The Nahanni River is one of the most iconic canoe routes in Canada. Guided by canoeing legend Bill Mason, in the summer of 1970 Pierre Elliot Trudeau paddled the Nahanni River. Shortly after, in 1976 the Nahanni River National Park was created to protect the river; then in 1978, the Nahanni River was in the first round of sites designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I’ve had my eye on the Nahanni for years, but my dad has been keen to paddle it since he was 15 years old. After the pandemic delayed us several times, in 2023 we were finally able to make the trip a reality. Supported by wonderful Black Feather guides, my dad and I, plus six other people, spent two weeks paddling the Nahanni from Rabbitkettle Lake to Nahanni Butte.
I had anticipated the beautiful scenery and whitewater, but I hadn’t expected how many wonderful side trips and sights (and the amazing friends) there would be along the way. This report goes into detail about each day of the trip, including all the side hikes and points of interest.
Trip Completed: July 2023
Starting Point: Rabbitkettle Lake (km 225)
Ending Point: Nahanni Butte (km 562)
Total Distance: 337 km
Duration: 13 days
Location: This route takes place in Nahanni National Park Reserve, in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories. The nearest towns are Fort Simpson (2 hours from the put in by float plane) and Nahanni Butte, which is on the river at the take out.
Traditional Territory: This route is on the traditional territory of Dehcho First Nations.
Maps & Resources
Guidebook / Map: South Nahanni River Touring Guide – available as a paper copy from the Parks Canada Visitor’s Center in Fort Simpson. This booklet contains both a map and a guide to features and day hikes.
Permits & Reservations
Campsite Reservations: For the most part, there are no campsite reservations in Nahanni National Park Reserve. However, there are a few popular campsites where reservations are highly recommended: Rabbitkettle Lake and Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), as well as Glacier Lake and Fairy Meadows (which are outside the route detailed in this trip report). If you’re going with an outfitter, you don’t need to worry about this. However, if you’re going self-guided, you should submit a campsite reservation form if you want to stay at any of these sites. The instructions and form can be found on this webpage.
Permits: There is a per-person permit fee. For adults, this is either $31.75 per night or $222.25 for the year (see Parks Canada website for more information). If you are going with an outfitter, the permit fee is included in the trip package.
Know Before You Go
Season: Nahanni National Park Reserve has a small window of operation – typically end of June to end of August. Some groups may wrap up their trips in the first week of September. The busiest period is the last week of July and the first week of August. During this time, the campground at Virginia Falls is very full and you may see other groups on the river. However, the park only gets 300 – 600 people per season, so regardless of when you visit, the river won’t feel crowded.
Cell Reception: There is no cell service anywhere in the park. You will need a satellite phone / beacon.
Water: Being a river, there is plenty of fresh water available throughout the trip. We mostly camped where creeks meet the Nahanni, as the creek water was less silty than the river. You could probably get away with not filtering the water, but we always did to be safe.
Drones: Drones are not allowed in national parks, including Nahanni River National Park Reserve.
Wildlife: There is a ton of wildlife on the Nahanni River. There are black bears and grizzly bears (carry multiple canisters of bear spray), though they aren’t often seen on the river. It is common to see Moose in the section of the river above the falls, and to see Bison in The Splits. We also saw caribou but this is more rare. In addition, we saw beavers and many species of birds, plus fox tracks. Some people have also seen wolves on the river.
Waste: All waste must be packed out with you. At most of the campsites, you are expected to dig a cat hole to bury poop. The campsites at Rabbitkettle Lake and Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls have outhouses. The campsite at The Gate has a thunderbox. Due to overuse, you can only camp at Lafferty Creek if you have a WAG bag (or equivalent) and can pack out your poop.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitters: There are a few outfitters that provide guided trips on the Nahanni River. We went with Black Feather and they did an amazing job.
Shuttle: If you aren’t doing a guided trip, you’ll need to coordinate a shuttle to the put in and from the take out. Getting to Rabbitkettle Lakes requires a float plane, typically from Fort Simpson, NWT. We used South Nahanni Airways (through Black Feather). Simpson Air is also an option.
From Nahanni Butte at the end of the trip, you can either take out at the Nahanni Butte public boat launch and get a boat shuttle across the Liard River to the highway. Alternatively, you can paddle across the Liard River to the highway, but this will require ~2 additional days of paddling. John Murray and his son provide the boat shuttle and can be reached at. I recommend contacting Black Feather to help you coordinate the shuttles, even if you’re doing it self-guided.
