Fishing Colville Lake in the Northwest Territories: Our First Filming Assignment



VENUE: COLVILLE LAKE – situated in Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories, its geographical coordinates are 67° 2′ 0″ North, 126° 7′ 0″ West.

Just imagine waking to the haunting call of a loon, or the lonely howl of a timber wolf or listening to the gentle lapping of frigid waters on an unspoilt sandy lakeshore.

This is a Canadian wilderness adventure come true.  This is Colville Lake – a sculpted, glistening gem amidst the big sky and rolling tundra.  The area is known as the Barren Grounds, home to a variant species of grizzly bear, ice-age remnants, the musk ox and the largest migratory herds of any terrestrial animal known, caribou.  The Barrens are equally known for their paucity of woodland.  Here you will only find sporadic clusters of dwarf pine, stunted aspen, willow and birch, all tenuously clinging on in the seemingly empty vastness of this windswept, inhospitable land.  This is Arctic Canada.

In search of new water

My first introduction to Northern Canada was back in 2001 when I arranged to fly to a remote spike camp and spend an entire week fishing northern pike on one of the most beautiful rivers I have ever cast a lure!  These marauding river pike were like packs of hungry dogs, competing with and jostling one another to be first to my lure and smash it to smithereens!

To this day, I have yet to come across another fishery that comes even close to this amazing place that holds such large numbers of thick, broad-shouldered trophy pike, with very few going below the ten pound mark.  This is indeed a special place and it is one Denis and I have high up on our bucket list of “must fish places” and where we plan to film an episode or two for Wild Fish Wild Places – sooner rather than later.

Early June for the past ten summers would see me leave my wife and two boys at home as I set out on the gruelling thirty-three hour, five flight journey from my home in Ireland to my chosen destination in a remote corner of Northern Canada.  Initially my interest was to catch big fish, and the more the merrier!  It was about this time too I had been harbouring an ambition to discover a “new water” and operate a fishing camp on a beautiful North Canadian wilderness lake that had an undisturbed population of large lake trout and trophy pike available for my guests.

Of course, this is easier said than done!  My quest led me across the great expanse of wilderness that is the Northwest Territories (NWT), right up as far north as the newest federal territory in Canada, Nunavut.  All of this was necessary in order to check out waters that had potential and to which I had been directed to by park rangers or bush pilots I had come across during my travels.  I also learned a lot through good old fashioned detective work, where an interesting-looking lake on a topographical map would catch my eye due to it having a number of inflowing rivers as well as being well endowed with a heavily indented shoreline.  These physical features were my baseline starting points when a map-scouring session of a new area was undertaken, as map after map of the different regions in NWT and Nunavut were forensically studied for my very own fishing nirvana!

Planning a fishing adventure

I recognise that I am truly fortunate to have experienced some incredible fishing adventures over the years and feel very privileged to have spent time in the company of folks who have lived and continue to live such extraordinary lives. It was on one such trip to the arctic coast in search of a run of lake trout that migrated downstream to the brackish waters of a desolate sea inlet during July and August to gorge heavily on sea run arctic char and whitefish when I first came across the name of Bern Will Brown (BWB) and the Hareskin people of Colville Lake.

Denis and I were hoping to add our names to the short list of adventurers to have visited here.  These hardy and fearless explorers, who broke trail this way long ago, opened up the far north through their meticulous recording of detail while mapping the geographical features of this remote, unforgiving land.  We were hoping to emulate in our own small way the sense of adventure that very much defined these arctic explorers and the resolute “can do” attitude that they had in abundance.

My research commenced in earnest when reading BWB’s epic tome Arctic Journal, which really fired my enthusiasm. The more I read and learnt of the remarkable life that this Oblate Missionary Priest from Rochester, New York had carved out for himself in the unforgiving lands of central Arctic Canada, the more convinced I became that here was a man with a unique life story to tell, worthy of much larger audiences.

Spring 2010 saw Denis and I channelling our energies into assembling all the component parts that go to making a TV series.  Finances were begged, borrowed and put in place, a camera crew recruited, travel arrangements and an itinerary of sorts came together and the logistics of shipping tackle, camera gear and the mountain of paraphernalia assembled by the crew to complete the week long assignment at Colville Lake was finalised.  During this time I read anything that related to Colville Lake and in particular the history, culture and traditions of the Hareskin Dene Band.  I made many phone calls to Bern Will Brown to seek his advice and to confirm details on the two boats and motors he had offered to rent to me.

Time flew by and before long we were meeting the camera crew in a hotel in Yellowknife, getting acquainted and putting names to faces. To say I was excited as I took my seat on the Canadian North jet to Norman Wells is an understatement.  I felt so proud of our achievements in getting the project this far, but pride comes before the fall…

Chief Richard helped us out while filming around his community. He invited us to dinner, let us witness pulling his nets for whitefish, and rented us his boat.

The people of Colville Lake

I sat daydreaming how the next week might unfold and how we would fish the crystal waters of Colville Lake for the legendary lake trout, guided by remarkable hunter-fishermen of the Hare-Slavey Aboriginal Band.

These subsistence hunters are acknowledged as the most traditional of First Nations bands in Canada. They are resourceful people, harvesting more than 70% of their food requirements by the old ways of hunting caribou and musk ox, as well as fishing lake trout and White Fish.  The residents of Colville Lake, numbering about 130, are essentially a subsistence people, nomadic in lifestyle until the 1960s, with skills finely honed down through generations enabling them to extract a living from a cold, harsh environment.

During our adventures in this awesome land, we planned to explore the countless bays, inlets and coves of Colville Lake, at times fighting the roaring rapids whilst at other times, drifting silently down the Aubry River, retracing the paths of some of Arctic Canada’s most celebrated explorers and voyageurs.

The Colville Lake program is one of contrasts and comparisons where we explore not only the wild and breathtaking landscapes surrounding Colville Lake but also the importance of the lake trout and white fish as food crops to this traditional hunter-gatherer band.  The Colville fishermen teach us how to be successful, employing their renowned water craft and traditional net-setting ways when targeting lake trout.

In return, we show the Colville Lake fishermen the modern methods we successfully employ – utilising all the very latest in electronics and twenty-first century tactics and tackle in pursuit of trophy lake trout.

Bern Will Brown

This program introduces a most remarkable man who has lived a most remarkable life.  Bern Will Brown left his home in Rochester, New York at the age of 28 to seek adventure as a member of the Roman Catholic Oblate Order in the far North.

Bern Will’s life has been filled to overflowing with activity: mushing dog-teams down frozen arctic rivers during 40 below blizzards, designing and constructing beautiful churches and other buildings from hand-cut and peeled spruce logs, leading an aboriginal team on a 3,000 mile Centennial canoe race, working as a medic and mid-wife, painting extraordinarily evocative portraits of northern life, hunting caribou, 56 years flying bush planes, newspaper editor, author and award-winning film maker.

In 1971, Bern Will received permission from Rome to marry.  He married Margaret Steen, a native northerner from near the Coppermine River and their wedding ceremony was conducted by Bishop Paul Piche.

Bern Will Brown will celebrate his ninety-second birthday in August 2012 and he and Margaret have been living as a married couple in Colville Lake for 41 years.

His life story is a unique one, marked out by a deep love and understanding of the many, distinct groupings of people in the Canadian Far North.  His dedication to his Ministry when he was a serving priest, his ability to embrace and adapt to a life of living off the land and his can-do mentality are qualities that mark him out as a man among men.

Denis and I share the view that we will not see his like again.

Bern Will Brown and his Lady of the Snows Church
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