Keele River: Tsichu River to MacKenzie River Confluence (10 days / 345 km)

The Begadee River as it is known by the Sahtu Dene, otherwise known as the Gravel River or the Keele River, is well known by paddling enthusiasts as an alternative to the Nahanni River. Flowing out of the Mackenzie mountains in western NWT, the scenery is spectacular. This is a fantastically beautiful area to paddle through for any intermediate white water paddlers.

Our full route began at Mile 222 on Carol Rd, along the Yukon / Northwest Territory border, and ended in Tulita, NWT (488 km in total). This trip report covers the Keele River section, between its meeting point with the Tsichu River and the MacKenzie River (345 km).

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Mile 222 Canol Rd. YK/NWT

Ending Point: Tulita, NWT

Total Distance: 345 km

  • Tsichu – 53 km (not included in report)
  • Upper Keele River – 69 km
  • Lower Keele River – 276 km
  • Mackenzie – 90 km (not included in report)

Duration: 10 Days

  • 7 Days – Tsichu (not included in report)
  • 2 Days – Upper Keele
  • 8 Days – Lower Keele
  • 3 Days – Mackenzie River (not included in report)

Difficulty: Advanced (The Upper Keele is advanced, the Lower Keele is more intermediate)

Note: We travelled this route in Pakk canoes. Much like a canvas canoe, they are fragile and we needed them to last all the way to Yellowknife.

Location

Western Northwest Territories, Mackenzie Mountains

Maps & Resources

Maps: Here are the topographic maps required (1:50 000):

  • Tsichu: 105P05, 105P06, 
  • Keele: 105P06, 105P08, 105P09, 095M12, 095M13, 106A01, 096D04, 096D03, 096D02, 096C04

Camping Permits / Reservations: This route does not require permits or reservations It would be advised to make contact with the Chief in Tulita and let them know your intentions. 

There is a lot of excellent information available on myccr.com Dwayne Wohlgemuth has also paddled the route and is a wealth of information on all things territories.

Outfitters & Shuttles

The put in on the Tsichu access to the Keele river is at Mile 222 on the North Canol Rd. 

We used Up North Adventures out of Whitehorse to organize our shuttle. As it turned out we shared our shuttle to the put in at Mile 222 on the North Canol Rd with a group from Camp Wanapataie. This type of thing can be quite common if you plan to start your trip at the end of the school year, July 1st. 

The shuttle to the put in was extensive. It required a 4 hour drive from Whitehorse to Ross River before driving a further 14 hours of bumpy, rattle-your-teeth kind of gravel road driving with no guarantee that the road would be drive-able around each corner.

We were likely the only two trips using this access that season, though Up North Adventures makes this trip annually. 

Trip Report

The Tsichu River begins its course as a small braided stream, high in the Mackenzie Mountains at the Yukon / NWT border. Gradually, feeder tributaries increase the volume of the river until formidable rapids begin to form in its steep and fast drop down to the Keele River.

The river valley along the course of the upper Tsichu River is open and sparse of any trees except the birch and willow scrub.  The river consists of gravel, lending to many braids. As the Tsichu picks up momentum, gravel changes to large round rocks and rapids grow in size as the river enters a narrower valley, mountains closing in. 

Our team travelled cautiously down the Tsichu. For 7 days we scouted all of the rapids, taking our time not to damage our pakk canoes along the way. We also enjoyed time to hike up the nearest mountains to our campsites. On one occasion while we wear nearing a shoulder on a nearby mountain we encountered a lone male caribou. We all stood motionless as he slowly grassed on the sparse grass, wanting him not to spook. Another occasion while part of our party was climbing a mountain, we others who had stayed in camp were surprised by the appearance of a large bull moose who insisted to walk directly through our campsite! The opportunities to stretch your legs were endless. 

The Tsichu upstream from its confluence with the Keele necessitates a 3 km portage to avoid a section of numerous steep rapids not negotiable by us. We took a full 2 days to get across this portage camping half way by a swampy water source. The beginning of the portage trail required some route finding through a forest of massive ancient spruce trees. Further on we mainly followed animal trails made by the locals. In many places we observed scratching trees used by the local inhabitants. As the terrain opened up and one could walk quite easily we made our way down to a place on the Keele River that was easily accessible.

