Great Slave Lake: The Deepest Lake in North America

Great Slave Lake is the second largest lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada after Great Bear Lake, and is the deepest lake in North America with a maximum depth of 614 meters.

Great Slave Lake Stats

Lake NameGreat Slave Lake
Surface area26734.290
Maximum depth614.0
Average depth59.1
Lake typeGlacial
Catchment area995312.30
InflowsHay River, Slave River
OutflowsMackenzie River
Shore length9814.16
SettlementsYellowknife, Hay River, Behchoko, Fort Resolution, Lutselke, Hay River Reserve, Dettah, NDilo
Residence time4203.2
FrozenNovember to June
Average discharge4350.692
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The shore of Great Slave Lake is indented by large vats, often with rocky slopes. The lake is bordered by the granite edge of the Canadian Shield by the south and the east and the Barren Lands by the north and the west. The western shores are forested, whilst the eastern and northern shores are tundra-like. It southern shore, east of Hay River, is home to the abandoned Pine Point Minet and the company town of Pine Point. Other towns along the lakes are: Yellowknife, Hay River, Behchoko, Fort Resolution, Hay River Reserve, Dettah, N’Dilo and Lutselk’e, the latter being the only one on the lake’s eastern arm.

The lake’s main tributaries are the Hay, Slave and Taltson Rivers. It is drained by the Mackenzie River, which eventually flows into the Arctic Ocean. The lake is a remnant of the vast glacial Lake McConnell, together with Great Bear and Athabasca lakes. Its eastern arm boasts numerous islands, and it is an area proposed to become Thaydene Nene National Park.

The Pethei Peninsula separates the lake’s eastern arm into two: McLeod Bay in the north and Christie Bay on the south. The Whooping Crane Summer Range is located in a remote corner of Wood Buffalo National Park, south of the lake. It is a nesting site of remnant flock of whooping cranes, discovered in 1954.

Although the lake is frozen for at least 8 months each year, the months of July and August have appropriate weather conditions for swimming. One must keep in mind that sudden and violent storms can occur within minutes.

The lake area is famous for the Dettah Ice Road, which connects Yellowknife to Dettah, a small local fishing community. The ice during the winter months is so thick, it can hold semi-trailer trucks crossing from one village to another.


Historical finds proclaim that the first settlers in the area were North American Aboriginal people, who moved to the area after the retreat of glacial ice. Several different cultures lived here during a longer period of time. The Northern Plano Palaeoindians inhabited the area 8000 years ago, whilst the Shield Archaic people lived next to the lake 6500 years ago. The Arctic Small Tool Tradition was here 3500 years ago, and the Taltheilei Shale Tradition lived on the precinct 2500 years ago.

The first Europeans came to the Great Slave Lake area during the emergence of the fur trade in the mid-18th century. The name of the lake originates from the Slavey Indians, since one of the Athapaskan tribes inhabited the lakeshores during that period. The name is influenced by Cree disdain, who was their rival. The French merely dealt with the Cree peoples, thus the large lake was called for a long time “Grand Lac des Esclaves”, translating to Great Slave Lake in English. Samuel Hearne, the British explorer wandered around the lake in 1771 and crossed the frozen lake, naming it Lake Athapuscow.

Between 1897 and 1898 Charles “Buffalo” Jones, the American frontiersman constructed a cabin on the lakeshore, where he and his party wintered.

In the 1930s gold was discovered in the northern arm of the lake, which led to the establishment of Yellowknife, which became the capital city of the Northwest Territories of Canada. An all-season highway, Highway 3, or Yellowknife Highway was constructed west of the lake in 1960. Since the 1990s they have been mining for diamonds in the area.

On the 24th of January in 1978 a Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite, named Kosmos 954, fell from orbit, with a nuclear reactor on board. It disintegrated and its pieces fell right next to Great Slave Lake. 90% of the nuclear debris was recovered thanks to a joint operation of the United States and the Canada Armed Forces.


The lake area is one of the best places in Canada where one can admire the Northern Lights, which can be seen best near the spring and fall equinoxes. There is an annual Snowking Festival held in a snow castle constructed on the lake every winter. Fishing is best in the southern part of the lake near Hay River village, which is rich in trout and whitefish. The best place for trapping is at Fort Resolution.

Great Slave Lake Map