The Tragedy on Great Slave Lake

Slave Lake
A cold night under northern lights south of Great Slave Lake. GeGiGoggle / Shutterstock

On August 5, 2019, as he paddled into the second month of a 2,300-mile solo journey by bicycle and kayak across northern Canada, 30-year-old Frenchman Thomas Destailleur admitted to his social media followers that he was scared. Paddling alone on the 31st day of his expedition, he tried to “attack the waves” of mercurial Great Slave Lake. But the planet’s 10th-largest lake struck back, soaking Destailleur and flooding his 13-foot kayak with ice water, forcing the paddler ashore.

That night, Destailleur shivered himself to sleep. “I’m afraid of hypothermia,” he wrote on Instagram. “I change and wrap myself in my sleeping bag in the tent, hoping the wind will drop. It will not be for today, hopefully for tomorrow.”

Just before this photograph was taken kayaker Thomas Destailleur was forced ashore by rough water

Destailleur, a physiotherapist by training, referred to himself as “a bit of a nomad.” He relocated to Toronto, in September 2018, after backpacking in Tanzania, Jordan, Mongolia, Indonesia, and Iceland, among other destinations. “I like to move,” he said in an interview with a French language news outlet last April. But on account of his globetrotting lifestyle, Destailleur acknowledged, “I’ve been a hell of a polluter in recent years.”

Destailleur goes deep in northern Alberta’s boreal forest.

His 2019 project, coined ‘Open Your Wild,’ aimed to reconcile his past environmental wrongs. He would travel by rail to Jasper, Alberta, where he would then bicycle 600 miles to Fort McMurray, Canada’s oil sands capital. From there, Destailleur would kayak 1,700 miles downstream on the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie rivers, finishing in the community of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. In the April interview, Destailleur said he grew up admiring the works of French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot and legendary undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau; ultimately, the goal of his self-funded, multi-phase project was to reveal the impacts of humanity on our increasing fragile planet in a documentary film. “I want to be a messenger,” he said.

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A journey by bicycle and kayak across northern Canada was to be the first phase of Destailleur’s “Open Your Wild” project.

Destailleur chronicled his preparations on Instagram, including concocting a natural insect repellent (which he later admitted was less than effective against northern Canada’s infamous mosquitoes) and describing his strategies to minimize waste in provisioning. He pledged to return south by hitchhiking, bus and rail at journey’s end. Simply hopping on an airplane would “destroy the essence of the project,” he commented. On June 30, three days before he boarded the Trans-Canadian passenger train to start his voyage, Destailleur outlined his safety gear, which included an Iridium satellite phone and a personal locator beacon. “I really want to travel safe and to do a priority of the security,” he wrote.

Destailleur poses with his kayak camping kit.

Besides a few broken spokes, the nine-day cycling leg of his journey went off without a hitch. He picked up his kayak in Fort McMurray, sold his bike, and chatted with locals and toured the town, capturing drone footage of the stunning footprint of big oil on the northern landscape. Then he continued alone, paddling downstream. Eventually, the riverside oil and gas operations disappeared and he floated into the wilderness. From here on, Destailleur’s only encounters with civilization would be at remote Indigenous and resource outposts—Fort Chipewyan, Fort Resolution and Fort Providence, among them—places with names that harken to the days of the Canadian frontier. He shared the highlights and revelations of his journey with regular posts, photos and videos on Facebook and Instagram. Destailleur traveled solo, but it’s clearly evident that meeting people along the way was becoming the greatest highlight of his journey.

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Destailleur’s solo cycling journey ended in the oil sands boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

On July 26, Destailleur posted a photo of his yellow kayak in the bed of a black pickup truck. “Leif is an American kayaker who lives with his family in Fort Smith for part of the year,” he wrote. Leif Anderson and his partner, Natalie, open their house to the whitewater paddlers who flock to the town of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, to paddle the legendary whitewater of the Slave River, including a behemoth rapid known as ‘Molly’s Nipple.’ That weekend was particularly busy, Anderson recalls, with dozens of international paddlers arriving for an annual whitewater festival. Destailleur set up his tent in the yard and kept out of the way.