Guided vs Unguided: You definitely can do the Nahanni River unguided if you have sufficient whitewater and remote expedition experience. We chose to do it guided for three reasons:
1. You need stellar whitewater skills. My dad and I didn’t have the whitewater skills to do it unguided. This was the biggest trip either of us has done.
2. You should have multiple boats. Unless you are EXTREMELY experienced, you need to have multiple boats on a northern river like this. If a boat tips, you need another boat to help with the rescue. The current is moving so quickly that if the swimming paddlers and the boat got separated, it could be a ways down the river before you catch up to it.
3. The logistics are a bit tricky. As you read above, there’s a float plane on the way in and a van shuttle on the way out (plus an optional boat shuttle). Going with a guided trip takes care of all this and splits the cost among the full group.
Day 1: Fort Simpson to Rabbitkettle Lake (0 km)
Our day started in the Yellowknife airport with a flight to Fort Simpson. We boarded the ~20 seat plane (from the back – there is cargo at the front of the plane) and flew for about an hour. From above, there was a great view of all the little lakes scattered across the Northwest Territories and, as we approached Fort Simpson, the mighty Mackenzie River.
Our guides met us at the Fort Simpson airport. After a quick lunch, we finished packing our gear before loading it onto the float plane. We took a Twin Otter, with three canoes inside the plane on their sides, and five seats along the other side of the plane (see photo below). Being a group of 10 with 5 canoes, we had to take two float plane trips. I was part of the first group to go, and during my flight, the other half of our group went to the Parks office to pick up fishing permits.
The flight took about 2 hours and throughout the flight we got beautiful views of the mountain ranges around the Nahanni. We landed on Rabbitkettle Lake (the bright blue lake in the third photo) and the plane taxied to the dock. Two Parks Canada staff met us on the dock.
Campsite: The campsite at Rabbitkettle Lake is about 300 m from the float plane dock and park rangers’ cabin. We paddled out gear from the dock to the campsite, though there is a trail so you could walk it instead if you wanted. The campsite had three large tent platforms (which could each accommodate two 3 person tents) and multiple picnic tables. There was an outhouse and a good path down to the water for swimming.
We had a little under 4 hours until the other half of our group would arrive, so we set up camp, went swimming and got dinner ready.
Day 2: Rest Day at Rabbitkettle Lake (0 km)
I woke up somewhat exhausted after a second night of little-to-no sleep. Even with the eye mask, I had a hard time falling asleep under a bright and shining sun. Only when the sun briefly set (around 3am) did my body decide it could fall asleep.
The first day isn’t usually a rest day, but we got incredibly lucky and the two park rangers were there. There is a hike from Rabbitkettle Lake to the incredible Tufa Mounds, but you need to have the park rangers with you to visit them. This is because the Tufa Mounds are so ecologically fragile and an extremely important cultural site for the Dene people. So instead of paddling, we started our trip with a hike.
The Tufa Mound is forming (yes, forming… it is still growing!) from a warm stream underground. It has calcium carbonate deposits in the stream, but no sulphur, so as it bubbles up it leaves these calcium deposits that grow over time. It’s kind of like a coral reef growing above ground and out of water.
To reach the Tufa Mound, we hiked along a somewhat well-defined trail for 4 km. There was one major obstacle along the way – the trail crosses over Rabbitkettle Creek and we needed to use a boat attached to a pulley system to ferry across. Once at the Tufa Mound, we split into two groups to explore it and the Parks Canada staff explained its history and development.
We hiked the 4 km back and then went for a swim and cooked dinner.
Campsite: Same as previous night.
Day 3: Rabbitkettle Lake to Hell Roaring Creek (55 km)
Another mostly sleepless night (I would recommend bringing melatonin in addition to a sleep mask if you have trouble sleeping when it’s bright out). After a great breakfast, we loaded canoes and took off.
Rabbitkettle Lake to Nahanni River: The first part of our day was a short paddle across Rabbitkettle Lake, from our campsite to the small creek connecting the lake to the Nahanni River. The creek was narrow with tall grass and small trees on either side – with the surrounding mountains concealed by the trees, I remarked how similar this creek looked to the creeks in Temagami.