Further information is available on the Tsichu river on myccr.com. This trip report begins on the Upper Keele, 69 km upstream of the Natla confluence. 

Day 1: Portage from Tsichu River to Gravel Bar on Keele River (15 km)

How awesome is it to be on the Keele River!  Finally after all the work and toil we have arrived at our first destination on this grand journey. Even so, our team was tired today from the previous day’s portage. We slept in, ate slowly and packed up our less than adequate campsite. It didn’t take much convincing when we spied the most appealing campsite on river right when somebody said, “That’d be a pretty good campsite!”  We spent the afternoon and evening stretching, relaxing and truly enjoying one another’s company.  

Here on the Upper Keele River the water was very different from that of the Tsichu.  Flowing swiftly over gravel bottoms the river moved fast and was quite pushy often cutting into the banks causing trees to constantly fall into the river creating many hazards on most bends.  With much back paddling we slowly became comfortable, welcoming the added assistance as we travelled downstream.

Campsite: Gravel Bar, flat and sandy

Onward and upwards

we will paddle a canoe

fresh snow in the Hills

Day 2: Gravel Bar to Natla River (54 km)

  • A:  2 Moose, 1 porcupine, 1 eagle  W: Cloudy, cool, showers
  • D:  54km! (that’s more then the first 8 days combined!) 
  • B: Pancakes & Bacon, coffee  L: PB&J, choc. Olives, smoked oysters   D: Chile and Rice, choc., Coffee

Today was one of the best paddling days I’ve ever had! The river gifted us with endless swifts, crystal clear water and incredible views of the passing mountains.  As we paddled along you could watch the river bottom clearly rolling on by underneath the canoes. It was truly heaven on earth.  

Selwki Canyon was a spectacular place to paddle through, knowing that few groups get to experience this part of the river made all the more special. At the top of the canyon, depending on river levels, an entry rapid exists that may require scouting from shore.  We made it through without needing a scout but we did all require some mighty strong forward strokes to avoid being smashed into the towering cliffs at the bottom.  

From Sekwi Canyon downstream the Upper Keele is a dream. Delthore Mountain appears rugged and ominous on river left as our group neared the confluence with the Natla River.  We had covered a significant amount of river today and were eager to see the campsite at the confluence of these two mighty rivers. We were not disappointed.  

Campsite: The campsite at this confluence is a large gravel bar that has incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and ample amounts of firewood. We stayed up late having a drink and telling a few lies.  

Five-star campsite here

we covered much ground today 

clear the water is

Most river trips on the Keele begin here, at the confluence of the Natla and Keele rivers, as it is accessible by float plane.

Day 3: Natla River to Golden Canyon (36 km)

  • A: 1 dead caribou   W: Rainy and cold
  • B: Granola, dates, coffee L: Hummus, PB, Salami   D: Chri’ Sheppard Pie

It was another great day of paddling. The river once again seemed new and changed to us. Now with the power and flow of the Natla, the Keele really grew in size and power. Fortress Mountain prominently overlooked the river for quite some time as we paddled downstream. In many places the river would take a corner and a tricky set of boils and confused water would have us paying very close attention. Cliffs would often soar hundreds of feet into the air directly out of the river.  

Campsite: Our camp this evening was in a protected spot along cliffs of red sandstone on river left.  The river takes a sweeping 90 degree turn here offering a great place to fish, with a large eddy to cast into.  Our efforts were rewarded with a large bull trout (Dolly Varden) for dinner.  We all slept well tonight!  

Six Star Campsite here

Golden Canyon for the night

Sun rain Sun rain Sun

Day 4: Golden Canyon to Ekwi Canyon (36 km)

  • A: 2 porcupines, 2 dead moose, 1 sic sic (Ground squirrel)  W: Sun! The Sun came out!
  • B: Sourdough pancakes, coffee  L: Beef Jerky, Pasta, PB & J   D: Chili pasta

Today was yet another great day of paddling. We lazed around camp in the morning getting a late start to the day.  But that was okay as the river would carry us quickly to our next campsite. We only paddled for 4 hours today, stopping twice to pee and stretch the legs – and traveled 36 km!

