less obvious was the correct portage route. Next morning having found the correct route we began the kilometer portage out of Tochatwi lake. This gained us quite a bit of elevation with several steep ridges covered in downed and charred trees though the terrain was fairly open until Mid lake. From there we portaged 750m over more ridges and open sandy ground into another to a small unnamed lake, and then 250m down a steep hill thickly forested into a larger unnamed lake. A paddle across this lake to a short 100m portage through a birch forest saw us into Meridian lake. At the southwestern end of Meridian after about 7 km, there is an old abandoned trappers cabin by a sand beach. Despite the maps indicating a portage, to the left of the cabin remains concealed by trees on a sandbar is a decent flowing stream that was easily runnable even with our low water. This led us to another small unnamed lake where we spent the night on an island close to our next portage. 

The next morning was an early start for we had two 2 km portages over the Macdonald fault, the remains of a precambrian fault line, and today is a steep major barrier on the east arm of Great Slave Lake and the surrounding area. To start we began portaging on an old winter road discovered using satellite imagery. We chose this longer and less direct route for two reasons, first it was at one point a winter route, and had a small lake to break up the portage into two 2km sections rather than 3km straight. Second the contour lines indicated a much gentler slope, and thus we hoped for an easier time. The winter road was followable for about a kilometer, then vanished entirely into some thick brush and rocky outcroppings. The first kilometer, despite having a trail to follow, can only be described as a “vertical bog” and the going was very difficult. The second half was easier terrain, once we had gained a decent amount of elevation, though the brush was thick the land became flatter and there were dry exposed ridges to walk upon occasionally. After arriving at the small lake and having lunch we began the next 2km portage into Daisy lake. This started out flat but directly into a swamp, for about 800 meters or so. Spirits were low at this point but we continued on. To our relief the land began to dry out briefly before rising again, as we walked parallel to a steep ridge for about a kilometer. At that point we needed to find a spot to climb over this ridge and make a southeast turn towards Daisy lake. Coincidentally on the way back for another load at the spot we chose to climb, Dave found an old ginger ale can, so perhaps we made the correct decision there. Once we got all of our gear and the boat to the top of this particular ridge, we took a light load in order to scout the last kilometer or so to Daisy lake in an effort to raise our spirits by proving to ourselves it did in fact exist. After we confirmed the existence of Daisy lake we brought the rest of our gear to the shore over daily flat and open terrain. The ground was mostly exposed rock and besides a couple of short and steep ups and downs the walking and visibility was excellent. After 14 hours of 5 carries over 4 kilometers and 154 meters of elevation we arrived at Daisy lake where we both promptly had a bath and went to sleep. 

Morning came and brought with it more portages. Paddling halfway down Daisy lake and around a long skinny peninsula brought us to the first portage of the day into Dion lake. About 800m long it followed a steep rocky stream that widened out into a large boulder garden with thickly forested steep sides. In an effort to avoid the worst of the walking we tried to remain as high as possible to stay in the more open terrain on exposed rocky ridges. However we ended up having to descend through the thick trees after about 300m. This led to a treacherous bolder garden that extended into the willows for a good distance, forcing us to portage over the slippery rocks. After paddling through a narrows to the end of Dion lake we came to a second portage along another stream coming from another small lake. This one we were able to wade most of the way, with a couple short carries around some of the worse boulder gardens. In higher water even those short carries may have not been necessary. There is a second portage marked on the map from this small lake into Roberts lake and this too were able to run with little difficulty, wading some sections and paddling the rest. We then paddled to the end of Roberts lake where we camped for the night, on a large rock which was quite literally the only flat spot we could find. Morning saw yet another portage this time from Roberts lake back into the Snowdrift river. This one is marked on the maps, and was a little over a kilometer long. It starts out dry and uphill through a young forest, opening up occasionally into small clearings. Here we found evidence of other travelers, there were many old blazes and cut trees right up until the last 250m or so where the forest recedes to flat river floodplain interspersed with willows and spruce. The walking was decent with only a few steep downhill sections, for the most part dry and solid ground. We reached the banks of the Snowdrift river at about lunch, and proceeded to paddle upstream for around 10km and then camped on a sandbank.

The Snowdrift was definitely a highlight for both of us. The wildlife was spectacular with many Musk ox, wolves and even a grizzly sighting. From where we came into the river, up until where the Eileen river comes in, the Snowdrift might be more aptly named the Sand-drift. This section was characterized with a myriad of sand banks and drifts in the river itself, often requiring keen attention to avoid grounding out, or getting stuck in shallows. Nonetheless, the river was fairly wide and we paddled upstream keeping close the eddies along the banks, all the way to the confluence with the exception of one swift which we lined. We continued on this way for 2 days until we reached the confluence with the eileen river. Where the Eileen river comes in the river changes rapidly in character. The sand all but vanishes, replaced instead with slippery boulders and rocks. The river quickly shrinks in size, and the trees begin to thin noticeably from the surrounding hillsides. Here we were still able to paddle the majority of the river, but were often having to line and wade through many swifts each day. Past Ingstad creek, the river changes once again, becoming a series of small pools connected with long sections of massive boulder gardens filled with the slipperiest boulders I personally have had the pleasure of encountering. There are a series of pour over that require short portages, but despite the low water we were able to wade and drag up many of these boulder gardens. However the last 10-15 km before Sandy lake the river virtually vanishes into the boulder gardens, and becomes extremely difficult to find any water to wade or line. Thus we were forced to portage from pool to pool though we found it was really only the last 5km that required this strategy. After 5 or 6 of these short hops, there was a final pour over to portage around, that led into Sandy lake, and a chance to paddle for the first time in days. 

Greeted by a rare tailwind we took the opportunity to sail down Sandy lake which is accurately named and resembles the lower Snowdrift in character. The trees had thinned out to sparse patches and the 20km long skinny lake is surrounded by sandy eskers. Here we spotted a Grizzly and were briefly followed by her on the opposite shore. Camping as far away as we could, we awoke the next morning to see her again on a far hill with two small cubs, which explains the peculiar behavior. At the end of Sandy lake was our last portage into Whitefish lake, the entrance to the Thelon watershed, and our first chance at some downstream paddling. About 1.5km from the end of Sandy lake there is a string of small lakes Typical of most heights of lands. Once leaving Sandy lake the trees disappeared completely and the barrenlands began. After a relatively easy walk to the first small pond, we looked back over our shoulders to see a large wildfire back in the distance, likely a result of last night's thunderstorm. We continued back for our next load where we happened upon the remains of a wood and canvas canoe. Only the gunnels and a few ribs studded with copper nails were left. Continuing on from our muddy height of land pond, we made our way about 500m to a larger lake. Here there was some decent flow so we were able to paddle and wade around 4 km along this string of lakes towards Whitefish. This soon turned into another impassable boulder garden and we were out of the boat once more to portage the final 800m or so into Whitefish lake. There in the evening twilight, we were greeted by stunning scenery, eskers rising out of the flat tundra, devoid of trees. Though we were tired and worn, we slept well that night knowing that it was all downhill from here.

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