New book on history of commercial fishing on Great Slave Lake reflects 'dramatic changes' in the North

Yellowknifer Fran Hurcomb is the author behind a new book called Chasing Fish: A History of Commercial Fishing on Great Slave Lake. (Loren McGinnis/CBC - image credit)
Yellowknifer Fran Hurcomb is the author behind a new book called Chasing Fish: A History of Commercial Fishing on Great Slave Lake. (Loren McGinnis/CBC - image credit)

To hear Fran Hurcomb explain her new book, it's more than you ever wanted to know about the history of commercial fishing on the Great Slave Lake.

Or perhaps, it's just about everything there is to know about it, compiled into one book.

Either way, the Yellowknife author of the recently released textbook-style read called Chasing Fish: a History of Commercial Fishing on Great Slave Lake, says it felt almost like a PhD dissertation to write it by the end, but if you're into visuals, you're in for a treat.

Hurcomb researched the subject through archives, online searches and interviews. She also collected about 1,000 photos and multiple maps, charts and other graphics.

"My first feeling when I got it … was 'boy, this is a heavy book.' There's a lot in it," she told CBC in an interview. "But I really felt it needed to be sorted out."

NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0094
NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0094

Hurcomb's book takes a deep dive into the fishing industry on the lake and the impact it had on the area between the 1940s and now. She said on her website that the impact "reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place in the North in the past 75 years."

The book is a narrative spanning 1945 to 2022, and it includes an overview of life on the lake before then. It's 148 pages long, broken into seven chapters, and took eight years to put together.

'Incredible photos'

The photos from early on when commercial fishing started on the lake is what started Hurcomb on the project.

She said the start of that fishing period in around 1945 "was a really big thing," and it attracted journalists and photographers from all over North America since it was the most northerly commercial fishery in North America.

"I just couldn't get over them," she said of the photos, some of which were of the Gros Cap fish plant, and some of its 175 employees that worked there in the summer.

"There's just … dozens, anyway of incredible photos from that era. And that really got me going once I found those. It was like, 'Oh, this just has to be done,'" she said.

She also discovered that photo boom in the 1940s turned out to be a treasure trove that was never quite duplicated. By the 1860s, she said the novelty of the new commercial fishing on the lake had worn off, and there were fewer professional photographers coming in.

"And people in the North didn't have cameras. So then things got tricky. But that was kind of interesting," she said.

Hurcomb said the name of the book itself speaks to the fishing culture in the area — "chasing fish," she explained, seems to be a common phrase around the Great Slave Lake, one she even remembers her neighbour, a commercial fisherman, using in the 1970s.

"I used to meet up down on the dock in the morning, I'd be going to check my nets for my dogs and he'd say, 'oh, going chasing fish?'" she said.

Hurcomb said she's been fascinated by the lake since she came to the N.W.T. in the 1970s.

"At least half of my neighbours were commercial fishermen. And it was a whole world I knew absolutely nothing about but I really enjoyed them, I had a lot of fun with them," she said.

"I learned a lot because I was having to learn to fish to feed my dogs. And it was just a wonderful group of people. It was an exciting lifestyle. And I was just fascinated.

But, she admits she finds the lake "really quite scary," even now.

NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0102
NWT Archives/©Bart Hawkins fonds/N-1992-254:0102

"I'm still afraid of it after all these years. But I so admire the people that go out there and make their living fishing — winter and summer," she said.

"Over the years, I heard a lot of verbal history, and little stories and names. But over the years, the details on the dates and what actually happened, sort of fade away and what's left is names."

That's why Hurcomb wanted to bring its history into writing.

"We need to try and get an accurate-ish rendition of how commercial fishing has evolved on this lake," she said.

"So, that's what my mission was to try and sort it out. I just didn't realize how hard it was going to be."