The incredible true tale of one wild afternoon on some of Canada’s best northern pike water


Scott Gardner
Lodge owner Pat Babcock

10:30 A.M.

I see why we need the jet boat (above, with Pat at the helm). Clearly, only a propeller-less vessel could get up this river. At times the winding Cree is wide and slow, opening into spurs and ponds. And sometimes it becomes swift and shallow, braiding around boulders.

An hour into our trip, we stop at a wide pool below a waterfall and catch, well, nothing interesting, just a few mid-size fish. Some of us are feeling a little uneasy, but Pat, exuding a Buddha-like serenity, assures us that the big ones rarely appear until the afternoon.


Sand dunes along the Cree River

11:50 A.M.

Angler Jacob Sotak taking in the dunes

With the temperature nearing a balmy 20°C, we come around a sharp bend and into a landscape so unexpected I need a moment to comprehend it (above). Rising out of the stunted pine forest is a sand dune two storeys high and several hundreds yards wide. We go ashore and scale the steep hill, using the sparse vegetation as handholds. From atop the ridge, we can see that the dunes extend for many kilometres, almost as far as we can see (below).It turns out we’re passing through part of the Athabasca sand dunes, the planet’s most northerly active sand surface. It’s such a stunning place to experience that I no longer really care (much) if we boat any interesting fish, especially considering my massive trophy the day before.

1 P.M.

We follow a shallow tributary that’s barely wider than our boat into a backwater called Dunes Lake, which is maybe a kilometre in diameter. The shallow lake is ringed with low sand hills, muskeg and burned-out pines, courtesy of a huge conflagration that ravaged the region, and very nearly the lodge, in 2009. In this clear, still water we spot fish, and big ones. By now, our four-angler team has developed a rhythm, with one guy fly fishing from the bow casting deck while the others use spinning gear off the sides and stern. It feels like something is about to happen.