Archaeology on Keith Arm, Great Bear Lake

Henry Cary (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2010-003)

For at least 4000 years human groups have been attracted to the rich natural resources of Keith Arm, at the south-west corner of Great Bear Lake (Clark 1991:44). Particularly abundant are the runs of herring, grayling, trout and whitefish, and in the early 19th Century this fishery was recommended to Sir John Franklin as base for his second land expedition to the Arctic Ocean. In 1825 a fort was built for Franklin on the north shore of Keith Arm overlooking the Little Grey Goose River, and around this site missions, trading posts and aboriginal settlements were later established. Once known as Fort Franklin, the predominately Sahtu Dene population of over 550 now call their hamlet Déline (‘moving or flowing water’).

In September 2009, the Déline Land Corporation (DLC) contacted Parks Canada about supporting its ‘Grey Goose’ interpretive trail project, which included building a boardwalk and interpretive panels at Franklin’s fort, recognized since 1996 as part of the Déline Fisheries / Franklin Fort National Historic Site of Canada. Parks Canada could not provide financial support for the trail construction but proposed conducting a topographic survey to record current conditions and plot the location of archaeological excavations at Fort Franklin by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in 1987 (Hanks and Hammond 1988). The survey would also assess the site’s integrity and identify any threats to its preservation.

Members of the Déline community also proposed that a cabin for teaching and healing camps be built in Cloud Bay, on the Saoyú Peninsula, at the south shore of Keith Arm. Under the current design, the structure measures 32 × 20 feet (9.75 × 6.1 m) and rests on wood piers dug into the beach. Since this foundation construction could disturb archaeological remains, Parks Canada recommended the building footprint be archaeologically investigated.

Fort Franklin Topographic Survey

The survey’s primary objectives were to create a topographic map of the site and relocate features mapped by Christopher Hanks and Andrew Hammond in 1987 (Hanks and Hammond 1988). Relocating these features would allow for the plan drawn by Hanks and Hammond to be digitally geo-referenced and placed over modern landscape data. This mapping would also serve to guide construction of the Grey Goose Trail through areas least likely to disturb archaeological remains.

After a brief reconnaissance of the site on 14 August, Parks Canada archaeologist Margaret Bertulli and I realized that the considerable amount of vegetation that had grown on the property since 1987 had to be cleared before the survey could begin. Some clearing was done by hand but we were much aided by Greg Bayle and a brush cutter loaned to us by the DLC. Finding Hanks and Hammond’s excavation boundaries was also necessary, but this required only minor excavation to uncover the tarps and heavy plastic sheet that Hanks and Hammond had used to line the 1987 trenches prior to backfilling (Figure 1). Using Hanks and Hammond’s map, we could also locate the other structural remains of Franklin’s fort, although local resident Danny Bayle gave us a head-start in this leading us to one of the larger chimney collapses. After over 180 years only a thin layer of leaves and humus covered three of the chimneys, and once this was carefully removed by trowel it became easier to trace their associated wall lines.
For the digital survey, geographic coordinates were attained for two temporary survey nails using a tripod-mounted survey-grade Magellan ProMark3 GPS unit. These coordinates were then entered into a reflectorless ‘Total Station’ Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) theodolite set up over the primary station, and from here the chimney collapses, visible wall lines, and dense series of topographic points could be measured.

No artefacts were uncovered during the Fort Franklin work, although Danny Bayle showed us a bone tube he had unearthed while repairing ‘Old Andre’s Cross,’ a large Christian cross erected in the centre of the property in 1984 by Charlie Neyelle and two other individuals (Carter 2010: personal communication). Further research on this object is required but tentative identifications are that it is either a shaman’s ‘sucking tube,’ or a bone needle case.

Apart from minor damage caused by pre-2010 brush clearing, the Fort Franklin site is in remarkably good condition. The fort’s south extent does not appear to be eroding, and road construction on the north side was likely over the historic topography, rather than dug into it. The only pressing concerns are community plans to expand the cemetery near the Fort Franklin site, and the amount of vegetation, which could disturb the underlying archaeological deposits and features through root growth.

At the request of the DLC, we also mapped the present extent of the Grey Goose Trail using a survey-grade GPS, and this resulted in finding a low wall near the entrance to the Little Grey Goose River. When this wall was built and for what purpose is unknown, and awaits further research.

Cloud Bay Archaeological Testing

For the Cloud Bay portion of the 2010 investigations, the DLC offered the guide services of George Baton and his son C.J., and suggested elder Huey Ferdinand select the cabin’s location. Rain and strong winds prevented us departing Déline until late on 19 August, and even then travel on the lake by small boat was made uncomfortable by a 2-3 m swell. After four hours we were still unable to reach Cloud Bay, so instead made camp on a small island. The next morning broke clear and calm and within an hour we landed on the south shore of Dog Point.

Detritus of late 20th Century occupation was immediately found on the beach, as was the partial remains of a wood-frame canvas canoe, which Huey Ferdinand believes was originally 16-foot in length (Figure 2). Further inland was evidence of a late 20th Century camp, including stones that once held down a square tent, a stove base made of cobbles, fishing net fragments, tin cans, an enamelled tin bowl, what might be posts for a clothesline, and a vitrified white earthenware mug. One of the tin cans was labelled with ‘Ogden’s Cigarette Tobacco,’ a product with a known production end date of 1962. Although this could provide a good terminus ante quem (‘dates before’) date for the camp, Huey Ferdinand and George Baton both reported that many products remained in northern store stocks for years after their last date of manufacture, and thus the presence of this tobacco tin does not necessarily indicate the camp pre-dated 1961. Judging from the other remains at the site —especially the painted decoration on the mug (of an English Sheepdog) — it is likely the occupation was between 1960 and the late 1970s.

Between the beach and the 20th Century camp is a relict gravel beach that is both near the western end of the Grizzly Mountain Portage and boasts a clear view of the bay; for these benefits —and its well-drained substrate— Huey Ferdinand selected it to build the teaching and healing camp cabin. After digging a single test pit through poorly-sorted, large rounded cobbles and sand without finding any buried occupation levels, we abandoned the idea of excavating the four other 40 cm square test units as originally proposed. However, we did complete a thorough foot survey of the proposed area, which similarly revealed no remnant of human inhabitation.

We then moved on to map the Grizzly Mountain Portage, and approximately 85 m east from the trail’s Cloud Bay entrance found a line of rounded cobbles and scatter of tin cans. This site probably also dates to the late 20th Century, but what function the 1.55 m line of 10 x 10 cm stones may have served is unknown. A further 1.4 km section of the portage was mapped by GPS without encountering any other archaeological remains. With bad weather approaching, we left Cloud Bay in mid-afternoon, but were again struck by heavy winds and waves during our three-hour return to Déline.

Many thanks go to Clifford and Stephanie Carter at the Déline Land Corporation (DLC), and to Huey Ferdinand, George Baton and CJ Baton, Greg Bayle, Danny Bayle, and the staff of the Grey Goose Lodge.

References Cited

  • Carter, Clifford. 2010. Personal communication. Email to Margaret Bertulli, 28 October 2010. Community Development Officer, Déline Land Corporation, Déline, NWT.
  • Clark, Donald W. 1991. Western Subarctic Prehistory. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
  • Hanks, Christopher C., and Andrew Hammond. 1988. “Salvage Excavations Conducted at Fort Franklin, NWT: During the Summer of 1987.” Report Submitted in Compliance with NWT Archaeological Permit #87-623, September. Manuscript on file, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife.

(Edited by Shelley Crouch, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)