There was a short carry over in the middle of the creek (less than 10 m long). We had six people per canoe carry the boat across, so we could avoid taking anything out of the boats. The water on the far side of the carry over was noticeably siltier – blue-grey instead of dark green – and the water level was lower. The far edge of the carry over was a little steep and we had to hold a branch to carefully lower down to the canoes.
After a short paddle on the silty part of the creek, we came to our second of two obstacles. A large beaver dam. We pushed a few branches to the side so the water level on the near side was flush with the top of the beaver dam. For the first four boats, the boats paddled toward the beaver dam gaining momentum and then two people would help them slide over the beaver dam into the water. By the fifth and final boat, there was enough water going over the beaver dam that the canoe could slide over on its own.
After about 30 m of paddling, we reached the fast moving Nahanni River. This whole section took only about an hour to paddle.
Nahanni River to Hell Roaring: From here, we had about 55 km of paddling on the Nahanni River to reach Hell Roaring Creek. While 55 km may sound like a lot, the current was moving more than we expected. Although it wasn’t “moving water” (no ripples in the water or crashing waves), the water was definitely moving. I estimate our group paddled at about 4.5 km/h in flat water – and our GPS measured us between 8.1 km/h and 11.3 km/h throughout the day.
The first section of the Nahanni River that we paddled didn’t have many bends in the river – a few gradual turns but nothing sharp. The forest fire smoke concealed much of the surrounding mountains, and we paddled in a bit of a daze for the first two hours before stopping at a gravel bar for lunch.
A few kilometers after Alpine Ridge, around km 255, the river got super bending. What would be 2km as the crow flies was 5 km of paddling. The current picked up a small amount on the bends, but just enough to be noticeable.
After a total of 6.5 hours on the water (including almost an hour for lunch), we arrived at our campsite at Hell Roaring Creek.
Campsite: Hell Roaring Creek, which meets the Nahanni River at km 276, is a fast moving creek with a medium-sized gravel bar. Like nearly all of the gravel bar campsites we would stay at, this one had medium-sized gravel that was decent for tent sights and a nearby forest that was good for digging holes (if you get what I mean). There was a good amount of driftwood on the gravel bar for firewood.
Hell Roaring Creek was a bit deep in part (well, it went to my knees in parts which is deep relative to the other creeks we would see on this trip) and I tried swimming down it. There was some debate amongst the group about whether the creek or the river was colder, but my vote is that the river was colder.
Day 4: Hell Roaring Creek to Gravel Bar at km 311 (35 km)
Today was one of the less eventful days of the trip. We started at Hell Roaring Creek and paddled 35 km to another gravel bar. The forest fire smoke was heavier today, but not enough to bother breathing. It concealed some of the surrounding mountains, but we could still appreciate the tall peaks around us.
We had lunch on a huge gravel bar in the center of the river and I had my first Mars bar of the trip (fun fact: Mars bars are my favourite trip snack and I only eat them on trip).
Campsite: This gravel bar (km 311) was much more sandy than others.
Day 5: Gravel Bar at km 311 to Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls (34 km)
I FINALLY SLEPT! This is going to sound silly, but the night before I put on sunglasses around 8pm and wore them until bedtime to trick my body into thinking it was darker than it was. It oddly worked! I woke up refreshed and, after another delicious breakfast, we hit the water.
Gravel Bar to Ranger Cabin: Honestly, today was basically a shorter version of the day before. The forest fire smoke concealed a lot of the surrounding mountains and we had long gradual bends of slow moving water (there were fewer bends today than yesterday).
Despite the occasional monotony, it was an enjoyable paddle – very peaceful and there was an air of anticipation as we would be reaching the falls this day.
A little before Sunblood, we reached the creek to Oxbow Lake. Apparently there is a nice campsite here with great views – we obviously did stay here, but worth considering for your trip.
Lunch at the Sunblood Ranger Cabin (km 303): A kilometer after Oxbow Lake, we stopped for lunch at an old Park Ranger cabin. It was boarded up so we couldn’t look inside, but we could see evidence that a bear had been there – the steel mesh in front of the front door had a claw mark in it (see the photo below). There isn’t really anything here to stop for, but it meant we could eat lunch at a picnic table.
Ranger Cabin to Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls: More of the same river for the final 10 km or so to the falls. As we got closer to the falls, we moved closer to the River Right shore (as this is the side with the campsite, hiking trail and portage take out).
