9 reasons the Northwest Territories is a watery wonderland

9 reasons the Northwest Territories is a watery wonderland

We have a secret to share.

It's about Canada's liquid paradise – a place shimmering with thousands of rivers and lakes, hundreds of waterfalls and hotsprings, plus millions of tons of ice, snow and permafrost.

The Northwest Territories boasts 163,000 square kilometres of fresh water. That's more water than can be found in Brazil, Australia, Mexico, Norway and Mongolia combined. It all adds up to a watery wonderland, ideal for fishing, sailing, paddling, swimming, jet-boating – you name it. 

Here's nine wonderful ways to enjoy the waters of the Northwest Territories.

Lakes

… lakes, and more lakes. We’re home to the two largest lakes entirely within Canada, Great Bear and Great Slave, which together cover 60,000 square kilometres – bigger than Nova Scotia. Great Slave is also the deepest lake in North America, plunging down more than 2,000 feet. Meanwhile, Great Bear is the world’s 10th-greatest lake in volume, so vast it could provide everyone on Earth with two-centuries-worth of fresh drinking water. These inland seas, along with other huge local lakes like Lac La Martre, Kasba and MacKay, are home to the world’s best trout-fishing, as well as endless adventures by motorboat, sail, canoe, kayak, floatplane and more.

Snow

Up here, snow means opportunity. In October, when the waters of the Northwest Territories freeze over and bountiful, soft snow blankets our rugged landscape, the fun begins. Huskies tow dog-sledders along glimmering backwoods trails. Snowmobilers play in the powder. Skiers glide along groomed trails, while snowshoe-clad hikers march across the drifts. And winter-campers build igloos – the perfect way to snooze beneath the radiant Northern Lights.

hot springs

After the 30-kilometre paddle through the cliff-lined First Canyon of Nahanni National Park, you arrive here, at Kraus Hot Springs. Named after pioneers Gus and Mary Kraus, who lived here for nearly 30 years (lucky!), this sulfuric hot springs is an idyllic spa in the wilderness. Burbling year-round at 32°C, it smells like rotten eggs but it feels like heaven. It’s just one of the 19 known thermal pools in the region – likely the origin of legends about the North’s secret tropical forests. 

Waterfalls

Flat water is soothing. Whitewater is fun. But when water goes vertical? It’s marvelous to behold. The Northwest Territories is home to so many plunging cascades that our busiest highway is called “The Waterfalls Route.” Roadside waterfalls like Sambaa Deh, Coral, Lady Evelyn, McNallie Creek, Louise and 10-storey-high Alexandra Falls draw tourists from around the world. Further off the beaten path are thundering natural wonders, including Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park – which, at twice the height of Niagara, is the most famous wilderness waterfall on Earth.

Permafrost

Some of the most important water in the Northwest Territories lies hidden just inches beneath our feet. Our whole region is underlain with permafrost – a deep layer of ice suspended in the soil, creating bizarre phenomena. The freezing and thawing of permafrost brings the Northland to life, causing our “drunken forests,” “frost-wedge polygons” and other odd “thermokarst” features. Permafrost is also behind our famous “pingos” – the slow-motion, ice-filled eruptions bulging from the tundra near Tuktoyaktuk. And in places, we even use permafrost to our advantage, like when local hunters dig year-round natural freezers, such as in the photo above.

Marshes

Marshes, sloughs, swamps and bogs aren’t especially sexy – unless you’re hunting monster Pike. Then, the abundant murky backwaters of the Northwest Territories become Shangri-La. Our warm, sluggish, reed-filled shallows are positively slithering with giant jackfish. There are places – like the fabled, island-strewn North Arm of Great Slave Lake – where these feisty beasts regularly top 40 pounds. Battle-eager fishermen can catch and release dozens per day, using spoons, spinners or even flies.  

Ice

The Northwest Territories is legendary for ice. We drive on ice: Our 2,000-kilometre network of ice roads inspired the hit TV show Ice Road Truckers. You can sign up to tour our ice-roads by van, dogsled or snowmobile. We fish through ice: Sportfishing guides will take you on an ice-fishing adventure, angling for trout, whitefish, inconnu and more through the four-foot-thick ice of Great Slave Lake. Heck, we even party on ice: The March-long SnowKing Winter Festival takes place each year in an ornate ice palace constructed by Yellowknife’s coolest monarch and his crew of frosty assistants.

Mineral waters

The Northwest Territories is home to perhaps the most famous mineral springs in Canada. At the Rabbitkettle, in Nahanni National Park, geothermal waters burble up from deep in the Earth. Dissolved calcium carbonate then leaches out, forming ornate “tufa” mounds. The North Mound of the Rabbitkettle is the largest tufa feature in Canada – 30 metres high, 60 metres wide, and 10,000 years old. Kick off your shoes and join park rangers for a barefoot tour to the top of this fragile, elegant formation, where you can peer down into the ancient, warm, mineral-laden spring.     

Rivers

The Northwest Territories is a kingdom of rivers. We are home to Canada’s greatest stream, the mighty Mackenzie, 4,200 kilometres long and bearing more than two million gallons of water per second northward to the polar sea. We’re also home to the Slave, Liard, Back, Thelon, Coppermine, Dubawnt, Hay, Anderson, Peel, and Horton – all among Canada’s top 50 longest rivers. And, smaller but no less legendary, we are home to some of the greatest whitewater paddling routes on the planet, including the South Nahanni, the Keele, the Natla, the Mountain, and the Thomsen – the northernmost canoe-able river on Earth, flowing through otherworldly Aulavik National Park. 

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