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Home Story Paddle the NWT’s Spectacular Whitewater Rivers

Paddle the NWT’s Spectacular Whitewater Rivers

Here’s the best way to enjoy the spectacular rivers of the Northwest Territories – just grab a paddle, set off , and let the fun begin.

The NWT’s waterways, including the Nahanni, the Slave, and the Horton rivers, are well-known. Follow the path of legendary explorers like Alexander MacKenzie, and travel the time tested routes of Indigenous paddlers.

Let yourself be carried away on any of these six legendary rivers in the NWT…

Broken Skull River

The name of the Broken Skull River may sound a bit scary, but splashy and scenic fun defines this increasingly popular tributary of the South Nahanni River. Known in Mountain Dene as Pı̨́ı̨p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé, Broken Skull slides 150 kilometres (93 miles) south from Divide Lake through the peaks and gorges of the Nááts’ihch’oh and the Nahanni National Park Reserves. . The river, which spans across the Sahtu and Dehcho regions, eventually empties into the South Nahanni, fabled for its whitewater runs. This river is suited for a guided beginner paddler or a do-it-yourself intermediate. Along your journey you will pass by the Swallow Falls (Pı́ı́lǫhda Nááréélı̨), bask in the Broken Skull Hotsprings (Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Gaǫfáá) and glide through steep, towering canyons and mountainscapes. The Rabbitkettle Hot Springs tufas are a perfect place for a pit stop. Here you will  see mounds of white and orange travertine, with smaller rimstone pools surrounded by constantly flowing thermal waters. Ride rapids with names like Pinball, Thank You, Landslide Alley, and Lafferty’s Rival. Sound irresistible yet?  Access this one-of-a-kind river from either via charter flight from Fort Simpson or Norman Wells.

Location: Sahtu & Dehcho regions

Indigenous Name: Pı̨ı̨p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé

Attractions: hotsprings, falls, tufa mounds

Length: 150 kilometres 

Source: Divide Lake

Mouth: South Nahanni River

Environment: Alpine

Rating: Flatwater to Class II+

Access from: Fort Simpson, Norman Wells

Horton River

Experience the Barrenlands in the eastern region of the NWT and immerse yourself in  the largest unpeopled expanse in the western hemisphere. The Western Arctic’s Horton River runs from the Nunavut border to Franklin Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Over 618 kilometres (385 miles), wilderness paddlers will enjoy views of the rock-ribbed, treeless expanse. Where else can you float for weeks without seeing another person? The Horton is legendary for its Arctic wildlife (think caribou, muskoxen and beluga), big-sky scenery, and swift, crystal-clear waters, offering flatwater to Class IV paddling experiences. Near the end, three limestone canyons offer technical whitewater rapids requiring skillful maneuvering and paddling. You’ll also experience the Smoking Hills, which send soot billowing over the western mouth of the Northwest Passage. Just to the east is the Inuvialuit community of Paulatuk, meaning “place of coal.” Yearning to see the Horton? You can get there via a charter flight from Inuvik, Yellowknife or Paulatuk.

Location: Western Arctic Region

Attractions: Muskox, caribou, beluga, the Smoking Hills

Length: 618 kilometres

Source: Nunavut border

Mouth: Franklin Bay, Arctic Ocean

Environment: Barrenlands

Rating: Flatwater to Class IV

Access from: Yellowknife, Inuvik, Paulatuk

Keele River

The Keele River, called Begádeé or “Winding River” in Dene, washes through the vast valleys of the Sahtu Region’s Mackenzie mountain range via the Macmillan Pass, the broad, turquoise waters of the Keele pass, pushing through Alpine tundra and tree-covered boreal plains. The 410-kilometre- long (255 miles) Keele River combines wilderness scenery with gentle, entry-level whitewater. Here, beginner paddlers with a guide, or solo intermediate paddlers seeking a challenge, can ride rapids of swirls, riffles, shallow rough water, and lines of exhilarating wave-trains. These rides can also be easily avoided if you are more interested in taking in your surroundings. Jaw-dropping vistas await you on the Keele, including the towering Flowerpot, the 1072-metre-high Shezal Canyon and the Talking Cliffs that remind you the mighty Mackenzie River is close by. You are likely to spot moose or horned Dall’s sheep on the shore as you paddle by. And be sure to bring your fly-rod to try your hand at Alpine fishing. Both Tulita and Norman Wells offer access to the Keele via charter flights.