There are three docks at Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls and it doesn’t matter which one you take out from. Above the docks is a communal gazebo and several boardwalk paths to the other docks, ranger cabin and tent platforms. The forest fire smoke meant no other groups had been able to fly into the park, so we had the whole campground to ourselves.
Hike to Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls Lookout: Once we had set up camp, we all took a hike to the falls lookout. The area around the falls is very developed; more that three quarters of the trail to the falls was on boardwalk (I think this is both to make it accessible and to reduce the damage caused by hikers). It was very easy to follow and there were lots of viewpoints along the way. We took our time, taking lots of photos, and the whole thing took about 1.5 hours.
Campsite: We camped at the falls (km 345). This is the most built-up place on the Nahanni River. There are interconnecting boardwalks, connecting outhouses, tent platforms, a gazebo and the boat docks. The boardwalks also connect to the portage and hiking trails. Each tent platform has a picnic table. There are two bear lockers for food.
Day 6: Rest Day at Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls
Today was a rest day, so instead of portaging around Virginia Falls // Nailicho, we did a hike to Last Chance Eddy to take in the falls from a different perspective. Originally we were going to hike to the top of Sunblood Mountain, a popular hike that gives 360 degree views of the surrounding mountain range, but the forest fire smoke meant we wouldn’t have much of a view, so instead we opted for the falls.
Hike to Last Chance Eddy: The trailhead is on the opposite side of the river. Since the waterfall is downriver, we had to paddle upriver along the Right Right shore, ferry across and then paddle down the River Left shore a little to the take out.
We pulled up the boats and tied them to a tree to secure them. This isn’t a maintained (or well documented) trail, but it was there was a visible trail and it was pretty obvious where to go. We hung along the shoreline for the most part. There was some elevation gain at the beginning, as the shoreline becomes a cliff.
There was a good lookout point after about 30 minutes. A little beyond the lookout point, there was a path of sorts down to Last Chance Eddy. This brought us right to the rushing water above the falls (be careful!).
Back to Camp: We ended the day back at the campground, eating a delicious chocolate cake pie creation and playing cards. We needed a restful night in preparation for the portage and our first day of whitewater in the canyons tomorrow.
Campsite: Same as previous night.
Day 7: Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls to Clearwater Creek (11 km)
Portage around Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls: We started the day with the portage around Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls. The portage is a little over a kilometer and the first 2/3 is on a relatively level boardwalk. My portage partner took this section, and I took over for the final third, which was a series of switchbacks on a narrow trail down the side of the canyon to the water. It took the group 2.5 trips to get all the gear down.
We had lunch at the base of the falls and finally got to see it head on. Can confirm, would not want to go down that. After lunch we changed into dry suits and got ready for the first section of whitewater – Fourth Canyon.
Fourth Canyon: The thing about the canyon sections is that the real challenge is the volume of water, especially near the canyon walls. “There’s literally only one submerged rock on the river, so you just need to be mindful of waves” said the guide.
We pushed off. My boat had made it about 2km when we managed to strike the ONE SUBMERGED ROCK IN THE WHOLE RIVER. We fought to stay upright but, sure enough, we flipped. This was my first time flipping in a fully loaded canoe. Somehow I’d made it 10 years never flipping with gear. Well, there’s a first time for everything.
The guide boat behind us paddled towards my canoeing partner (my dad) and managed to hit the same rock, causing them to flip too. I didn’t see what happened next. Still holding onto my paddle and refusing to let go of the canoe, I flipped over and power swam to shore, pulling the canoe with me. At last I reached the shoreline and looked up. The others had also gotten to shore with their boat. We emptied the boats, drank some water and continued on our way. The remaining 3 km of Fourth Canyon was big and wavy, but lots of fun.
False Canyon: About 2km downriver to Fourth Canyon were calm, but fast moving before we entered False Canyon. There was a small CI/CII rapid in False Canyon, but it just seemed like a period of high volume – nothing notable. There was another rapid like this just after False Canyon, and within 1 km we were at Clearwater Creek.
Campsite: We camped on the gravel bar at Clearwater Creek (km 356). This gravel bar was huge and extended far down the river in both directions. After dinner, we saw a caribou walking on the opposite side of the river – the first one I’d ever seen.
