The Northwest Territories is a liquid Shangri-La, and the finest way to enjoy it is from just above the waterline. Boats are as common as cars here, and a heckuva lot more fun – whether you're canoeing a legendary river like the Thelon, powerboating to the cliffy East Arm of Great Slave Lake, fishing from a paddleboard in Yellowknife Bay, or practicing sick airscrews in the Slave River Rapids.
Here's nine wild ways to enjoy the water in the Northwest Territories:
The canoe is the vessel that put the Northwest Territorties on the map, carrying Indigenous people and explorers to the literal ends of the Earth. Nowadays, canoeing probably remains the best all-purpose way to experience the Northland. These go-anywhere boats can carry hundreds of pounds of people and gear – enough to thrive for weeks, or even months. They can travel in big flat lakes and foaming whitewater rivers, and can be easily portaged overland. Even better, they can be strapped to a floatplane and flown nearly anywhere. Whether you're bobbing at the Hay River Beach or descending the full length of the Nahanni, we're pretty sure you'll want to grab life by the paddle.
There are two sorts of people in the world: canoeists and kayakers. The latter swear the former are insane. After all, with their narrow hull and double-bladed paddle, kayaks are much faster. They're safer, too – less tipsy and far more protected from wind and waves. For this reason, flatwater kayakers go places canoeists would never dare, making big-water journeys to the glorious East Arm of Great Slave Lake, or paddling on the ocean outside of Tuktoyaktuk or Paulatuk. They're even good for descending huge, languid rivers – it's not uncommon for kayakers to float the Mackenzie from its source to the sea.
Get up, stand up! Stand up for your ... – OK, enough with the song lyrics. Have you tried paddleboarding? Wherever there's water, it's a huge craze. Rather than being cramped in the cockpit of a kayak or dependent on the motor of pleasure boat, stand-up paddleboards – or SUPs – will liberate you to explore placid inshore waters and flatwater rivers. Some people even use them to fish: They're like a floating dock that you take with you to the fishing hole.
The best part of running a river? Floating along in the glinting sunshine, watching the scenery go by. The worst part? The hard work of paddling. That's why rafting is the perfect compromise. Sign up for a raft trip on the Nahanni River and your guide will do all the labour, manning the oars while you kick back and sunbathe. Plus, rafting is perfect for newbie expeditioners, or old folks, or kids – anyone who isn't comfortable with canoeing but still wants to have a splash.
Car ferries ain't pleasure craft – and yet riding on them is all sorts of fun. Currently, four of them operate in the Northwest Territories, carrying cars and trucks across our unbridged rivers. Though the crossings (of the Liard, Mackenzie, and Peel Rivers) usually take just a few minutes, they're a great chance for motorists to stretch their legs, chat with other travellers, take photos and just generally drink in the scenery. You'll get to interact, too, with the ferrymen – locals from nearby communities who are a wealth of advice and great stories.
The Slave River Rapids, near Fort Smith, are a playboater's paradise. With thousands of huge waves, chutes and spillways, this whitewater wonderland draws professional-calibre kayakers from around the world. But you don't have to be a Class VI boater to have fun here. Come for Paddlefest, held annually in early August, and you'll join scores of other novice kayakers in experiencing the Slave's easier features – and watching the big boys get wet 'n' wild.
Surprising fact: Great Slave Lake is home to a large, active and adventuresome flotilla of sailboats. Most nights of the summer you'll see them leaned up in the wind, running down Yellowknife Bay. Head out to the East Arm and they're there, too, surfing on the breeze by day and bobbing in the bays at night, basically serving as fun, floating wilderness cabins.