Destailleur hitched a ride into the town of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, with whitewater boater Leif Anderson.

Anderson’s encounters with the French paddler were limited. But he distinctly remembers the initial meeting on the banks of the Slave. “He seemed really well prepared and very careful,” says Anderson. “At the same time, some of that carefulness seemed to be based on a lack of experience.”

When he met him at the landing at the boat landing in Fort Fitzgerald, upstream of the Slave’s notorious whitewater rapids, Anderson was surprised to see Destailleur was dressed in a full wetsuit. “Above Fitz the river is dead flat,” he explains. “There are no risks.” Anderson contrasts Destailleur with a group of expedition canoeists, all professional river guides, who arrived earlier in the summer. “The were wearing T-shirts and lounging,” Anderson recalls. “They had the experience to know this was a safe place to relax.

“Maybe I’m reading too much into this tiny detail,” adds Anderson. “He could have just as easily been super experienced and just a naturally careful person. My read could be way off.”

The curious observations of the solo French kayaker made little impact on Anderson at the time, but they would resurface with sudden force barely a week later.

On August 5, after resting, interviewing community leaders and playing baseball with the children in Fort Resolution, an indigenous Dené village on the southwest shore of Great Slave Lake, Destailleur set off on big water.

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Big rivers merge in northern Alberta, eventually feeding into sprawling Great Slave Lake.

Canadian filmmaker Dianne Whelan paddled into Fort Resolution a few days before Destailleur. Whelan was in the midst of her fourth season traveling the Great Trail, a massive 15,000-mile route across Canada with hiking, cycling and paddling segments—including the Slave and Mackenzie rivers to the Arctic sea. Whelan met a Dené woman at Fort Resolution and commented on Great Slave Lake’s stark beauty. She’ll never forget the woman’s response. “She said, ‘Don’t call it beautiful,'” Whelan recalls. “‘It is not beautiful, and if you call it that, you will learn different.'”

In all of Whelan’s travels on the Great Trail, which included a 600-mile transit of the infamously fickle north shore of Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake), the southwestern corner of Great Slave Lake ranks among the most hostile. “It’s a hard lake,” she says. “The shores are sharp rock and it’s often hard to find a place to land and set up a tent.”

A series of promontories push the paddler offshore, luring them into exposed crossings to avoid the extra distance of navigating endless shallow bays. “You can get into trouble really quick,” says Whelan. On Instagram, Destailleur told of a distinctly different—and riskier—experience than going with the flow on some of Canada’s largest rivers. “Headwind, waves, I have to adapt, anticipate, adjust my course,” he wrote. “It may take longer than expected … I hope I’m not short of food.”

On August 6, Whelan decided it was too windy to paddle. As she recalls, it was a tough call—the urge to press on and escape the exposure of Great Slave Lake was strong as she approached the relatively friendlier waters of the Mackenzie River. She stayed on shore that day, and eventually paddled into Tuktoyaktuk in early October, just ahead of the winter’s first snowstorm.

“You’re always making these decisions—every day—when to move and when to stop,” says Whelan. “You’re constantly second-guessing, looking at the water, looking at the wind. Sometimes you miss a good window to travel, but that’s better than the other way around. You’re always hoping that you’re erring on the right side.”

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Destailleur paddles in a moment of calm on Great Slave Lake.

The next day, responding to calls of a missing paddler, Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Coast Guard searchers spotted an overturned kayak. Nearby, they found a body. News reports were sketchy, the victim unnamed. Back in Fort Smith, Anderson was disturbed.

“It was surprising because [Destailleur] seemed more than ready for what was ahead, but we are pretty aware of all the paddlers that pass through, and he was the only one that fit,” says Anderson. “That evening a few of us sat around a campfire building up what the scenario must have been out there on the lake, and we eventually decided that it was pretty plausible that [it must be] Thomas.”

On August 9, the Northwest Territories coroner released the name of the deceased kayaker: Thomas Destailleur.



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