Location: Sahtu Region

Indigenous name: Begádeé

Attractions: Moose, Dall’s sheep, Shezal Canyon, the Talking Cliffs

Length: 410 kilometres

Source: Macmillan Pass

Mouth: Mackenzie River

Environment: Alpine tundra, mountains, boreal plains

Rating: Flatwater to Class III

Access from: Tulita, Norman Wells

Mountain River

The Mountain River is a favourite among river guides, running 370 kilometres (230 miles) from the Yukon border. This adventure provides a frisky, tireless romp through the trackless Mackenzie Range down to the Mackenzie River. This remote and muscular river offers days-on-end of continuous rapids with just one portage. The paddling is technical and requires paddling skills and experience. The current, squeezed by six steep-walled canyons, is intense with perpetual whitewater forcing even seasoned paddlers to stay on their toes. You can also expect to see grizzly bears, caribou and Dall’s sheep, lunar-looking badlands, tufa mounds and even fields of wild strawberries. Eager to sample an Arctic berry? Make sure you get there before the Grizzlies! You can reach the Mountain River from Norman Wells.

Location: Sahtu Region

Attractions: Grizzlies, Dall sheep, canyons

Environment: Alpine

Length: 370 kilometres

Source: Yukon border

Mouth: Mackenzie River

Rating: Class II-III

Access from: Norman Wells

Slave River

Where the burly Slave River, called Des Nedhé in Dene, hits the Canadian Shield, you’ll find a frothing labyrinth with the finest freestyle kayaking in Canada. The Slave River rapids include monstrous features like Rockem Sockem, Rollercoaster and the Edge that attract professional-grade kayakers from all over the world. Novice boaters have fun here too, as there are thousands of mild channels, eddies and play-waves. Be sure to set off with a local; they’ll keep you away from the gnarly stuff. Along with house-high waves, you may also see American white pelicans bobbing in the rapids or huge bison meandering on shore. Come to the South Slave Region during the Slave River Paddlefest, held in Fort Smith in early August: it’s the best time to get to know this 434-kilometre-long (260 miles) river that runs from the Peace-Athabasca Delta to Great Slave Lake. You can access the Slave River from Fort Smith, Fort Chipewyan, or Fort Resolution.

Location: South Slave Region

Indigenous name: Des Nedhé

Attractions: Bison, pelicans, house-high waves

Environment: Boreal forest, Canadian Shield

Length: 434 kilometres

Source: Peace River Delta

Mouth: Great Slave Lake

Rating: Flatwater to Class VI

Access from: Fort Chipewyan, Fort Smith & Fort Resolution

South Nahanni River

Many consider the 540-kilometre-long (335 miles) South Nahanni River to be the most hallowed Alpine wilderness river in Canada. It washes through the Dehcho and Sahtu regions, from Mount Christie to the Liard River, through to its namesake, the Nahanni National Park Reserve. Paddlers can embark on trips which range from one to three weeks, departing from Fort Simpson or Nahanni Butte. Look out for Dall’s sheep and muskox grazing along the shorelines as you paddle along. Hiking trails guide you to expansive views and unique  landscapes including sandstone hoodoos carved over eons, into eye-catching “fairy chimneys.” You will want to take a dip in the 32 C waters of the Kraus hot springs to melt away any residual stress your body carried prior to your journey. As you travel the Nahanni, known as Tehjeh Deé in Dene, expect to be humbled by the numerous canyons and rapids. Intermediate canoeists will seek the thrill of Hell’s Gate, the Rock Gardens and Lafferty’s Riffle.   The thundering Virginia Falls, at 914 metres (300 feet), twice the height of Niagara Falls, are a must-see wonder along the South Nahanni River. 

Location: Dehcho & Sahtu regions

Indigenous name: Tehjeh Deé

Attractions: Virginia Falls, Kraus Hot Springs, hoodoos, tufa mounds, canyons

Environment: Alpine

Length: 540 kilometres

Source: Mount Christie

Mouth: Liard River

Rating: Flatwater to Class IV

Access from: Fort Simpson, Nahanni Butte

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