Thousands of years ago, every lake was like Great Bear Lake. So pure you could lower a cup into the water and drink it. So beautiful that people composed love songs to it. So mysterious that many believed it was alive. Today, of the 10 largest lakes in the world, it is the last one that remains essentially primeval.
Great Bear Lake straddles the Arctic Circle in the remote Northwest Territories of Canada. At more than 12,000 square miles, the lake is the eighth largest in the world. It is bigger than Belgium and deeper than Lake Superior, and it is covered in ice and snow most of the year. The surrounding area is wilderness too — a sprawling land of untouched boreal forest and tundra, rivers and mountains.
The only human settlement on its shores is the town of Deline, population 503. This isolated community is mostly Sahtuto’ine, meaning the Bear Lake People. They are as connected to the lake as the name implies, and for practical, cultural, historic and even prophetic reasons, they are determined to keep it pristine.
Their efforts paid off in 2016. In March, the Great Bear Lake watershed was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Called the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve, it is the largest in North America, and the first in the world to be led by an indigenous community. Several months later, the Canadian government granted Deline self-government, ensuring local control in areas like language and education. It is the first time that an aboriginal government in Canada will represent everyone in the community, aboriginal and nonaboriginal alike. Taken together, the UNESCO and self-government announcements reinforce Deline’s ability to control what happens to Great Bear Lake.
David Livingstone, now retired after decades of working on environmental issues for the Canadian government in the far north, helped Deline apply for UNESCO designation. To the Sahtuto’ine, Great Bear Lake is “not just a body of water; it’s fundamental to their culture,” he said. “The folks in Deline consider the lake to be a living thing.” Great Bear Lake is important to Livingstone as well. “It is the last great lake of its size and quality on the planet,” he said. “It’s like the Mona Lisa — a world treasure.”
I had spent an hour or two in Deline back in 2014, as a U.S. diplomat posted to Canada. It was July and the lake was ice-free, endless and flat to the horizon. During my three-year tour, it was the sole time I needed a translator, because many Deline elders speak only their own language, North Slavey.
This past November, I returned to Deline to learn more about the community’s relationship with the lake, to witness the interplay of culture, language, wilderness and isolation that makes this area so distinct.
It was late afternoon when the small plane dipped through a thick, low-lying cloud layer and I saw boreal forest — part of a vast biome that stretches across northern North America and Eurasia — as far as the eye could see. The plane descended toward a slender strip covered in white, Deline’s single runway. It was a short drive from the airport to the hotel where I was staying, the community-owned Grey Goose Lodge. For such a tiny community, Deline has more tourist infrastructure than I expected, including a small handicrafts store in the hotel and an ambition to welcome the growing number of tourists who travel to Canada’s north for a winter and wilderness experience.
The evening I arrived, I met with Morris Neyelle, a member of the new governing council, the K’aowedo Ke, as well as Danny Gaudet, a local businessman who was Deline’s lead negotiator for self-government. Sworn in on Sept. 1, the new Deline Got’ine government is responsible for delivering an array of local programs and services. Neyelle, 65, tall and soft-spoken, switches easily between English and North Slavey. He said self-government allowed the residents of Deline to preserve their way of life and to use these traditions to tackle modern problems. In the past, Gaudet added, people would look only to the national and provincial government for help. Now, Deline would decide what was best for its people. This included making their own decisions about economic development, such as elevating cultural tourism through the community-run Destination Deline program. “Just on tourism alone, we think we can probably put everyone to work in this town,” Gaudet said.
Protecting the lake, however, is not just about self-preservation and increased tourism. For the Sahtuto’ine, Neyelle and Gaudet explained, the lake was a powerful force in the world: a place critical to the survival of the human species. This belief is based on the prophecies of a Sahtuto’ine elder named Eht’se Ayah, who died in 1940. Some believe Ayah’s prophecies are literal, others believe they are allegory.
Ayah foretold that in the future, people from the south would come to Great Bear Lake because it would be one of the few places left with water to drink and fish to eat. He said so many boats would come that you could walk from one to another without entering the water. Simply put, Great Bear Lake would be a last refuge for humanity.
Gaudet said the predictions were a big reason the new government pushed to have authority over everyone in the area, aboriginal and nonaboriginal alike. If “hundreds of thousands of people” come because of the prophecies and because “we have the freshest water in the world,” he said, then “you have to live under our rules.”
People in Deline told me that the weather had been changing in recent years, and that the summer season was getting longer. The lake is taking longer to freeze, and it’s melting earlier. Neyelle said climate change added a note of urgency to the prophecies; they may come true sooner than expected.
“Maybe we’re in that era now where everything is changing,” he said, and people from the south “are going to come.”
Late that evening, I walked along Deline’s main street and tried to imagine hundreds of thousands of people coming to the area. It was hard to do. The night sky was overcast, and the temperature had dipped to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius). Specks of ice from the freezing-up of Great Bear Lake filled the air. The flecks caused outdoor lights to reflect upward, creating optical illusions called light pillars that made it seem as if each light had become a searchlight aimed at the sky.