The river really started to get very big and fast. I had found the boils and eddy lines to be quite intimidating, I was not used to paddling rivers with this much volume! And the mountains too were growing in size. Who would have thought that the mountains would get bigger and bigger as we moved down this river!

Campsite: This whole river seems to be one long special spot and our camp tonight was no different. Ekwi River and Ekwi Canyon offer great opportunities to wander around. Behind the campsite there is an outcrop of rock, from which spectacular views can be obtained over the river.  

Day 5: Ekwi Canyon to downstream of Twitya River (47 km)

  • Animals: 2 headless sheep
  • Weather:  Hot as balls
  • Food: B: Granola, fruit, coffee L: Bannock, Salami, Cheese D: Asian gross fusion thing

We had a late start today, getting on the river at 10:30 (and frustrating some of the crew), though it shouldn’t have mattered. We knew by this point, having spent 2 weeks on the river, that the afternoon sun is always the hottest and that the wind blows harder in the afternoon. Regardless, we managed fine to paddle 47 km in 4 hours!  

It is always important to remember, from my experience, that everybody has a different reason for wanting to go on such a trip.  Whether that reason be to immerse themselves in the natural world, climb mountains, catch really big fish it is equally important that enough time and space is created and respected for each individual to have the opportunity to fulfil their reason.  

Chris, Iva and I went and climbed a mountain adjacent from our campsite.  It took some work to get through a couple oxbows and thick brush. In the end after two hours(?) we reached the top of a prominent shoulder.  The views from the top looking both up and down the river were well worth the efforts but not without incident. As we climbed Iva decided to turn around and go back to camp, I stopped and chatted with her for a few minutes. Chris and I soon lost track of each other. As I climbed I could have sworn he was ahead of me but it turned out it was not the case. I stopped and yelled his name a few times but heard no response. I decided it best to sit and wait for a few minutes. Soon I heard a smashing of bushes below me, I jumped but sat quietly.  I had nothing to fear it was Chris bullying his way up a steep section.

It is pretty special being in the mountains having flown in from Nova Scotia! The landscape of the river valley has already started to change.  It is amazing to think that we started this trip at an elevation of 4700 feet and are now at 1700 feet!

Campsite: We camped at a site downstream of Twitya River.

Rainbow River Runs

Never have I seen so many

Double Rainbows here

Day 6: Downstream of Twitya River to Toochingkla River (43 km)

  • Animals: 1 moose, 1 Grizzly Bear, 1 Osprey
  • Weather: Perfect! Not to hot, not to cold
  • Food: B: Pancakes, Salami, Coffee L: Snacks, PB D: Lentils, rice, and BULL TROUT!

We got on the water by 8:30 am today!

I had always been a stern paddler until this trip. Sitting in the bow offered a new perspective when smashing through roller coaster waves, crossing eddy lines and negotiating boils. So when we went through one section today that was 3 km long with non-stop waves, boils and eddy lines, I found myself hooting and hollering through this magnificent ride.  

At lunch time we stopped at an inlet of a small stream when I pulled out our fishing rod, tied on a five of diamonds and I immediately hooked into a big fish.

The bull trout hammered the lure, appearing out of the blue murky water like a ghost. I fought it for 10 minutes and asked Iva to help land it for me. She reached down, scooped up the fish and threw it on shore, as we intended to eat it, where the fish bounced once off a rock, shook the hook and flopped back into the river but not before we both tried to jump on it. 

Campsite: We are camped at the outlet of a Toochingkla River, on a sandy beach site. The fishing here made up for any lost fish earlier. Iva was feeling bad and soon after arriving at camp she went out and caught a 5 lb bull trout, passed me the rod and told me to give it a try.

It was exciting fishing. My first cast smash lose it, second cast smash, lost it, third cast again gone. Fourth cast, I hook into another huge fish and land it. Not only was it the size of my leg, it had a big hooked jaw, its fins were white, it was an incredibly beautiful fish. I found it quite hard to kill such a beautiful creature. After such an experience I put away the fishing rod and felt no need to catch any more. We thanked the river Gods tonight!

