Annual fuel haul keeps northern fishing lodge supplied

Matt Gardner
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Items that most Canadians take for granted are much harder to come by in isolated northern locations.

The cost and difficulty of transporting basic items such as food, water and fuel encourages those who live and work in the north to stockpile as many supplies as possible when the opportunity presents itself.

For Selwyn Lake Lodge, a fly-in fishing lodge that spans the border between Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, maintaining the fuel supplies needed for its summer season operations manifests itself in the form of the annual fuel haul.

This year, staff members transported almost 25,000 litres of regular gasoline, aviation gas, diesel and personal items to the lodge -- located 115 kilometres north of any existing road network -- using snowmobiles and a bush plane equipped with skis.

“Typically we take in our fuel and any building materials or anything that we want to get … to the location that can withstand still the remaining portion of the winter before we get up there to open up the lodge,” manager Greg Sproat said.

The fuel run generally takes place in the last week of March or the first week of April, just prior to the onset of warmer weather.

While the vast majority of the 400-pound fuel drums were transported aboard a Twin Otter bush plane with skis, Sproat and his four companions used snowmobiles and sleds to transport a smaller quantity of extra fuel -- as well as personal items such as clothing, food and spare parts for the snowmobiles in case anything went wrong.

“We needed to have our own stuff on location when we got there … The planes weren’t going to be meeting us there, so if there was any delay, of course you want to have all your gear with you,” Sproat said.

“Plus we had to take up the sleighs anyways, so there’s no point in going empty if you don’t have to, and same thing is if something went wrong and something got misplaced and they’re like, ‘Well, we never saw your bags there’ … then you have no food or clothing,” he added.

Before their snowmobile journey, members of the Selwyn Lake crew first assembled in Stony Rapids, where most of the fuel drums were loaded onto the plane.

With the planes only able to transport seven fuel drums per flight out of a total of 98, pilots had to make fourteen round-trip flights between Stony Rapids and Selwyn Lake to move all the barrels.

Meanwhile, Sproat and the others began their own journey to the lodge via snowmobile.

After passing through the community of Black Lake early on, the crew would see no other settlements until they reached their destination.

With no groomed trails between the two communities -- as well as countless obstacles to contend with such as frozen lakes, thin ice, small game trails and frigid arctic temperatures -- Sproat described the five-hour sled journey as “incredibly challenging.”

“Just the elements alone were a challenge, because with the windchill, we were well below -30 if not pushing -40 on the trek up there,” he said.

“The first couple hours was actually enjoyable because it was a new experience, new country to be snowmobiling in -- and then after the next two hours then you’re like, ‘OK, well, I’m ready to be there anytime now.’”

The planes weren’t going to be meeting us there, so if there was any delay, of course you want to have all your gear with you. Greg Sproat

“The last hour was just excruciating, because I knew once we got onto Selwyn Lake, it was just the matter of still covering the distance and just fatigue really setting in,” he added. “It was just tough on the body because of how rough of a ride it was through all the different contrasting changes in terrain.”

An indispensable element of the annual fuel haul sled ride is Selwyn Lake Lodge summer guide Fred Nilghe, a lifelong Black Lake resident whose navigational skills helped keep the crew on track.

Making the fuel haul easier this year was an agreement negotiated earlier in the winter with a mining company that was required to clean up an abandoned geology camp.

Striking a mutually beneficial deal with Selwyn Lake Lodge, the company agreed to grant the lodge access to the camp’s remaining propane and diesel supplies in exchange for help with the cleanup process.

“I guess it’s fairly cut-and-dried for what we benefited by, (which) was we got a tangible product … the fuel from the location,” Sproat said.

“What they benefited in was the simple fact that they didn’t have to fly everything out of there back to Stony Rapids, because … the only way you can really clean up the site from where their exploration camp was set up is by flying everything in airplanes, which is incredibly expensive.

“So we shuttled the fuel back to the lodge to be used this coming summer, and then they were faced with much farther and fewer trips to send out some of the either scrap fuel or oil or anything that wasn’t of interest to us.”

While Sproat in previous years would generally climb aboard one of the first flights transporting fuel to the lodge, this marked the first year he personally joined the snowmobile journey.

The crew was also joined by some additional companions in the form of a reality TV camera crew filming footage for the upcoming Adventure Destinations International series Fish Camp -- Past the Pavement.

“That was kind of (one of) the unique things about that … the firsthand experience from myself and then … having the crew up there documenting it,” Sproat said.

A product of Recoil Creative Group and Wild TV, the series is set to air this fall.

Despite the harsh conditions and precarious nature of their snowmobile journey, the Selwyn Lake Lodge crew arrived at their destination safe and sound.

“A couple of guys rolled their sleds on the trail systems, but everyone was none the worse (for wear) when we got there,” Sproat said.

“Once we got our cabins warmed up, then everyone was happy again,” he added with a chuckle.

Organizations: Recoil Creative Group

Geographic location: Selwyn Lake, Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan Northwest Territories Black Lake Fish Camp

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