B.C. adventurer to travel around Great Slave Lake in rowboat


Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo With his muscles as the primary mode of propulsion, Stephen Knowlton knows how to pack light. Here he holds four days worth of food in his right hand and 40 days worth of peanut butter in his left.

Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo
With his muscles as the primary mode of propulsion, Stephen Knowlton knows how to pack light. Here he holds four days worth of food in his right hand and 40 days worth of peanut butter in his left.

There are a select few people who would dare to take on Great Slave Lake in a rowboat, and yet British Columbia resident is doing it for a second time.

It’s a bucket list thing,” Knowlton said on a sunny June 18, while loading his boat at the Porritt Landing public dock. “I wanted to build a boat and go on a trip.”

Leaving June 18 from Hay River, he planned to spend 58 days on the water, camping along the banks as he goes around the lake counter-clockwise. He has lived in Shuswap, B.C., for a decade and said the tourist season brings crowds he can do without, so he heads north to find peace and solitude on the 10th largest lake in the world.

I’ve paddled lots of places and this is definitely one of the nicest,” he said. “You just can’t beat it.”

Knowlton first put his custom boat in the waters of Great Slave Lake in the summer of 2011 and headed east, as the western edge of the lake was reported to be treacherous and difficult. He had no particular goal of circumnavigation that time, but said he got far enough to see how beautiful the west end was and has spent the last two years planning a return trip – this time intending to go all the way around.

It’s nice to have a goal,” he said.

The rowboat, which he designed and made himself with cedar planks, is big enough to carry food and equipment for multi-month trips, but even so, Knowlton packs four days worth of food into 20 cubic centimetres. He said he starts the cooking, preparing and packing process about three weeks before he begins a trip, with the baking of hardtack – a perennial sailor’s delight made from water and flour – taking up a lot of that time.

The boat itself is custom-designed to make it easy to power alone. Knowlton built the seat on roller-blade wheels so he is able to use his legs along with his upper body to propel the boat, making it far easier to go longer distances. The vessel can also be equipped with a sail which, in a good wind, can have Knowlton travelling 100 km a day, compared to between 40 and 50 km a day when he rows the whole time.

For Knowlton, one of the more interesting aspects of this particular mode of transportation is that he spends the whole time looking back at where he has been and not forwards to where he is headed.

That’s why you build a rear-view mirror on your boat, to see where you’re going,” he quipped. “Instead of things getting bigger as you get closer, they get smaller as you leave them behind, but after a few days your brain sort of switches and it becomes normal.”

When asked what he is most worried about in terms of danger out on the lake, Knowlton said the bugs were his top concern.

Bears and other animals, I don’t have a problem with,” he said, showing off the slingshot he uses to repel bears, which he has used before and lived to tell the tale. “It’s the bugs that scare me. They can drive you crazy out there.”

In terms of safety precautions, Knowlton left plans with the RCMP’s search and rescue co-ordinator Jack Kruger, and acquired the SPOT satellite communication service that allows him to not only call for help directly to his GPS location, but also send brief text messages to his contact person.

Kruger said he was familiar with Knowlton from his previous trip, adding he is a very capable and well-prepared individual.

The search and rescue official said Knowlton’s type are a rare breed and that people who venture out for multi-week trips on the lake armed only with paddles are “exceedingly uncommon.”

Although Knowlton set off on his own, he said it’s not because he is anti-social, but rather there aren’t many people who want to take part in this kind of adventure and that he doesn’t want to wait anymore.

The choice is either to go and do, or to stay at home,” he said.

Last time round, he stopped in Lutsel K’e and bypassed Yellowknife entirely, but this year he plans to make a quick dash into the territorial capital to make use of a wireless connection to the Internet.

I have a bit of a romance going on back home,” he explained. “She wouldn’t be pleased if I didn’t try to keep in touch when I can.”

— Sarah Ladik