N.W.T. boaters get up close and personal with forest fires

With just a couple weeks left in August, many people across the territory are hoping to get out on the water. But for some boaters in Yellowknife, nearby forest fires have made it difficult to navigate — even near familiar shores.

Heavy smoke disoriented at least three boaters this month

Forest fires in the Northwest Territories have made it difficult for some boaters to navigate — even in familiar waters.

Heavy smoke has left people disoriented, stranded, or calling for help.

Allan Gofenko has been on six boating trips this year, and knows what it's like to see a forest fire up close.

"It looked like like a city on the opposite shoreline because there was so much light," boater Allan Gofenko recalls after arriving at camp late at night. "And it was all treetops just flaring, flaring, flaring." (CBC)

"The flames were right down to the shoreline," Gofenko said, recalling a trip on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake. 

Gofenko says he watched fire consume a pine tree in 20 seconds, and could rarely anticipate when the heavy smoke would creep in. 

"When the smoke started blowing in to where we were … we couldn't see as much anymore and that's where it gets to be definitely more dangerous, because you can't see where the fire is, the air quality just goes way down, and you're kind of thinking, 'Okay, maybe we should pack up and leave,'" said Gofenko.  

Boaters get lost in smoke

The heavy smoke that Gofenko described had disoriented at least three men this month, forcing them to call on search and rescue teams. 

Cousins Glen Blondin, 28, and Kenneth Richardson, 24, took a wrong turn near Rae, N.W.T., during the August long weekend. Their boat hit shallow water and got mud in its engine. 

"We could hear boats cruising around, but the smoke was too thick to see us," Blondin said. 

Another man got lost at the mouth of Yellowknife Bay, only 20 kilometres from the city, along a route he takes on a regular basis. 

"He was coming back to Yellowknife and entered all the smoke," said Gerald Fillatre, who's with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Yellowknife, which conducted the search and rescue that night.

"And he became unsure as to where he was so he did the right thing and anchored right then and there."
Gerald Fillatre, the detachment manager in Yellowknife for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says officers conducted a search and rescue on Aug. 3, after a Yellowknife man got lost in heavy forest-fire smoke. (CBC)

Fillatre said the man also sent his GPS coordinates to fisheries officers, and that made it easy to find him. He said the whole rescue only took a couple of hours. 

But Fillatre said it's not always like that, and boaters should be prepared to be on the water longer than planned — especially in smoky conditions.

Lorne Gushue, a volunteer with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary in Yellowknife, said boaters should always stay in touch with coast guard radio, and keep essential boating gear on board at all times. 

"When people are deprived of their familiar landmarks like islands or buildings or entrances to channels or whatever, we're hoping that they've got on board a chart that they are familiar with and know how to read; that they've got a GPS that they know how to use; a depth sounder, if the vessel is so well equipped," Gushue said.  

Allan Gofenko added that he hasn't let this year's forest fire season stop him from going out on his boat. 

"I'm not too worried. We'll just have to make sure we're aware of what's around us and our surroundings," Gofenko said.