Skip to main content

Rush hour: paddling the Northwest Territories

Keele River

Rush hour: paddling the Northwest Territories

This post was originally published on the Spectacular Northwest Territories websiteExternal Link Title.


Life is too short to spend it stuck in stop-and-go traffic. For a more enjoyable way to get around, hang up your keys, grab your paddleExternal Link Title and launch into the Northwest Territories.


Our waterways are famous - the Nahanni, the Slave, the Horton and more. When you ride their rapids, you'll be cruising in the wake of legendary explorers, following the ancient routes of Indigenous travellers, and experiencing a world untamed.


Want to be transported by the rivers of the Northwest Territories? Check out these six whitewater legends:


Broken Skull River

Ominous-sounding but actually quite friendly, the newly popular Broken Skull River boasts 150 kilometres of splashy, scenic fun. The river slides south through the peaks and gorges of two alpine parks, N??ts'ihch'ohExternal Link Title and NahanniExternal Link Title, before finally disgorging into the fabled South Nahanni River. Along the way, guided beginners and do-it-yourself intermediates will bask in hotsprings, slink through tight canyons, gape at virgin mountainscapes, and bounce through delightful rapids with names like Pinball, Thank You, Landslide Alley, and Lafferty's Rival.


Location: Sahtu External Link TitleDehcho External Link Titleregions

Indigenous name: P????p'en?h ??et???? De?

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 SimpsonExternal Link TitleNorman WellsExternal Link Title


Horton River

There's wild country, and then there's the Barrenlands. The largest unpeopled expanse in the Western Hemisphere, the rock-ribbed, treeless sprawl of the eastern Northwest Territories is fabled among wilderness paddlers: where else can you float for weeks without seeing another soul? The Horton is a legendary Barrenlands river, featuring exotic wildlife (like caribou and muskoxen), big-sky scenery, and swift, crystalline waters. Near the end, three limestone canyons offer technical whitewater.


Location: Western ArcticExternal Link Title 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: YellowknifeExternal Link TitleInuvikExternal Link TitlePaulatukExternal Link Title


Keele River

Washing through the vast valleys of the Mackenzie Range, the broad, turquoise Keele combines staggering wilderness scenery with gentle, entry-level whitewater. Rapids consist of swirls, riffles, and wave-trains that can be run for fun or, for those more cautious, easily avoided. Jawdropping vistas include features like the towering Flowerpot, Shezal Canyon and the Talking Cliffs. And be sure to bring your fly-rod - the alpine fishing is (so to speak) off the hook.


Location: SahtuExternal Link Title region

Indigenous name: Beg?de?

Attractions: Moose, Dall 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: TulitaExternal Link TitleNorman WellsExternal Link Title


Mountain River

A favourite among river guides, the Mountain is a frisky, tireless romp through the trackless Mackenzie Range. This remote and muscular river offers days-on-end of continuous rapids with just one portage. The paddling is technical and the current - squeezed by six steep-walled canyons - is intimate, with the perpetual whitewater forcing even seasoned paddlers to stay on their toes. Expeditioners can also expect wild caribou, badland "moonscapes," tufa mounds, and fields of wild strawberries. 


Location: Sahtu External Link Titleregion

Attractions: Grizzlies, Dall sheep, canyons

Environment: Alpine

Length: 370 kilometres

Source: Yukon border

Mouth: Mackenzie River

Rating: Class II-III

Access from: Norman WellsExternal Link Title


Slave River

Where the burly Slave River smacks into the immovable Precambrian Shield you'll find a frothing labyrinth with the finest "playboating" in Canada. The Slave River Rapids are legendary: monstrous features like Rockem Sockem, Rollercoaster, Molly's Nipple, and the Edge lure professional-grade kayakers from all over the world. Novice boaters have fun here too, as there are literally thousands of mild channels, eddies, and play-waves. Be sure to launch with a local; they'll keep you away from the gnarly stuff. Slave River PaddlefestExternal Link Title, held in early August, is the best time to come.


Location: South SlaveExternal Link Title region

Indigenous name: Des Nedh?

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 SmithExternal Link Title & Fort ResolutionExternal Link Title


South Nahanni River

Deservedly the most hallowed wilderness river in Canada, the South Nahanni washes through its namesake, the paradise of Nahanni National Park ReserveExternal Link Title. Lucky paddlers embark on trips here ranging from one to three weeks. The wildlife is epic, the hikes panoramic, the canyons humbling, and the rapids - with names like Hell's Gate, the Rock Gardens, and Lafferty's Riffle - are thrilling for intermediate canoeists. Plus, of course, there's Virginia Falls, twice the height of Niagara and a must-see wonder of the natural world.


Location: Dehcho External Link TitleSahtu External Link Titleregion

Indigenous name: Tehjeh De?

Attractions: Virginia Falls, Kraus Hotsprings, hoodoos, tufa mounds, canyons

Environment: Alpine

Length: 540 kilometres

Source: Mount Christie

Mouth: Liard River

Rating: Flatwater to Class IV

Access from: Fort SimpsonExternal Link TitleNahanni ButteExternal Link Title