Day 8: Clearwater Creek to The Gate (48 km)
Our caribou friend visited us again in the morning! This time he/she (I couldn’t tell) was on our side of the river and seemed curious about our tents.
We wore dry suits for the first half of the day, since there would be a few potentially tricky features.
Wrigley Whirlpool: Our first feature of the day was Wrigley Whirlpool. This is marked as a notable feature on the map, but we paddled right through it without noticing.
Tricky Currents: Tricky Currents is exactly what it sounds like. It isn’t a rapid, but it’s a place where the river wraps around a gravel bar in a weird way that causes to currents to meet, forming a current line in the middle. Nothing to sweat, but pay attention in this section.
After Tricky Currents, there is about 25 km of fast moving water without any rapids. We had lunch during this stretch and removed the dry suits for the remainder of the day.
Third Canyon: Around km 390, we entered Third Canyon. There weren’t any distinct rapids, but there was a lot of fast moving water and boils underneath the canyon walls. We stuck to the center and got through no problem.
Campsite: We camped at a well known and well-used campsite that faces the The Gate (km 404). This campsite is so well used that it is the only one (besides the Falls) with a thunderbox. The campsite was huge with lots of room for tents and a great kitchen area. The only negative part was that there were a few spots with huge red ant colonies. Keep this in mind when deciding where you will pitch your tent!
Day 9: The Gate to Painted Rocks Canyon (26 km)
Hike to Pulpit Rock Lookout: We started the hike to Pulpit Rock Lookout around 10:30 am. The trail started a little after the last tent spot before the thunderbox on the right (if walking towards the thunderbox). Just a heads up, this is not a maintained or well-defined trail.
The trail crosses the creek and there isn’t really anyway to cross without getting your feet wet, so we all wore sandals / water shoes across and carried our hiking shoes. Once we were across, we changed into our hiking shoes and left the sandals / water shoes by the creek. From here, the trail was flat and easily to follow through the trees for about 200 m.
Then it started gaining elevation and soon we were hiking over large black, square-shaped boulders. There isn’t a trail at this point; rather you’re climbing over whatever rocks will get you up and a little to the left. I know these aren’t the most helpful instructions, but it was pretty intuitive once we were there – none of us had done the hike before and we found our way easily.
There were multiple parts to the viewpoint. On the far right, we could see the creek winding its way through the mountains. In the centre, the Nahanni River came round a bend and towards us. We could even see our (very small) canoes at the campsite below. To the left is the view of Pulpit Rock through the Gate. We took some photos at the viewpoint (be careful – it’s a cliff edge and a long way down) and then started the hike back. The whole journey took about 2 hours.
Once back at the campsite, we had a quick lunch and loaded up the last of the gear into the canoes. We push off around 1:30pm.
Third Canyon: We paddled through The Gate, entering the second half of Third Canyon. This canyon doesn’t have any rapids, so we didn’t wear our drysuits. The only thing to be mindful of was the current around the bends. The current towards the inside of the bend is slowest, but it can be shallow with gravel. The outside of the bends come right up to the canyon walls; here the current is the fastest and there are huge boils in between the fast moving current and the canyon walls.
Do not go close to the canyon walls! I learned this lesson the hard way. I was in the second canoe, following the line of the guide boat. The boat behind was going closer to the wall in the faster current, so they overtook my boat. Without thinking much, I started following their line instead and found myself way too close to a canyon wall.
Flipped Canoe: My canoe got caught right on the boil line. This was the first time I’d ever gotten caught in a boil line this powerful and, in retrospect, it was actually kind of cool. The canoe abruptly stopped. Despite our paddling, we weren’t moving forward, backward or to the side. After a few moments of wobbling, our boat flipped.
The cold water was a bit of a shock, but not terribly cold. I held onto the paddle in one hand and the boat in the other, and looked for signs of my bow-mate. Soon enough, their helmet popped up on the surface. We stayed with the boat until two rescue boats reached us – one boat attached a carabiner and throw bag to our boat and began paddling to shore. We grabbed onto the other boat so it could pull us to shore. The current was a little strong here, and the boat wasn’t making much progress trying to paddle two swimmers to shore, so I let go and swam to the shore.
