Paddling Canada’s greatest river is a life-changing adventure, and the most life-changing stretch of all is through the Sahtu, the roadless, soulful heartland of the Northwest Territories.
Here, you’ll find dramatic mountains, untamed wildlife, countless fishing and hunting camps, several significant sites of history and Dene lore, a couple of pulse-quickening rapids, a famous gorge, three intriguing communities, and more pure wilderness than you ever knew existed on Earth.
Launching your paddle trip from Wrigley – the terminus of the Mackenzie Highway – here’s what you can expect to experience:
Meaning “where the waters meet,” Tulita is home to approximately 560 people, mostly Mountain Dene. Their community hugs the broad Mackenzie where it’s met by the clear-running Great Bear River. Though long used as a seasonal camp, permanent occupancy began here with the establishment of the Fort Norman trading post in 1869. The town enjoys a dramatic setting: The Mackenzie Mountains rise across the river, while just north looms distinctive and legendary Bear Rock. Stop and camp along the water's edge or book a night in the Two Rivers Hotel, and get to know this friendly community.
Towering 400 metres above Tulita, sacred Bear Rock is said to be where Yamoria, the great law-giver of Dene lore, confronted a gang of giant beavers that had been drowning hunters. Yamoria killed three of the beavers and draped their vast pelts on Bear Rock – forming three dark circles that distinguish the mountain to this day. Hikers can follow a trail to the summit of the peak, where they'll find a scenic lookout.
The Mackenzie is a bounty of modern riches. North of the confluence of the Bear River, explorer Alexander Mackenzie noticed an oily sheen leaching from the shore. More than 100 years later, drillers hit black gold – the Northwest Territories' first resource boom. Today the oil still flows, with pumpjacks built on manmade islands pulling petroleum from deep beneath the currents.
On the banks of the Mackenzie River just upstream from the town of Norman Wells, MacKinnon Territorial Park offers a great view of the Mackenzie Mountains and is a perfect stop for river-trippers. There are eight non-powered campsites, washrooms, firewood, a picnic area and even a playground.
Tucked between alpine foothills and the big Mackenzie River, this is a historic oil town, where pumpjacks, pipelines, and storage tanks abound. Hence the community’s Dene name: Tłegóhtı – “Where there is oil.” Home to around 760 residents, Norman Wells boasts several hotels and restaurants, a campground, two compelling museums, a golf course, and daily jet service to the south. If you've been on the river for a while, you may want to hang around and enjoy the luxury of a cozy bed and a few meals you don't have to cook.
Back in World War II, this was the staging base for the building of the Canol Road and Pipeline – a wildly ambitious effort to pump oil across the Mackenzie Range to the fighting forces on the Pacific Coast. Today, North America’s most rigorous hiking path, the Canol Trail, follows this route. Most hikers start at the Northwest Territories’ border and require three weeks to make it to Camp Canol, just across the river from Norman Wells.
Just below the Mackenzie’s confluence with the Mountain River, a rocky promontory juts into midstream and the gradient of the current increases significantly. This is the most difficult stretch of the Mackenzie River. The rapids are typically skirted by sticking to the left bank; to the right, the sight and sound of crashing whitecaps can be ominous.
This fast-flowing section occurs a few kilometres upstream from Fort Good Hope where the river is choked between 40-metre-high limestone cliffs. Under typical conditions The Ramparts are easy to run, which is good – portaging around the canyon would be well-nigh impossible.
The 560-or-so residents of Fort Good Hope call their town Rádeyįlįkóé – “place of rapids,” in honour of the limestone chute of The Ramparts just upstream. Fort Good Hope has deep roots in fishing, hunting and trapping. It’s also home to the oldest building in the Northwest Territories: the ornate Our Lady of Good Hope Church, built in 1865 and now a National Historic Site.
Here, downstream of Fort Good Hope, the Mackenzie slides across the Arctic Circle. On the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set – and north from here, the period of midnight sun gets longer and longer. From here, it’s approximately 300 more kilometres to the convenient take-out point at the Dempster Highway.