I walked off the road and into a thicket of boreal forest. Hoarfrost from the lake clung to every surface of the trees and bushes. It covered even the undersides of spruce needles. I was hundreds of feet from the shoreline, yet Great Bear Lake was everywhere — in the air, on the ground and in the trees.
At 8 the next morning, I awoke to darkness. From November until January, Deline gets less than five hours of sun each day, although it makes up for that between May and July, when it gets over 22 hours daily. Eventually, I saw a glimmer of predawn on the horizon, but it was not until 10:30 a.m. that the first rays of sun peeked out. I walked outside and headed toward the church for Sunday Mass.
The round, yurt-shaped structure was in town, on the shore of Great Bear Lake. Chunks and shards of ice lay heaped on the shoreline, while farther out, the surface of the lake was pancake-flat, alternately skimmed white with snow or glistening with ice that froze overnight. A wedge of open water was visible just offshore. It looked turbulent, straining and frothing where it encountered the surface ice, as if it were determined not to freeze.
Deline is predominantly Roman Catholic. Inside the church, I witnessed the community’s focus on preserving North Slavey. An elder was leading the congregation in the rosary. His call was in North Slavey, and the response was in a mix of Slavey and English. During the Mass, the Gospel and the homily were in English, followed by an on-the-spot translation into North Slavey. The language is spoken everywhere — in church, on the streets and at home — as part of a concerted effort to keep it alive. The 2011 Canadian census counted only 225 people who identified the language as their mother tongue. But North Slavey is an official language of the Deline Got’ine Government and of the Northwest Territories.
For the moment, North Slavey is not on the verge of extinction. It belongs to a family of North American indigenous languages that includes Apache and Navajo. Children in Deline’s primary school are taught the language; this year, an elder began to teach North Slavey to high school students. Neyelle said the new government wanted to make acquiring and passing on the language a priority because it believed speaking North Slavey was crucial to preserving the culture. “Slavey is ours,” he said. “That’s where our powers lay.” He said his descriptions in Slavey had more depth and color than those in English, even though he was fluent in both. Teenagers I spoke to echoed this thought. They said jokes were funnier in Slavey.
After Mass, I walked over to Great Bear Lake, curious about the little skein of open water I had seen hours earlier. To my surprise, it had disappeared. Thinking I was turned around, I kept searching, but saw only the reflective surface of new ice and beyond that, a large field of older, snow-covered ice. Neyelle confirmed that the water had frozen over during the time I was in church. He was not surprised it had happened so quickly. Sometimes, he said, you could actually see ice creeping across open water. His description made it seem like a fox or wolf stalking its prey.
We drove to Ski Hill, a gathering place for the community perched on top of a cleared rise near town. The sun had been up for three hours, but already it was getting dark. Several pickup trucks were parked close together, next to a recently built hut with a blazing fire pit in the middle. Children were sledding (despite the name of the hill, no one actually skis there), and some of the adults were test-driving a new snowmobile with a powerful engine. Strips of lake trout along with moose meat and hot dogs cooked on top of barrel grills. The atmosphere was festive, perhaps because it seemed as if Great Bear Lake was finally freezing over. This meant access to the entire lake, better fishing and, eventually, an ice road that would temporarily connect Deline to the outside world.
Or perhaps it was festive because these were friends gathering on a Sunday to enjoy the sunset, grilled food and conversation in North Slavey and in English. It reminded me that despite the groundbreaking nature of Deline’s self-government and UNESCO status, it was still a small town. The type of town where the phone directory is a piece of paper taped to the wall.
One elder I met was Charlie Neyelle, 72, Morris Neyelle’s older brother and the elders’ representative on the K’aowedo Ke. Charlie Neyelle is a spiritual and mental health guide for the community, and pushed for self-government and preservation of Great Bear Lake. I asked him a question I had posed to many people during my time in Deline: What does Great Bear Lake mean to you?
In response, Neyelle told me the water-heart story, about a Sahtuto’ine ancestor who lived around Great Bear Lake, in an area called Caribou Point. One day the fisherman set out four hooks. When the fisherman returned to check on them, a lake trout had broken one of the lines and taken the hook. This bothered the fisherman, because in those days, hooks were extremely valuable. So that night, he transformed himself into a losch, also known as burbot, a freshwater version of cod. The fisherman swam down to the middle of the lake to look for the hook and heard a booming sound. There, at the bottom, he saw a gigantic beating heart. All the species of fish — trout, whitefish, pickerel, herring, suckers — faced the heart, surrounding and protecting it. He swam back to shore after seeing this, and the following morning when he went to check on his three hooks, he found three trout. One of them had the hook he had lost the day before dangling from its mouth.
When the fisherman saw the water-heart, he realized Great Bear Lake was alive, Neyelle said. “The lake gives life to the universal: grass, insects, willow, everything.” Some in Deline believe that the water-heart at the bottom of the lake gives life to all of the lakes, oceans and rivers in the world. For the Sahtuto’ine, this belief underscores not only why Great Bear Lake must be protected, but also why its protection is of global importance.