Within 15 minutes or so, we were all shore and the boat was emptied. I was pretty exhausted at this point (it was a long swim!) and frustrated at myself for getting caught in a boil. Feeling a little… emotionally fragile, I asked to go in the bow of a guide’s boat so I could take it easy. Also I ate a Mars Bar. That helped a lot.
With me in the guide’s boat, we pushed off as the lead boat. I heard the boat behind me take off and about 10 second later, heard some commotion and a splash. I turned around and saw that they had tipped when crossing the Eddy line! This caused me to burst out laughing – both at their tip in such calm water but also because of how ridiculous I was being. I was upset over flipping in a canoe – a perfectly acceptable thing to do when you’re trying out whitewater bigger than anything you’ve done before.
With everyone upright and boats empty of water, the group took off again for a thankfully uneventful paddle through the rest of Third Canyon. We paddled by some really beautiful canyon walls and mountain ranges.
After leaving Third Canyon, we paddled through Big Bend. Big Bend looks like most of the other bends in the river in the canyons, so we’re not sure why that one got named. About 3 km after Big Bend, we arrived at Painted Rocks Canyon.
Campsite: This campsite (located at km 430) was a mix of gravel bar and lightly forested. Although the ground was mostly gravel, there were patches of forest. The take out was a bit muddy, with lots of driftwood. Immediately above the take out was a good area for cooking/eating. It was slightly slanted, so not a bad tent spot but not ideal. Further back and to the right, there was a flat gravel area on the edge of the creek. We were able to accomodate 5 tents here. The creek wasn’t super deep but it made for a better swim spot than the muddy shoreline of the river.
Day 10: Painted Rocks Canyon to George’s Riffle (33 km)
Hike to Painted Rocks Canyon: We started the day with a chill hike through Painted Rocks Canyon. This hike can be up to 3km each way, but you can easily shorten it by turning around early. We walked up the dried part of the creek bed until we reached an area with cliffs and red/orange rocks. There rocks are ‘painted’ red and orange because of an algae growing on them.
Second Canyon: Painted Rocks Canyon is right at the start of Second Canyon, so we kicked off the day paddling under steep canyon walls. This part of the river is in an area known as the Headless Range (there’s some story about gold prospectors being found headless in the area back in the day). Despite the eerie name, we didn’t encounter any difficulties in this section.
And if Headless Range wasn’t enough, the next section following Second Canyon is called Deadman Valley. There’s an emergency ranger shelter in the middle of Deadman Valley. We had lunch here and then took a short walk to the nearby Paddle Cabin.
Paddle Cabin: The Paddle Cabin is an iconic little cabin in the woods filled to the brim with paddles. Each group that paddles the Nahanni leaves a paddle here (it can be an actual paddle, but more often it’s a piece of wood carved to look like a paddle with drawings and signatures on them). We tried to find the paddle from Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Bill Mason’s trip, but we were unsuccessful. We left out own paddle in the cabin before continuing on.
George’s Riffle: This is a medium-long CII rapid with big waves and a slight curve to it caused by the curved walls of the canyon on the left side. For a conservative line, you can stick to the chiller current on river left and then punch into the main current above the curve, taking it at a slight angle. Alternatively, you can take the central line, in between two exposed rocks, and stay in the main current the whole time. The waves are a little bigger in this line, and you need to angle your boat river right to make the curve and avoid the canyon walls, which is a bit tricky.
My boat – and the three behind me – took the more conservative line and it went smoothly. The last boat chose the centre line and made it through 75% of the rapid before a huge standing wave consumed the boat. We’d been warned that they were attempting the harder line, so we were ready to assist. My boat paddled out to the overturned canoe, and secured a carabiner and throw rope to it. With canoe partner, we were able to flip the canoe right side in the current. From there, we paddled the boat to shore. Paddling upstream, towing a swamped boat, was tough work but I was super excited about how effective the rescue had been.
While we were dealing with the flipped boat, another canoe paddled out to the people and brought them to shore. After emptying the boat, we set off as a group for another 3 km to the campsite.
Campsite: Our campsite was another – you guessed it – gravel bar (km 463). This gravel bar had a sandy area adjacent to it, and some of us set up our tents on the sand instead (a bit flatter than the gravel).
Day 11: George’s Riffle to Kraus Hot Springs (25 km)
Despite not being a long paddling day by distance, this was one of our busiest days of the trip.
