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Riding the whitewater rivers of the Northwest Territories

Rafting Down Glacier Alley in Nahanni National Park Reserve

Riding the whitewater rivers of the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories is home to the best whitewater rivers in Canada, and every year thousands of paddlers make the trek for that reason alone. If nothing gets you more excited than seeing the river ahead frothing and churning, or hearing the thunder of fast moving water falling somewhere in the distance, this is your paradise.


With hundreds of rivers to choose from, it doesn't matter if you're a beginner or a pro. You can get into a raft, canoe or kayak, pack your dry bag, and enjoy a day spent on the whitewater. Or maybe a day just won't cut it. Maybe you want to challenge yourself on a two week trip of non-stop adventure.


Here's a quick look at some of the best whitewater destinations in the Northwest Territories, and what you can expect from each.


Yellowknife River


If you want to take on some rapids, but don't want to leave the city too far behind, the Yellowknife River is probably your best option. Not far from the capital city of the same name, the river has a section of whitewater known as the Tartan Rapids that are a great option for experienced paddlers.


The Tartan RapidsExternal Link Title aren't long, but they're filled with rocks and eddies that should get the blood pumping. After tackling the rapids many people will hop back in the car and take them on all over again. The Yellowknife River can also be traveled on a longer trek, as many as 160 miles if you have a couple of weeks to spend. Aside from a few manageable rapids though, the Tartans are really the highlight of the trip.

Fort Smith - Credit: Asymetric/Jason Van Bruggen
Kayaking the Slave River near Fort Smith - Credit: Asymetric/Jason Van Bruggen

Slave River


In Fort Smith, a small district on the southern border of the Northwest Territories, you'll find some of the best whitewater kayaking anywhere. The Slave River originates in Alberta and flows 270 miles, ending at Great Slave Lake. But Fort Smith is where the action is and, consequently, where you'll find a huge paddling community.


On the Slave River you can find relaxing pools and fun frothing water, and you can find fast-moving channels with waves as big as a lorry. In other words, you want to pick the right route or section to match your skill level. The best time to explore the river is during the annual Slave River PaddlefestExternal Link Title. Hosted by the Fort Smith Paddling Club, this summer event includes guided canoe trips and raft rides, as well as races and competitions for more competitive paddlers.

Keele River - Credit: Canoe North Adventures
Keele River - Credit: Canoe North Adventures

Keele River


A trip down the 215-mile Keele River is a trip back through the Aboriginal history of the Northwest Territories. Dene Hunters have used the river as a travel route for 12,000 years. While their travel was mostly functional, yours is going to be purely recreational.


Paddlers from across the world turn to the Keele for their next adventure. The river passes through alpine tundra, alpine plateaus and the Mackenzie Mountains, offering incredible surroundings for the canoers and rafters who move along this waterway. Of course, they also have to keep their eyes on the water, as swift currents, swirling eddies, and fast-moving rapids make for challenging but exciting travel.


You don't only want to conquer a small section of the Keele, you want to conquer it all. Embrace your adventurous spirit and paddle the iconic river on a two-week journey through safe yet challenging rapids and swifts with an experienced guide from Canoe North AdventuresExternal Link Title. This isn't just an excursion for experts either. Your guide will teach you the skills needed to be safe and confident on the river. You'll be ripping through eddies in the Shezal Canyon with a wide smile on your face in no time.

Rafting the Nahanni River
Rafting the Nahanni River

Nahanni River


There are very few places in Canada that make paddlers as happy as the Nahanni National Park ReserveExternal Link Title. The rushing whitewater Nahanni River flows through the centre of the reserve, passing through four large canyons--which can reach close to 1200m in depth--along the way. At one point, the river plunges 90m off a cliff forming the Virginia Falls, which are twice the height of their Niagara counterpart.


You're not going to plunge off that cliff in your boat... at least, not if you listen to your guide. Rafting takes place on the South Nahanni, below the falls, where the river continues for 150 miles filled with great rapids and thrilling terrain.

Nahanni National Park Reserve
Nahanni National Park Reserve

If you have lots of experience with wilderness canoeing, there are a number of tours for you to join. But if you're a complete novice in the water, you can still take on the Nahanni in a raft. Spend a week with Nahanni River AdventuresExternal Link Title, named one of National Geographic Adventure's Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth. Grab a front row seat and raft through the river's "Grand Canyons," stopping for picturesque hikes along the way.


The Mountain


The 230-mile Mountain River is one of--if not the--best wilderness canoeing rivers. This river is a tributary of the powerful Mackenzie, originating in the Yukon and picking up steam along the way. Six canyons highlight the wild terrain, which houses Dall sheep, wolves, and bears.


If you have experience with wilderness canoeing and want to challenge yourself, take on the Mountain with help from a guide, like the folks at Black Feather, the Wilderness Adventure CompanyExternal Link Title. You'll take a float plane up to the Mountain's headwaters, surrounded by peaks over a mile-and-a-half high. Over the following two weeks, you'll weave your canoes through miles of barren wilderness, navigating rapids and camping on gravel bars, taking time to explore surrounding canyons and hills. Bring your waterproof camera and take a deep breath; it's going to be a wild ride.


We've highlighted five of the Northwest Territories most popular whitewater destinations, but there are a number of others. The Horton, the Natla, the Thomson, the Coppermine, the Thelon... the list goes on.


Find the river that's right for you and start planning your adventure.