Toward the end of our conversation, Neyelle also mentioned Eht’se Ayah’s prophecy. “When there is no food or water all around the world, many will come to Great Bear Lake,” he said. “It will be one of the last places that has both.” No matter how many times I heard this apocalyptic prediction, it was jarring to hear, especially when inserted into conversations about Great Bear Lake’s beauty and providence.
The regular evocation of this prophecy reminded me of what happened on the other side of the lake in the 1940s, in Port Radium. The site of a large uranium ore mine, it was the most significant industrial development in Great Bear Lake’s history. During World War II, uranium from Port Radium was sent to the United States for the war effort, where it provided much of the material for the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although it stopped producing uranium in 1960 and is now abandoned, Port Radium was at its peak larger than Deline.
Irene Kodakin was born near Port Radium in 1952, when the mine was still in operation. Now living in Deline, she describes Port Radium as a thriving community of aboriginal and nonaboriginal workers brought to work in the mines.
Kodakin has happy memories of her childhood, in stark contrast to her experience in a residential school in Inuvik, a town more than 400 miles away. For much of the 20th century, the Canadian government forced many aboriginal children into these schools, with the goal of assimilating them into Canadian culture. “They would put their hand in our mouths and just press our bottom lips to our teeth until it bleeds” if you speak Slavey, she said. When she returned home, she could no longer speak North Slavey. Her older sister had to translate when Kodakin spoke to her own father.
A generation of Sahtuto’ine lived and worked at Port Radium. Although it was known at the time that exposure to uranium was dangerous, this warning did not reach them. Long after the mine closed, Sahtuto’ine who had been in Port Radium began to die of various cancers. Kodakin’s father, George Kodakin, who had become a respected pro-self-government chief in Deline, died of cancer at age 64. Kodakin’s older sister, aunts and uncles also died of it, and she believes the mine was the cause.
Kodakin’s belief is shared by many in the community, including Gina Beyha, a coordinator for the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve who was a nurse in Deline for 15 years. While researching links between cancer and Port Radium, Beyha and others discovered that uranium taken from the sacred Great Bear Lake was most likely used in the bombs that detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people, especially the elders, were aghast, Beyha said. In 1998, Deline sent a delegation to Japan for the annual Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony. It was a gesture of atonement as well as a way to start healing, particularly for the widows of men who had worked at Port Radium, who made traditional gifts that the delegation presented to the Japanese.
During my time in Deline, the legacies of Port Radium and the residential schools were among many reasons people gave for protecting Great Bear Lake and for negotiating self-government. The others: to preserve Sahtuto’ine culture, to develop tourism, to honor elders and ancestors, and to prepare for the realization of Eht’se Ayah’s prophecies. After a week of talking with many Deline residents, these reasons all seemed tightly connected and at the core of the community’s identity.
Those not living on Great Bear Lake, however, gave another reason that was perhaps the simplest of all. The lake, like the Mona Lisa, is magnificent.
It draws the gaze as an ocean does. The slate blue ice and white snow merge seamlessly into the sky so that when you leave the shoreline, with brittle tiles of ice cracking underfoot, it feels like stepping into a cloud. And in the brief moments when the wind dies down, the silence is as deep and enormous as the lake itself.
During my last days in the area, I went exploring with a Deline resident, Leeroy Andre, his wife, Diane, and his 18-year-old daughter, Whitney. We would leave at sunrise and plunge into the boreal forest, following trails and old seismic lines. In the distance lay the frozen sheet of Great Bear Lake, and beyond, thick rolls of mist rose toward the sun, evidence of open water at the edge of the horizon. In North Slavey, this mist is called tah-tzeleh.
It is a land of ptarmigan and marten, musk ox, caribou, moose, wolf and bear. One day, after we had been out four hours, we came across a huge abandoned beaver lodge at least 6 feet high and twice as long. Around then, despite my wearing several layers, a parka and other gear, the cold started after me. It crept up from the ground onto my snowmobile. It cracked the rubber of my boots and shouldered inside. If I concentrated, I could feel ice crystals forming in my toes. When we started moving again, the cold took on the shape of a blanket and patiently tried to cover my shoulders and back.
At sunset, the moon appeared like a slender comma above the trees, glowing in the blue-black sky. We drove through marshmallow mounds: berry bushes covered in snow and hoarfrost for most of the year before they emerge in the summer and grow leaves and berries as fast as they can.
Dark came quickly, and we sped across yet another small lake connected to Great Bear Lake. The snowmobile’s headlight illuminated a blizzard of snowflakes as shiny as diamonds, as if the land were showing what true wealth looked like.
The northern lights appeared like a hallucination across the star-filled sky. For hours they moved in slow motion above me, as the land seemed to recede and I faced the cosmos. If a recent scientific theory proves correct, somewhere out in space is the origin of the earth’s water, which fills Great Bear Lake and gives us life.
This connected with something I was told when I first arrived in Deline. To the Sahtuto’ine, Great Bear Lake is not just a lake. They are part of it and it is part of them. No longer does this seem like a belief unique to their culture — it sounds like a universal truth. The water from Great Bear Lake flows in our veins, too.
Peter Kujawinski is a novelist and freelance journalist. He is a co-author of “Nightfall” and the forthcoming middle-grade novel “Edgeland.”