A moose a bear a trout

Dolly Varden for dinner

Thank the river gods

Day 7: Toochingkla River to Yellow River (45 km)

  • Animals: 1 osprey, 1 trout
  • Food: B:  7 Grain cereal, coffee   L: Crackers, jam, PB, lentils, fish   D:  Pasta red sauce, trout, coffee

I sat in the bow seat again today. I was becoming comfortable with the boils and big waves. We had a tailwind today which was a rare occurrence but allowed us to paddle 30 km by lunchtime.

Campsite: We found camp not too much further downstream – a gravel bar across from Yellow River.  We had visitors in our camp this afternoon in the form of fellow humans, the first of the kind we had seen thus far.

Mike and Dave had come from Fort Simpson in their jet boat, which is actually a fairly normal thing to do in these parts, on their way further upstream to a camp. 

Lip has split from sun

Broke a paddle in rapids

Found my pocket knife 

Day 8: Yellow River to Gravel Bar (42 km)

  • Animals: 2 moose, 3 owls, swallows
  • Food: Breakfast: Oatmeal, lentils, coffee; Lunch: Noodle Soup; Dinner:  Sun-dried tomato linguine 

Today was a bit of a haze, just like the world around us as it drizzled off and on all day.  The river really began to spread as we moved closer to the Mackenzie River, creating many braids to choose from.  I love braided rivers as they can be tricky and need to be negotiated carefully. There were cliffs on the far banks of the river that are really cool to paddle underneath. There are swallows nesting in all of the overhangs. We could see them bombing around above the surface of the water.

Campsite: Gravel, lumpy, rock filled gravel bar

I am so hungry

Big fire can dry any rain

One more day on keele

Day 9: Gravel Bar at Cliffs (33 km)

  • Animals: 1 moose
  • Weather: Rainy, windy
  • Food: Breakfast: Pancakes, bacon, coffee; Lunch: Tortillas, PB, leftovers, Jam, salami; Dinner: Chili & rice, coffee

When I started paddling today I fell into a trance that I could have stayed in for many hours. My mind was wandering but my body stayed focused. I fell into a groove I could have maintained all day. But alas, there was a headwind which significantly slowed us down.

At lunchtime Iva spotted a moose walking towards us. It came to within 200m and walked into the bushes only to reappear 50 m from us. A young bull with new antler growth. He stood there for a long time as we did too. After sometime he wandered away unalarmed. It was a cool experience. 

Campsite: Gravel bar across from 5 kilometre-stretch of cliffs.

The sun will not set

Delta has so many bugs

More moose then squirrels   

Day 10: Gravel Bar at Cliffs to Island on the Mackenzie River (60 km)

  • Weather: Hot as F*#@, like being in a frying pan
  • Food: B: Granola, dates, coffee L: Hummus, carrots, chocolate D: Beef stew, coffee

We paddled the last 15 km on the Keele River today before reaching the Big River. The confluence was not as exciting as I hoped it would be, the meeting of 2 great rivers. We crushed 45 km Deh Cho or the Mackenzie River in blazing heat. It was so hot it felt like being in a frying pan. We all took off our dry pants and dipped our feat in the water.  It surprised us how warm it was compared to the waters of the Tsichu and Keele, it felt like bath water. And bath we did, every single one of us! 

Note: The Mackenzie river section up this route is a different beast altogether.  As the saying goes, “if the going is good, go.” Wind can cause havoc on this river.  We had great weather all the way to Tulita but if not you could be wind bound for a few days.  We ended in Tulita. Some of the group continuing on to Norman Wells by water taxi and the remaining 3 took a right and headed for Great Bear Lake.  

Trip Video

Reflections

Group Makeup and Routes: Our group was made of 2 different crews.  One crew that was there to paddle the Keele and another crew that was using the Tsichi, Keele and Mackenzie rivers to access a much longer trip up the Great Bear River, across Great Bear Lake and across the Idaa trail.  Both applications I would recommend but not necessarily together, at the same time. 

Gallery


Author Bio

Dave Greene is a special education teacher in Halifax, NS who has spent the past the last decade paddling, bicycling, snowshoeing and skiing various long distance routes across Canada. I have twice had the opportunity to carry a Canadian Geographic (RCGS) flag on expedition. 

Website: Night of Adventure

Instagram: @greeneradventures and @Night.of.Adventure

YouTube: Dave Greene

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