When the ice breaks in the Northwest Territories' Great Slave Lake in June, the M.S. Norweta begins her first run of the Mackenzie River. Last year I waited to board her at Inuvik: the luminous small hours of a June night were no time for bed for anybody. Later, as the ship shattered the still waters of Peel Channel in the Mackenzie Delta, I sat in the wheelhouse, watching reflections of spindly, cold-stunted spruce forests shimmer and melt in our passage. Suddenly Captain Conrad Haight brought the ship to a stop. Ahead, an uncharted new sandbar expanded hundreds of yards across the channel, blocking our passage. As we started up, the sandbar lifted into the air with an ear-splitting gabble and a whirr of wings—a "smoker" of migrating ducks.
Tiny settlements along the river's eroded bank all produce their full quota of Eskimo and Indian youngsters, no matter what the hour. The crew of one of the Mackenzie's tugs came aboard one night, slapping at deer-flies: the men were nonplussed at people who sailed the river for pleasure. But as Stuart Hodgson, commissioner of Canada's Northwest Territories, observes, "Where in the world is left to explore?"
Ancient as its Precambrian rock shield, fresh as the unpolluted air, the great third of Canada north of the 60th parallel has known heroic journeys for a thousand years, since the Vikings launched expeditions from Greenland in pursuit of badges of nobility, polar bear cubs and falcons. Yet so little of it is familiar that people are amazed that the Mackenzie and its source rivers, second largest waterway on the continent, flow north. The magnitude of the Mackenzie is overwhelming: at some points it is eight miles wide, and its source lake, Great Slave, could provide the world's drinking water.
Doubtless the Territories never will be crowded, but a new stirring in this land of stark, alien beauty is bringing in a surge of adventurous tourists. Package plans—winter trapline tours with Eskimo and Indian trappers of the Mackenzie Delta, by dog team and snowmobile; beluga whale hunts in Eskimo skin boats; mountain climbs in the 7,000-foot Penny Highlands and icecaps of Baffin Island—often are sold out a year in advance. Campgrounds on the new Mackenzie River Highway will follow the road north as it is extended over the next five years.
In the meantime, those interested in the Norweta should write Captain Don Tetrault, P.O. Box 63, Hay River, Northwest Territories, Canada. The northbound trip runs seven days, the southbound eight, and the fare ($1,185) includes flight via Pacific Western Airlines to either terminus, Inuvik or Hay River, from Edmonton, and return.