First Canyon: We paddled the remainder of First Canyon. The canyon walls are the highest in First Canyon (the mountains stay the same height while the river descends throughout each canyon), and the views were dramatic, but I was quite disappointed with how smoky it was.
Whitespray Springs: There’s an especially clear spring around km 479. The area around the spring is part of Grotte Valeria, a Zone 1 preservation site (meaning you can walk on it at all). We pulled up to where the spring meets the Nahanni and filled two barrels with water. Apparently this is some of the best, clearest tasting water around (in the world, some might add).
We proceeded on paddling for another 2 or 3 km until we came to Lafferty Creek. We had lunch and then packed our day packs for an excited little hike: The Chasm of Chills (the ‘Ch’ is Chasm is pronounced as a ‘Ch’, not a ‘C’- this is important).
Chasm of Chills: This is an unofficial hike up Lafferty Creek. It took about 40 minutes to walk up the creek bed. There wasn’t really a trail to follow, and the creek is dry so you can basically walk wherever, but we generally stuck to the left side going up. When we reached the first pool of water put on our dry suits. Here, the canyon walls come close together – kind of like a slot canyon or a chasm.
We walked / swam / climbed from pool to pool in the chasm. I had no idea hike/swimming could be so fun! We did little cannon balls from pool to pool, and bobbed on the surface from the air trapped inside the dry suits. Tons of fun (this was definitely – and surprisingly – a top 5 moment for me on this trip).
After 45 min to an hour, we started the walk back to the river. I kept my drysuit and river shoes on for the walk back, as we’d have to wear them for the last rapid of the day.
Lafferty’s Riffle: About 200 m after the creek was Lafferty’s Riffle. This was a super fun CII rapid. You can scout on the river left side. Compared to George’s Riffle, the rapid is straighter and the waves are bigger. It’s a tad less technical (you only have to go straight) but in the centre, the waves are really tall and a boat could easily flip if it didn’t hit the waves head-on. It’s possible to completely avoid the big waves by sticking to the river left section. We took the rapid mostly head on and it was a ton of fun.
Kraus Hot Springs: The hot spring is literally on the side of the river, slowly flowing into the river across a long gravel bar and right in front of the path to the campsite. The spring, when we were there, was actually very warm – we estimate 90F, so not quite hot tub temperature, but pretty close. When we got there, the hot spring had a thick layer of gross algae on top (I do not like squishing things).
Thank goodness for one of the members of our group who cleared off all of the algae so we could enjoy the spring (though we all had to be careful not to move around too much in the hot spring and disturb the algae on the rocks at the bottom, or else it would float to the top). It sounds like I’m complaining, but the hot spring was really nice – I just want to set expectations for anyone reading this who wants to visit themselves.
Campsite: We camped at Kraus Hot Springs, at km 486. Despite the hot springs, this was my least favorite campsite. The campsite is in a cleared meadow, likely an area the Kraus family had cleared for gardening. It had tall grass and the most bugs of any site (though still not many). While the soil and grass made the ground soft, I really don’t like tall grass. The second paddle cabin is here, and that was pretty cool. There was minimal firewood in the forest, but an okay amount of driftwood on the gravel bar below the campsite.
Day 12: Kraus Hot Springs to Last Chance Camp (55 km)
Honestly, this day sort of passed by in a blur. We had a big 55 km day, but the current dramatically slowed here so it was a long day. We paddled along the winding river for about 24 km before reaching The Splits.
The Splits: The Splits is a section where the river divides into a bunch of braided channels around gravel bars and small islands. For the first time all trip, we had to pay attention to what channel we were paddling down to ensure we chose deep channels and stayed together.
As we were entering The Splits, we saw our first bison of the trip. It was HUGE and standing on the side of the river, so close to us.
As we progressed through The Splits, the fog / smoke got really thick, so we couldn’t see much around us. That didn’t stop us from seeing 7 other bison, including a group of 3 with a baby. At lunch we also came across a dead baby bison… that was sad and a reminder of just how unforgiving the boreal forest can be.
Thank goodness for all the bison (and the fact my canoeing partner for the day – another ex-camp counsellor and engineering undergrad – had a ton of mutual friends and experiences we could rattle on about all day). Otherwise this would have been an incredibly boring day.
Campsite: Our final campsite was a gravel bar at a place appropriately named ‘Last Chance Camp’ (km 541). Since this was our final night and there was no more whitewater, we dismantled and packed up the spray decks. We also played our last game of Monopoly Deal. I went off into the woods to ‘use the facilities’ and during that short time, a moose and her calf swam across the river. Apparently it was incredible, but all I know of it is this blurry photo!
Day 13: Last Chance Camp to Nahanni Butte (20 km)
Last day of the trip! Before we took off, I went for my last swim of the trip. For the record, I swam every single day of this trip (even the cold and cloudy days) so I felt a sense of accomplishment swimming today.
Paddle to Nahanni Butte: We had an uneventful 20 kilometers of paddling to Nahanni Butte. Nahanni Butte is a super small town (~500 people). We took out at a muddy and steep boat launch and then began a series of ‘hurry up and waits’.
Boat Shuttle to Highway: We split up into two groups to travel in a truck to the other side of town, where the Nahanni met the Liard River. Meanwhile, our canoes and gear were shuttled by boat to the other side of Liard River. Once the gear was over, we were shuttled over too.
Why the boat shuttle? You could paddle from Nahanni Butte across the Liard, but it would add another two full days of flatwater paddling to your trip. In contrast, the boat shuttle only took 20 minutes (plus the waiting time).
Drive to Fort Simpson: A van met us on the other side of the Liard River. It took about 2.5 hours to drive to Fort Simpson. The first half was on gravel road – it was a little bumpy but we were still able to go at almost 100km/h. The second half of the drive is on a highway and very smooth.
Once we were back in Fort Simpson, we all took amazing showers and changed into our street clothing Tip – pack multiple pairs of street clothing. I only brought one pair, forgetting that we still had two days of travel to get home. After an incredible home cooked meal at the Lady Slipper Inn, we walked to the Fort Simpson bar for drinks and pool.
Day 14 & 15: Fort Simpson to Yellowknife and Beyond
On our last day in Fort Simpson, we stopped by the Parks Office to pick up souvenirs and then went to the airport. No trip to the arctic is complete without a flight delay. Our plane had mechanic issues and we were delayed five hours. There is literally nothing in the Fort Simpson airport, so we went to the grocery store for pizza and snacks and then played games in airport until we could take off. We eventually made it out and flew an hour to Yellowknife. Tip: All restaurants in Yellowknife close early, so don’t delay getting dinner or you’ll be forced to eat at the Boston Pizza.
On Day 15, most people caught an early flight south. I stayed another night to see friends (I actually have multiple friends living in Yellowknife).
Overall, this trip went very smoothly.
Forest Fire Smoke: Although the forest fire smoke concealed some of the views, we got very lucky. The smoke came in just two days after we landed on the river, and it meant no float planes could get in. Lots of people had to have their trips cancelled. And the smoke never got noticeable. When we landed in Yellowknife at the end of the trip, the smoke was so thick we could smell it in the air and were coughing. We didn’t have anything like that on our trip.
Hiking on a Canoe Trip: As you may have noticed, we did a lot of hiking on this canoe trip. Although it can be tempted to just push on paddling, these hikes were some of my favourite moments of the trip. I strongly recommend setting up enough time to do a few of them.
Multiple Tips: All in all, there were five tips on this trip (which is a lot, apparently this trip usually has just one tip). Although inconvenient, this is a pretty low consequence river. You could swim through all of the rapids and be fine (except above the Falls of course, but there are no rapids upstream of it anyways). Just make sure your group has the know-how and gear to do northern river rescues. Although there aren’t any obstacles to avoid, the current never stops.
Packing for a Northern River Trip: I’ll do a separate post on packing for a trip like this, but here are some things I learned. 1) Even though it’s the arctic, pack some warm weather clothing. It was SO hot for part of the trip. 2) I brought a solar charger, which proved to be very effective. Our group was able to keep our cameras and other gear charged for the full two weeks. Even through the smoke, we could charge devices if it was left out long enough.
Huge Thanks to an Incredible Group: What made this trip so special was the incredible group. When you do a trip with a bunch of strangers, it’s common for tension or animosity to develop. We had absolutely none of that on this trip and instead everyone was wonderful and fun to be around. Big thanks to our guides, Lauren and Ross, and my group: Mike, Eric, Scott, Craig, Gilles, Owen and of course, my dad, Jim.
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading canoeing and hiking trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. She now works in business by day and crafts outdoor education resources by night. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.
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